SOURCE: New York Post by Sohrab Ahmari
ABU DHABI — It was an incredible sight: On Tuesday, in the heart of the Islamic world, Pope Francis conducted Mass.
Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful packed Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Stadium, turning the stands into a sea of Vatican flags. These were believers drawn from the Emirates’ migrant-worker communities: Filipinos, Africans, Indians and many others. They also included members of the Eastern churches, which have suffered greatly under the Islamist outrages of recent years.
These were Christians from the peripheries, in other words, people whom Francis has made it his pontificate’s mission to embrace. Many had waited since midnight for this liturgy, and it didn’t disappoint them. It was a stirring Mass, full of pageantry and powerful symbolism, as only the Roman Catholic Church can pull off. It proved utterly wrong those who imagined that Francis would shy away from evangelization.
A portion from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for example, was read by a deacon in Arabic, and it’s hard to overstate the significance of speakers blaring the words “keep doing all the things that you learnt from me . . . and have heard or seen that I do, then the God of peace will be with you” — here, in that language.
Francis came to the Arabian Peninsula to take part in a dialogue on “human fraternity,” mainly with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, the Sunni world’s oldest, most prestigious university. But Catholicism makes truth claims that are radically at odds with Islam’s, and the Church’s cosmic mission is to evangelize all nations.
A tough needle to thread, but the Argentine pontiff managed it.
The interfaith dialogue came in the form of back-to-back speeches by Francis and Sheikh Tayeb Monday at the Abu Dhabi Founder’s Memorial. Standing against the austere, modernist memorial and encircled by shimmering glass skyscrapers, the two religious leaders railed against the modern world’s sins: its excessive “individualism” (Francis), its “rebellions against God” (Tayeb), its “utilitarianism” (Francis), its “unbounded freedoms” (Tayeb).
Francis and Tayeb also called for brotherhood among different faiths, rooted in humankind’s shared origins as God’s beloved creation. Tayeb encouraged Mideast Christians to stop thinking of themselves as “minorities” and instead as “full citizens” in the Muslim-majority societies they inhabit — an admirable sentiment in a region where Christians and other minorities are often second-class citizens at best and victims of genocide at worst.
For his part, the pope thanked his Emirati hosts for protecting freedom of religion and conscience. While the UAE is far from perfect in this regard, it is miles ahead of its neighbors. Then the two leaders signed a joint declaration on fraternity, which said among other things that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.”
That bit about God “willing” differences in religion ruffled feathers among some conservative Catholics: So does God want men and women to be Muslims or Catholics — or Scientologists, for that matter? But as the theologian Chad Pecknold told the Catholic News Agency, it’s possible to read the statement narrowly to mean that the diversity of religions is “evidence of our natural desire to know God” while maintaining “the supernatural good of one true religion.”
Tuesday’s Mass was televised across much of the Persian Gulf, and many others caught glimpses on social media. Westerners who doubt Francis might wonder: How many non-Christian hearts were moved by the great display out of Abu Dhabi?
No, Francis didn’t argue theology with his Muslim hosts. Indeed, in his homily, he recalled the example of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who 800 years ago amid the Crusades urged Christians not to argue or be disagreeable with Arabs and Muslims. Instead, Saint Francis encouraged his fellow Christians to “be subject to every human creature out of love for God, and let them profess that they are Christians.”
Francis didn’t need to tub-thump about Catholicism in Arabia, because he made missionaries of his flock. No longer are they mere drivers, maids, hairdressers and waiters to wealthy Arabs — but a people of God, with a Holy Father who cares for them and tends to their souls.