Pope Francis in UAE
Pope Francis, on his visit to the UAE, waves to the crowd before the Papal mass Image Credit: AP

I was one of the 1 million Catholics in the UAE who felt so much joy when the Pope’s visit was announced in December. Fast forward to two months, we’ve finally seen him in the flesh and have received his blessings over the last 3 days of his stay.

Living in a predominantly Muslim country which is currently home of close to 200 nationalities with a diverse mix of background, culture, belief and faith, welcoming the leader of the Roman Catholic Church for the first time in an Arab Gulf state is such a huge deal - a statement of understanding, acceptance and inclusivity, in fact.

On the surface and what’s positively magnified in media is the simple, yet real story about this milestone – despite the ‘doom and gloom’ around the world today, there’s always a spark of hope founded in embracing and harmonising differences and thriving well in the midst of it. UAE’s leaders hosted Pope Francis as a clear and tangible manifestation of how it brings to life the essence of its ‘Year of Tolerance’ mantra. On the other hand, our church’s primary leader accepted the invite to ignite the dialogue and show the world a deeper and meaningful understanding that while our faith remains true to its core, it has also progressed in the changing times. Bottomline, two great high profile examples showing that two seemingly different ideals can and will work together. How to drill it down and make it happen every waking morning and every moment in our lives is now up to us.

As the entire population celebrated the monumental occasion, what’s left with the typical ‘Joe’ in the streets of UAE now that Pope Francis has left the country? What are the takeaways worth sharing and amplifying to let the inspiring experience linger and become infectious? How will we keep the high and make it matter in our own personal lives? Here are my thoughts:

• Faith and respect in one’s faith is a universal ‘silent rule’ of peace, let’s hold on to it. No matter who or what you believe in, as you firmly stand by it while showing respect in others’ principles and values will beget respect. I’ll therefore be more understanding and accepting to varying opinions and apply the art of compromise in my daily life. Life isn’t a game of knowing who’s right or always aiming to being right, as the concept of righteousness is subjective in varying cultures and places. What matters more is how we thrive maturely and harmoniously despite our differences.

• We are a reflection of our religion’s imperfections. Pope Francis’ living examples made my faith stronger than ever. I admit it, the Roman Catholic religion is far from being perfect. With the scandals and sad realities it has faced and braved over the years, its human leader would probably have the most difficult responsibility in the modern world. He restored this for most of us when he was blessed with the leadership. His progressive, simple and endearing approach that are still grounded on the faith’s real values marked our evolution in the contemporary universal society, keeping our philosophy’s relevance while dispelling the opinions that our church is now archaic. So, my challenge is how to contribute to this change that I’m hoping to see. Considering that I’m part of these imperfections, how do I then apply the teachings I’ve grown up with over the last 30 years so I can correct these impurities and be a better reflection of my church.

• Practicing and upholding one’s faith takes a great deal of sacrifice and commitment. We sometimes stumble along the way that we even ask if it’s all worth it. To join the Papal mass, I woke up at 12:30am, boarded the public bus provided by the government in our Jebel Ali parish at 2am, arrived from Dubai to Abu Dhabi at 3:40am, walked and queued from drop off to the stadium entrance from 3:40am to 5:45am. The mass is only due to start at 10:30am, which gave us 5 more hours to wait. I heard some people complaining, some kids crying and others just smiling through the experience. As we go through our daily life’s practical challenges similar to such long walks and seemingly unending waiting game, our resilience will teach and make us realise that at the end of it all, the journey that led us to the final milestone hugely matters. As the cliché goes, ‘the journey matters more than the destination’, how do we then positivise and see the bright side when the tides in the journey gets rough? How do we manage our emotions and condition ourselves that this journey is all worth it and we shouldn’t turn back just because of pain and inconvenience?

• Be humble, simple, practical and a blessing for others. Pope Francis was simply all these and he showed every facet of it during his visit. Instead of an ultra-luxurious car, he showed that he was comfortable in a Kia Soul. Instead of taking breaks and having a relaxed itinerary, his days (and nights) were full and had back-to-back agenda to accomplish what he’s set to fulfil. Instead of being tired and showing discomfort in his followers’ screaming, chanting and cheering, he offered an endearing smile that provided a blissful feeling for everyone. Instead of a highfalutin gospel in his mass, he opted for the classic story of ‘beatitudes’ that exemplifies why every suffering person is ‘blessed’. As the living supreme leader of the Catholic Church, he possesses an ultimate power. Yet, he redefined its meaning by keeping his simplicity and humility. In a world filled with materialism, pride, recognition and power, he’s the antidote and the Christian world’s great example on how to ‘walk the talk’. As I live my every day, I’ll now be more cautious with my thoughts, intentions and decisions. More importantly, I’ll always ask myself the ‘how can I be a blessing to this person?’ question and answer it in a real sense through my words and deeds.

• Selflessness is key to finding inner blessing, inner peace and inner happiness. Putting others before oneself may be a huge ask, yet guarantees inner fulfilment that goes a thousand fold. This is the commonality that I found after listening to our pope’s messages, going through the ‘Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’ signed by him and The Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayeb and interpreting the pillars of the ‘Year of Tolerance’ that the UAE government led by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has propagated. As our leaders are encouraging us to understand, accept and embrace our differences, may we take responsibility and accountability in practicing this without abuse nor selfishness. Instead of the mindset ‘you need to accept and tolerate me whether you like it or not’ and ‘I can be and can do whatever I want’, it may be healthier to apply the mindset ‘what can I do to make him feel free, understood, accepted and valued?’. Wouldn’t it be nice if one looks after another’s well-being and everyone eventually does? Indeed, it’s easier said than done but that’s the inspiring and motivating driving force that’s planted inside the good in every human soul. Our challenge is to help one another find and cultivate such goodness.

Pope Francis may have left the UAE, but he’s left a substantial mark to 1 million of us who felt the excitement of his momentary presence.

While to the 9 million of us here in the UAE, we have 11 more months to practice and showcase that we’re not only a country of the tallest, biggest, loudest, fastest, highest and other world-record superlatives, but also a unique united nation bounded by an oases of peace, tolerance and happiness.

My Pope, my UAE, thank you for such an inspiring reminder. My commitment to live your example will now keep burning!

Joseph Alcantara is Marketing Communications Manager, Corporate Communications, Marketing and Brand, Emirates