ABU DHABI: It was impossible not to be moved as Pope Francis entered Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, ripples of excitement among the worshippers building into ecstatic cheers on a warm Tuesday morning.
This was history in the making — the first time the head of the Roman Catholic Church had visited the Gulf, and the first time a pope had led Mass in the region.
And the 180,000-strong congregation made this the largest public Mass ever held in the Gulf.
Earlier, local celebrity Kris Fade, of Virgin Radio in the UAE, addressed the gathering, encouraging people to cheer in the minutes leading up to the pontiff’s arrival.
Fade thanked the UAE rulers for agreeing to the event — and the crowd’s cheers grew louder.
Helicopters hovered in the clear blue sky as the pope’s convoy neared the stadium.
Worshippers had been waiting for hours, getting little or no sleep as they traveled from across the country, some in a convoy of hundreds of buses that left Dubai at 11 p.m. the previous night.
Stadium gates had opened at 5 a.m. to let worshippers enter.
There had been a chill in the air the night before, but as the sun rose a feeling of warmth circled the excited congregation.
“I came straight here from work last night,” said Chris Hilis, a volunteer for the Catholic Church at the event.
“I was doing overtime at work before. I haven’t had any sleep, but it is worth it. I knew this was how it was going to be.”
In the background the choir sang, the 120 members of which had been selected in a series of auditions held after the announcement of the papal visit in December.
And then, at 10:30 a.m. — with the helicopters directly overhead — news arrived that the pope was about to enter the stadium. It was the moment the congregation had been waiting for.
First, security entered, then Pope Francis appeared. Thousands of elated worshippers inside and around the stadium craned their necks, eager to get a glimpse of the pontiff standing on the back of a white Popemobile.
The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than the beginning of a religious service, with excited chatter erupting into a chorus of cheering voices that filled the air.
The pope waved to the faithful, and leant across to bless a young girl who rushed out of the crowd to greet him. She walked back to her waiting family, a private moment in front of an audience of thousands in the stadium and millions worldwide.
Pope Francis circled the inside of the stadium, worshippers leaning out to touch him.
Then the congregation fell silent and the service began.
This was a service predominantly for expats — many of whom live thousands of miles away from family and friends — a point not lost on the pontiff, who paid tribute to them, saying: “It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones.”
Almost two hours after it began, the service came to an end with the congregation leaving as calmly as they arrived — ready to enjoy the rest of the day’s holiday awarded to any ticket holder who attended the Mass.