Monday, February 21, 2011

Oasis of Faith

As I've mentioned in the past, one of the many interesting aspects of international travel is the opportunity to attend Mass in different countries. While the Catholic Church is all one bread and one body in Christ, there are always regional and cultural differences in the manner in which the Mass unfolds.

One thing that I've not experienced before is going to Mass in a country that's predominately non-Christian. I was able to do just that last week at St Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, UAE:

The parish has over 100,000 expatriate Catholics from all over the world.

With the growing economy within the region, the Church has also witnessed a steady increase in the number of faithful. Masses are celebrated in a number of different languages and the Church is generally seen packed to full capacity at most services.

And so it was when I went to St. Joseph's on a recent Saturday night. Since the weekend in the UAE is Friday and Saturday and because it chiefly serves guest workers from outside the country, the Mass schedule at St. Joseph's is a little unusual. There are ten Masses on Friday, three on Saturday, and eight on Sunday. Languages include English, Tagalog, Urdu, Arabic, and Malayalam.

Since my Urdu is a little rusty, I opted for the 7pm English Mass. Knowing that it would be busy, I arrived early just as another Mass was ending. By the time the Mass begin, the pews were packed and people were standing in the aisles. And almost no sooner had it ended, then people started filing in for the next one.

The crowd consisted mostly of Filipinos and Indians (recall that India is home to 17.3 million Catholics) with a smattering of Western ex-pats. Before the Mass began, many in the congregation joined in praying the Rosary, something that I've also witnessed at Mass in the Philippines. The music was a bit too "Glory & Praise"-ish for my liking which is also something I've noticed in the Philippines.

All in all, it was pretty similar to the Masses I've attended in Manila. The lyrics to the songs and all the prayers were projected on big screens. Most people sat rather than knelt while waiting to go to communion. And instead of shaking hands, we did a sort of "peace bow" to each other. I suppose all these commonalities shouldn't have been too surprising since I'm pretty sure the priest was a Filipino.

One thing that was different was hearing the Muslim call to prayer during Mass. There's a mosque right next to St. Joseph's as well as a Coptic Orthodox church.

St. Anthony Cathedral For Coptic Orthodox

One difference at St. Joseph's that I've also observed in other churches outside the U.S. was that there was no sugarcoating the message of the Gospel. The priest wasn't shy about talking about hell, sin, and Satan. It seems that the less comfortable the living conditions, the more people hunger to hear the Truth with all the sharp edges. And when you're in a area with a majority religion with no aversion to drawing clear lines between right and wrong, a watered down version of Christianity is simply not going to cut it. It's interesting to note that in addition to the Catholic St. Joseph's and the Orthodox Coptic St. Anthony's, to the best that I can determine the other Christian churches in Abu Dhabi are:

Arabic Evangelical Church
Evangelical Community Church
Indian Evangelical Church
St. George Indian Orthodox Church

That's not exactly what would be considered mainstream Christianity in the United States.

With all the coming and going between Masses, it was difficult to get a good shot of the area behind altar at St. Joseph's.

You can see that they while the crucifix and stained glass are familiar, the image of St. Joseph and Jesus has an obvious local influence.

More from a 2008 piece on attending Mass at St. Joseph's and the state of Christianity in the UAE:

We arrived ten minutes late for Mass expecting there would be plenty of room for us. In the United States we would have had our pick of seats. Instead, we shared standing room outside the doors as parishioners packed the aisles and spilled out of the entrances. In the church courtyard families sold raffle tickets for a Charity auction and a handful of women prayed silently in front of a make shift grotto.

This vibrant Christian community in the United Arab Emirates is no mirage. Flanked on its western and southern borders by Saudi Arabia, and separated from Iran only by the Persian Gulf, the UAE is an unlikely bulwark for Christianity. As Abu Dhabi and its neighboring Emirate, Dubai, have become cathedrals to capitalism, they have also become a testament to the importance of the Church in the developing world and the possibility of dialogue with Islam.

The UAE is a nation of superlatives: its skyscrapers, man-made islands, and ‘seven-star’ hotels have become international icons of excess. Yet, in a country so focused on projecting wealth and glamour, its Christian communities provide a gritty counterbalance. And without the parishioners of St. Joseph's, mostly expatriate laborers from India and the Philippines, little of the UAE's oil wealth could be invested in the infrastructure and industry that will allow the country to thrive beyond the oil boom.

I'm hardly an expert on the Muslim faith, but from what I do understand I found it difficult while I was in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to square the often ostentatious displays of wealth by Emiratis--cars, yachts, jewelery--with the tenets of their Islamic faith. Perhaps they have more in common with some of their Christian brethren than they realize.