Rome Newsroom, September 21, 2022 / 4:53 a.m. (CNA).
Three intertwined stories set the stage for a possible papal trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain in November this year: that of a missionary bishop, Marian devotion and a Muslim country open to Christians.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia was inaugurated on December 10, 2021. It was the dream of a visionary bishop, Camillo Ballin, who died on April 12, 2020, after spending about 50 years in Arab countries.
Ballin was behind the ambitious construction of a building of worship for 2,300 people, about 12 miles from the Bahraini capital Manama, with the permission of the king, on land donated by the king.
If Pope Francis’ trip to Bahrain is to take place in November – the trip is being considered, Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni said on his return from Kazakhstan – it will be to visit this cathedral.
In doing so, the pope would also pay homage to the late bishop behind the project.
Pope Francis was invited to Bahrain as early as 2014 but then preferred to travel to the United Arab Emirates in 2019 to sign the Declaration for Human Fraternity.
The pope’s decision had also worried Bishop Ballin. The pope has shown that he favors dialogue with Sunni Islam, putting aside the Shiite Islam practiced in Bahrain.
He wasn’t the only one who saw this risk.
For the Pope’s trip to Iraq in March 2020, Cardinal Raffael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, worked very hard for the Pope to meet Ayatollah al Sistani, building a bridge to Shia Islam.
The meeting took place and on February 3, 2020, a year after the signing of the Declaration on Human Fraternity, Salman Bin al-Khalifa, Crown Prince of Bahrain, had an audience with Pope Francis.
The decisive contact to materialize the possibility of the visit was however the inauguration of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia.
Letter from Pope Francis to the King of Bahrain
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, then prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was the papal envoy for the inauguration of the cathedral.
He showed up in Manama with a letter from Pope Francis addressed directly to Hamad Isa al-Khalifa, the King of Bahrain.
The King received Cardinal Tagle on the afternoon of December 10, a few hours after the consecration of Our Lady of Arabia, with Bishop Paul Hinder, then administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, and Bishop Eugène Martin Nugent, Apostolic Nuncio to Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
According to Kingdom of Bahrain media, Pope Francis in the letter expressed “his thanks and appreciation for the opening of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia.”
In turn, the king sent his greetings to the pope. He praised the pope’s role “in promoting dialogue and understanding among religions and civilizations, as well as promoting the values of human brotherhood, tolerance and coexistence among all.”
In addition, the king had confirmed his desire to “strengthen the existing relations of friendship and cooperation” with the Holy See.
In particular, he pointed out that the consecration of the cathedral “embodies the role of humanitarian civilization in Bahrain”, a Muslim state which “for many decades” also hosts non-Muslim places of worship.
The invitation of the King of Bahrain
The letter was in response to the King of Bahrain’s official invitation to Pope Francis to visit the country.
The invitation was delivered to the pope by Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, His Majesty’s advisor for diplomatic affairs.
The original idea was to have the Pope precisely for the inauguration of Our Lady of Arabia. But the desire for a visit by the Pope to Bahrain is old.
Bishop Ballin had informed CNA of an invitation that had come to Pope Francis in 2014. And before the February 2020 visit, he made it known that there was no other possible theme for the meeting than that of a possible visit by the Pope to Bahrain.
Bishop Ballin was a great specialist on the Arabian Peninsula and, in general, on Arab territories.
A Comboni missionary, he preferred Arab countries for his activity. He was particularly attentive to the balance between the different Islamic currents.
Ballin was also a shrewd trader who – when he spoke privately – knew how to critique the situation in the Gulf.
The bishop received Bahraini nationality and was a member of the Center for Peaceful Coexistence, which King Ahmad had founded and placed under the care of his children.
The Pope’s trip to Bahrain was his dream and he had repeatedly invited the King to send an invitation. Behind Bahrain’s approach to the Holy See is its constant work, just as its legacy is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia
The title of Our Lady of Arabia was approved in 1948 to fulfill the prophecy of the Magnificat “From this day on, all generations will call me blessed.”
The devotion to Our Lady of Arabia was therefore born on December 8, 1948, the day when the small chapel of Ahmadi in Kuwait was dedicated to this title.
In the chapel, a statue that had been blessed in the Vatican by Pius XII himself, who in 1954 proclaimed Mary “queen”.
Additionally, in 1949, the Ahmadi Church of Our Lady of Arabia was affiliated with the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Finally, in 1957, Pius XII, by a decree, proclaimed Our Lady of Arabia the principal patroness of the territory and of the Apostolic Vicariate of Kuwait.
It was in 2007 that Bishop Ballin asked the Holy See to have a feast day for the Virgin under the title of Our Lady of Arabia.
On January 5, 2011, the Holy See officially proclaimed Our Lady of Arabia patroness of the Vicariate of Kuwait and Arabia.
Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, traveled personally to Kuwait for the occasion.
The solemnity in honor of Our Lady of Arabia was instituted on the Saturday preceding the second Sunday in Ordinary Time, with permission to celebrate it on Sunday.
In May 2011, the Holy See reorganized the Vicariate of Kuwait, giving it the new name “Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia” and including the territories of Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Bishop Ballin’s Episcopal See moved from Kuwait to Bahrain for logistical and practical reasons.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is one of the few countries in the region to have a local Christian population which has been growing since 1930. Most Christians are migrants from Asia, especially the Philippines.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia stands on 9,000 square meters of land in Awali, granted by King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa.
The decision to build the church was taken on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11, 2013.
Bishop Ballin strongly wished for the dedication to Our Lady of Arabia.
Speaking to AIIC’s Italian partner agency ACI Stampa in 2018, Bishop Ballin reminded that “there is a mass, already approved by the Holy See, dedicated to Our Lady of Arabia”.
He said the feast is celebrated on the second Sunday in Ordinary Time, the first Sunday after the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.
“For this feast, the Holy See has made an exception for my Vicariate, and the feast can take place on a Sunday, a day usually consecrated only to God. My Vicariate, however, obtained permission to celebrate Our Lady on a Sunday.“
Speaking on the issue of dialogue with Islam, he stressed that it was essential to do so “with great discretion and patience”.
“Muslims don’t even know the structure of the Church, and it is important to explain it to make them understand. It is essential to create an atmosphere of friendship. Then, the dialogue takes place without requiring specific objectives and specific deadlines.“
And he added: “The West believes that there are only Muslims in the Gulf, and instead there are millions of Catholics. Moreover, the situations in the Middle East and the Gulf are confused and cannot be confused. In the Middle East, Christians are citizens of the country and have a passport. In the Gulf, no: the Christians are all emigrants, and each must leave at retirement age or when a project in which he participates is cancelled.
Now his legacy could be celebrated by Pope Francis. But, in the meantime, the cathedral he wanted has been built and inaugurated and is a candidate to become a point of reference for evangelization in the region.
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