Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, consecrated Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Bahrain, the newest and largest cathedral in the Persian Gulf region, Dec. 10.
Until now, church officials said Bahrain only had one church in the capital, Manama, and a chapel in the suburbs to serve the country's more than 90,000 Catholics. This necessitated 25 weekend Masses to be celebrated in the Manama parish from Friday through Sunday.
Cardinal Tagle joined the choir in singing "Spirit, wash over me, cleanse me, refresh me, and fill me anew," as he sprinkled holy water on the clergy and parishioners and sanctified the cathedral for its service.
"Dear brothers and sisters, as we solemnly dedicate this house, let us humbly call upon the Lord our God to bless this water he has created ... as a sign of repentance in a remembrance of baptism and by which the new walls and altar will be purified," said Cardinal Tagle. "May the Lord support us with his grace so that, docile to the Spirit whom we have received, we may remain faithful in his church."
"Dear family of God, please come home often to this church, to meet and converse, talk with our merciful Father. God eagerly awaits you. It would be a pity to have a beautiful house with no one living there," the cardinal told international congregants during his homily.
"But with your frequent spiritual gatherings here, anyone who enters will feel, breathe, and touch the love and warmth of God's family. ... While the construction of a building comes to an end, the construction of the church as a community never ends," Cardinal Tagle said.
He encouraged parishioners to care deeply for one another, listen intently to God's word and apply it, and provide charitable services to those in need.
Bahrain, a tiny, predominantly Muslim island nation -- smaller in area than London -- and key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, built a significant monument to the Christian faith in response to the Gulf region's increasing Catholic population, now estimated at 2.5 million.
Catholics in Bahrain hail mainly from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka. South Americans, Europeans and Arabs from the Levant region account for the rest of the island's Christian population.
Earlier, Father Saji Thomas, cathedral project leader and parish priest, told the media the people were "enthusiastic and joyful" for the inauguration and blessing of the cathedral. The Indian priest described the cathedral as "a model of religious harmony, a sign of the tolerance of the kingdom of Bahrain and a great example of peaceful coexistence to the world."
The ark-shaped cathedral seats 2,300 worshippers and serves the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and formally, Saudi Arabia. Located in Awali, 16 miles south of Manama, the 2.2-square acre plot of land was donated by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa eight years ago. Two chapels and two other large rooms with places for confession and spiritual formation are part of the complex.
In an invitation delivered by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, Nov. 25, the king has invited Pope Francis to visit, underlining the importance placed on interfaith dialogue and understanding among different cultures and civilizations. The king also endorsed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi Feb. 4, 2019, by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar mosque.
Bishop Paul Hinder is the apostolic administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and is currently serving in that capacity for Northern Arabia, following the death in April 2020 of Bishop Camillo Ballin, the driving force behind Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral project.
Bishop Hinder asked prayers for Cardinal Tagle, who will advise on the appointment of the new bishop for the vicariate. "Especially we ask him to convey our love and greetings to the Holy Father ... and tell him the wonderful story of Bahrain and ... the reality of faithful here."
In 2011, the Vatican officially proclaimed Our Lady of Arabia as the Catholic patron saint of the vicariate. One of the chapels is dedicated to the crowned Mary holding a rosary and the Christ Child. The cathedral's apse displays biblical iconographic scenes from the Nativity of Jesus Christ to the Last Supper and Crucifixion.
The cathedral is topped with an octagonal dome -- a geometric detail found in several churches around the world, such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and Germany's Aachen Cathedral. The number eight in Christianity signifies resurrection and a new beginning.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, representing his father, Bahrain's king, inaugurated the cathedral Dec. 9 in the presence of Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop Eugene M. Nugent, apostolic nuncio to Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, Bishop Hinder, clergy and religious who also participated in the consecration.
Due to existing coronavirus restrictions, only a small number of people could participate in both the solemn inauguration and consecration events, but more than 1,400 followed the consecration Mass online.
Known as a trading nation, Bahrain became a hub for aviation, oil and banking companies attracting foreigners, who currently make up about half of the 1.41 million inhabitants.