Pope Francis arrives to lead the mass at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: The greenery and flowering plants in Abu Dhabi were radiant witnesses to Pope Francis and the crowd that welcomed him on his historic visit here.

Attending the mass he celebrated was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience; but the Abu Dhabi one was special in many ways.

The scenes inside the packed Zayed Sports City stadium, and the outside pitch also filled to the brim with humanity, were a throwback to the record Manila crowd that welcomed Pope John Paul II in 1995. I’m grateful to have seen both.

The late Pope John Paul II made a tough call to action then: “Christ, who says ‘Follow me,’ wants you to live your lives with a sense of vocation. He wants your lives to have a precise meaning and dignity.”

Here's a confession: I had not lived up to that call. But God moved, and still does, in mysterious ways in my life, despite of who I am. Or more precisely, because of who He is: Most gracious, most merciful.

Fast forward 24 years to 2019 in Abu Dhabi. 

The crowd was composed mostly of Christian expatriates, but there were also thousands of Muslims, many of them Emiratis, including UAE goverment ministers.

At the giant "praying field", their respectful presence was comforting.

A thought then hit me: We Christians live in peace and safety in the UAE, a Muslim country; I wonder if Muslim families are able to live with the same peace and safety in Christian-majority societies today.

What are the authorities doing in those countries to combat the tribulations that Muslim families face due to Islamophobia, or unjust treatment of minorities?...

‘Choir of numerous nations’

Turning to the timeless Sermon on the Mount, the pontiff opened his homily with encouraging words of joy. “Dear brothers and sisters…in the joy of meeting you, this is the word I have come to say to you: blessed!”

That’s double affirmation — joy and blessing.

Then a third one came for me, this time from an unlikely source: A close friend, a Muslim, who lives in America was jubilant when I told him I was at Baba Francis’s mass.

"Were you there?" he asked. When I answered in the affirmative, my friend said: "Happy for you."

These lines jumped out to me from the Pope's homily: “Let us together ask here, today, for the grace of rediscovering the attraction of following Jesus, of imitating him, of not seeking anyone else but him and his humble love. For here is the meaning of our life: In communion with him and inner love for others.”

His call to “make me channel of Your peace”, also took on a deeply personal meaning. It's an appeal, but also a challenge: To be at peace with my lot, to live out the Beatitudes, to bear fruit with concrete love.

Truly loving, making it a roadmap for my life, though, is tough: It always involves sacrifice.

That includes the way I relate with those around me — siblings, workmates, wife and children — every day. Whether it’s face-to-face encounter or via a chat app. But it's the only way to live with fullness of joy.

Standing there amidst the great multitude in Abu Dhabi, I'm grateful to see the pastor of our time and listen to him speaking humbly, talking straight to my heart.

To be blessed, to go forward without beind discouraged; to abound in love, to preserve and persevere in peace.

On the papal plane back to Rome, the pope reportedly said he was “impressed” by the flowers he saw on Abu Dhabi's roadsides.

May his message of joy and peace from the impressive gardens in the desert radiate to us all.

Blessed indeed, we are, when we heed his call.