Leading a 1.2M Square-Mile Diocese

Interview With Vicar Apostolic of Arabia

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, OCT. 14, 2010 (Zenit.org).- When Bishop Paul Hinder looks at a map of his territory to plan pastoral visits, the view he contemplates is unparalleled in the rest of the Church.

The 68-year-old bishop, a native of Switzerland, is the vicar apostolic of Arabia, meaning his “diocese” covers five nations and some 3 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles).

His 1.3 million-member flock is comprised entirely of immigrants who daily interact in coexistence with the Islamic world. They represent as many as 90 nationalities, with particularly strong concentrations from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Europe and the United States.

The headquarters of his vicariate are in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, where there are seven parishes. But he also oversees the four parishes in Oman, another four in Yemen, and one each in Qatar and Bahrain.

The churches of the vicariate are generally lacking any external images: no bells or crosses. And the faithful often gather to worship in private homes.

ZENIT tracked down Bishop Hinder, who has served the vicariate for just over five years, as he is in Rome for the synod on the Middle East. Today, in fact, he gave an intervention at the synodal assembly regarding the reality of his mission.

ZENIT: How is the faith of the people in these Arab countries?
Bishop Hinder: It’s true that our people quite often live a bit shut-in among themselves, in a context of individuals that profess the same faith. Not only when they come to church, but also in meeting places at work and every now and then with the sharing of the same apartment, etc. It’s not that they are completely isolated, but it is also true, that they are faced with a situation that is a challenge to their personal faith. For example on the values of life itself or how they live their relationship with God and their relationship with others or in being committed to and from the Gospel. This worries our faithful, in the main it unites them, less so in the case of others. Because of this they organize themselves — very often with the pretext of prayer — in associations where they can live this faith, I would say more developed, perhaps, than others and above all in the Holy Mass. The Eucharistic liturgy is very important for them; in fact our few churches are truly packed. Even during the week thousands attend Mass.
ZENIT: Do the faithful carry out works of charity?
Bishop Hinder: Certainly. There is the whole challenge also from the moral point of view on how to live a life in keeping with the Gospel and God’s Commandments. These people live not only the aspect inspired in religious devotion of the sacrament. They wonder how they can be of help to their brothers and sisters who have problems, as those in prison, in hospitals, visiting the sick, taking Communion to them, etc. This is organized very often through these groups that try to do everything that is in their power, often including the organization of the possibility of going to confession, and helping the few priests by going to places where they usually cannot go. Without interrupting the ordinary things of the Church, I would like to add that all the catecheses are in the hands of the laity and there are more than 20,000 children every Friday to catechize.
ZENIT: What are the main riches of the faith in these countries?
Bishop Hinder: I would say a profound faith, which is also expressed in different ways in a quite vital devotion and not only under the sacramental aspect, but also in the veneration of the saints, participation in prayer groups or with the Bible, etc. And then, as I said earlier, they are sensitive and attentive in helping others, whether in the countries themselves or in those of their origins. If there is a disaster in another country, as for example in Pakistan, a special collection is organized in the church and the people are generous. They have the sense of sharing despite the existing problems.
ZENIT: How can Christians remain faithful along with Islam?
Bishop Hinder: We live the daily presence of Islam (also acoustically, above all). I would say immigrants live rather “next” to the others and not “with” the others. There is another way of living. There are inevitable professional contacts, in offices and in daily life, when something must be done officially, there is always something to be done with local citizens. It’s clear that educators are those most exposed to this situation, but it is an unusual contact of dialogue. We imagine, however, that it will remain a marginal issue, I would say that one can come across this possibility, however in daily life, at least for us, it’s not that present.
ZENIT: What is your personal experience as the pastor of such special people, who live together in another culture and another faith?
Bishop Hinder: To be the pastor of such a varied flock is a challenge that surpasses a man’s capacity. If I did not have the Lord’s promise that he would always be with us and if I did not have the encouraging faith of my brothers and sisters I would not do it . To be exposed every day to another very powerful faith — Islam — can be a stimulus to deepen one’s own faith and the practice of it.
ZENIT: Do the attacks suffered by Christian of the East (India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq) especially in the last two years, put fear in Christians of Arabia?
Bishop Hinder: In our countries, as opposed to those you mentioned, we feel relatively secure. There can be precarious situations of security in certain parts, but generally there aren’t direct threats. Clearly this does not take away the reality that very often the fact of being Christian has discriminatory consequences.
ZENIT: How is the relationship with non-Catholic Christians in Arabia?
Bishop Hinder: Relations with non-Catholic Christians are generally good. The greatest problem for us is the proselytism of certain evangelical groups who fish in our waters because they are not allowed to do so among non-Christians. Very often they work with more than questionable methods.
ZENIT: How can Catholics transmit their religion to their children in an ambit of such strong restriction to religious liberty?
Bishop Hinder: There is no other way than to do it first of all in families. These often lack time and sufficient knowledge of the Bible and of the Catholic faith. It is important that they send their children to catechism in our parishes (in 2009 there were more than 25,000 children per weekend). In certain situations of restricted liberty they must also [transmit the faith] in a hidden way in private. I am in admiration of so many laypeople who put their gifts at the service of the Church. Let us seek to give them the necessary formation even if it isn’t always easy.
ZENIT: What do parishioners and faithful expect who are present in the synod?
Bishop Hinder: It seems to me that our faithful expect above all an encouragement in their situation, which is anything but easy. We expect from bishops that they take seriously their responsibility as pastors to give the flock the bread of the word and the bread of life. Finally they expect recognition, namely that the whole Church take note of their existence and their struggles. In this connection we expect solidarity in the faith, which is expressed above all in prayer.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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