Bishop Paul Hinder has said Pope Francis’ Feb. 3-5 landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates was a “special grace” of his 15-year episcopal service to the Gulf region and a “once-in-a-lifetime chance” for the country’s Catholics who never expected to witness it. 

In a Feb. 6 interview with the Register following the first visit by a pope to the Arab Peninsula, Bishop Hinder said he was “warmed” and “overwhelmed” by the welcome the faithful gave the Pope at the first papal Mass in the region — the main highlight for him of the trip. 

The Swiss-born bishop, who serves as apostolic vicar to Southern Arabia, which includes Yemen and Oman, also praised the UAE government for the “tremendous move” in organizing the papal Mass on Tuesday. 

 

Your Excellency, what were the highlights of the visit for you?

I enjoyed the visit of Pope Francis as a special grace after 15 years of episcopal ministry in the Gulf region. There were many highlights to his visit. The first was his coming to St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It brought tears of joy to see him in the cathedral. Among the 300 people gathered in the Church was one of our retired priests, Father Michael Egan, age 92. Pope Francis was graceful to acknowledge him. 

The second was an even more humbling experience: to travel with the Pope in the car to the stadium and then accompany him in the popemobile. As we approached the outside of the stadium, my heart was warmed and yet overwhelmed at the welcome Pope Francis received from the more than 120,000 people gathered at Zayed Sports City. 

Last but not the least, and most certainly the best moment, was the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the Pope presiding and so many faithful devoutly assisting the Mass. And my joy was heightened when I presented to Pope Francis four Catholics from Yemen, who made the journey to be at this blessed event. 

 

How important, spiritually and otherwise, was it to your flock, and what tangible changes might it have brought to the country’?

For the flock it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Pope Francis and attend a Mass in which he presided. It was an extremely spiritual experience for many, and I know many were teary-eyed, as they had never expected that Pope Francis would visit the United Arab Emirates. It is too early to say what tangible results the trip will yield, but Pope Francis has left “concrete messages” and “call to action” on how the region can achieve peace and which nations need to see these changes as soon as possible to avert the humanitarian crises they suffer, such as famine and migration.

 

How optimistic are you that the visit will help further improve religious freedom in the UAE and in Saudi Arabia?

Coming this far as organizing a public Mass has been a tremendous move by the UAE government, especially amidst security threats and religious discord in the region. We pray that they make further strides among neighboring nations, to put aside their differences to achieve peace. These steps will then have an effect on religious freedom ,not just for Christians living in the Islamic world, but all other religions and world regions, too.

 

How do the local people now view the Holy Father?

The UAE nationals see him as a person that brings peace, and his humility has won many hearts across the country. They see him as someone who understands that interreligious dialogue is necessary to bring about a peaceful solution to some of the region’s war struggles and in other parts of the world.