Interview with Mons. Paolo Martinelli, new Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia

Last update: 2022-08-04 12:37:14

Mons. Paolo Martinelli, a Capuchin friar originally from Milan, is the new Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia. He succeeds Mons. Paul Hinder who led the vicariate, which covers the Emirates, Oman and Yemen, for nearly twenty years. A few weeks after his installation in Abu Dhabi, Mons. Martinelli discusses his mission with Oasis.


Your installation took place earlier last month at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. What has the impact been like with a place that’s new to you?

Actually, I already knew the Middle East a little bit. I’ve been to the Holy Land several times and I got the opportunity to go to Turkey when I was Dean of the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality at the Pontifical University Antonianum. We organised conferences on Saint Paul and Saint John every year in Turkey. But I’d never been to the Arabian Peninsula. The impact was very strong, because the image I had of the Middle East was different, linked to Turkey, actually, the Holy Land and also Egypt, where I’ve been a few times. What struck me the most was seeing how the Emirates have developed such an evolved and multifaceted lifestyle in just a few decades. During my first weeks there I visited Abu Dhabi, where I’ll be living, and Dubai. Dubai seemed even more complex than Abu Dhabi. Going down those huge streets, lined on both sides with skyscrapers, it’s amazing. Abu Dhabi immediately seemed more welcoming, with beautiful, open spaces. So the initial impact has been positive. The Emirates are a melting pot of different nations, cultures and religions. The intercultural aspect is an important part of society there and the life of the local Church. Definitely a fascinating place.


The Christian community in the Gulf countries is mostly made up of migrant workers. How can the feeling of belonging to the Church be nurtured in these precarious and variegated communities? 

I’ve taken part in two important celebrations in this initial period. The first was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. As my predecessor’s name is also Paul, we celebrated our name day together on 29 June. Then there was the celebration for the start of my ministry. I had my first encounter with the local Church on those two occasions and I was very struck by just how many people took part. I noticed the same thing when I visited the parishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. You see it in the high turnout of worshippers at the daily Eucharistic celebrations. For example, at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi we say morning prayers at 6.10 a.m. every day and celebrate Mass at 6.30 am. The cathedral is always packed, especially with young people. Their presence isn’t just a formality; there’s a strong element of co-responsibility. I’ve seen people are committed in a way that is truly inspiring. For example, there’s catechism, voluntary work, a choir of young people from different countries... It’s the idea of donating time, space and energy to the life of the local Church.


I come from a country where church attendance is waning and where the feeling of belonging to the Church has subsided considerably. My first impression in Abu Dhabi is one of a Church that is very aware of being a diverse people. Worshippers come from the Philippines, India, Lebanon... and bring with them a diversity of stories, spiritual traditions and rituals. This is a Church of migrants and, in its own small way, it tells us something that is true of the Church as a whole, that it is a pilgrim people, even if we don’t notice it as much in the West.


Did you also find this aspect of co-responsibility in Turkey and the Holy Land?

The problem with those places, especially Turkey, is that there are very few Christians. In Turkey there was a very dedicated community, but very small, and it was hard for them to assemble because the conditions were much harder than they are in the Emirates. There are many Christians in the vicariate of Southern Arabia, as, for that matter, there are in Northern Arabia. In the South alone we have to support the Christian life of over a million worshippers and they are even more numerous in the North.


Your Vicariate includes Yemen, a country that has been torn apart by war since 2015 and where there is now only a residual Christian presence. How do you plan to deal with that reality?

When I was told of my appointment, the first country I thought about was Yemen. I pray for all those that providence has entrusted to me, but especially for Yemen. My first thought was for the Missionary Sisters of Charity of Maria Teresa of Calcutta, who, despite the war, have chosen to remain in the country to stay faithful to their mission. Every day they are a testimony to absolute selflessness. I’ve spoken to them on the phone in the last few days and also with the priest who is there at the moment. They give their lives to the Gospel and that’s why we have to keep our thoughts with that country. In that respect, I’m grateful to Pope Francis, who often mentions Yemen, a country that would otherwise be in danger of being forgotten. When I get up in the morning and think about those two communities of nuns, I feel a fresh call to my mission. The Yemeni Christian community is very small but extremely significant.


Do you know how many Christians are left in Yemen?

In the order of a few hundred, although we don’t know the exact numbers. One group that is more involved maintains relations with the nuns or the priest. Then there are those who, partly because of the tribulations of this present time, are heard from less often. But we do know that many Christians have left.


You have an academic background, followed by your pastoral experience in a diocese with a very long, important history like Milan. Your new assignment in the Emirates appears to be a big change. Is that so or is there a common thread running through all these experiences?

There’s a common thread in these experiences, on two levels. The first level is my personal journey. Being fully available is part of the religious life I felt the Lord had called me to. I’m originally from Milan, after my ordination my first assignment was to serve as a chaplain at a hospital for four years, then I was sent to Rome where I taught theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and at the Antonianum. I was only due to stay two years in Rome, but in the end I was there for twenty-five years. At that point I was sent to Milan as an auxiliary bishop. All of these things came as somewhat of a surprise. But when we agree at the beginning, then we’re in someone else’s hands. In that respect I feel a profound closeness to the new mission I have been entrusted with, in the sense that I had given my life from the very beginning. We do what the Lord and circumstances ask us to.

Chiesa di Saint Paul, quartiere Musaffah, Abu Dhabi.JPGSaint Paul's Church in the Musaffah neighbourhood, Abu Dhabi

The second level is about substance. I lived in Rome for twenty-five years at our international college. A hundred and fifty friars from all over the world lived there. That for me was an experience of meeting others. In addition to that I taught at the pontifical universities, which have always been a melting pot of different cultures. My students came from all over the world. I’ve always been very struck by the multifacetedness of this unique reality, and by the intercultural nature of faith. The Church itself is fertile interaction between differences.


In Milan I was appointed Vicar for Consecrated Life and Vicar for schools. Those were two fundamental experiences for me, especially the first. I’ve noticed that religious life in Milan is growing in phase with the ability of religious institutes to be intercultural. While it’s true that vocations are dwindling in Europe, it is equally true that all the organisations of consecrated life have generated intercultural communities on other continents. The consecrated community life is a kind of laboratory for the “Church of Peoples” – to use an expression we coined in Milan – where you see on a small scale what it means to mix intelligently, while trying to learn from one another. I’m very passionate about the idea of the “Church of Peoples” and now I find myself going to a place that is absolutely a “Church of Peoples” and has been from its beginnings. In that sense there is a thread running through all the experiences of my life.


Did you expect to be appointed or did it come as a surprise?

I knew there was a possibility I could be sent somewhere else because auxiliary bishops are often moved to other dioceses after a few years. I was in Milan for eight years and I was expecting a change. But the fact that I was called to such a different place did surprise me there and then. I wasn’t expecting it. Then again, the Capuchin order has been in that part of the world for over a century. When I was told the Pope had appointed me Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, I immediately understood what it was all about. Right from the start I felt a familiarity with the place, partly because in the past I had already known friars who had been there, including Paul Hinder’s predecessor, Mons. Bernardo Gremoli, from Florence.


A lot of progress has been made in interfaith dialogue in recent years, particularly after the signing of the declaration on Human Fraternity, as it happens in Abu Dhabi. What do you think are the next steps that should be taken in the dialogue with Muslims?

In the message I wrote for the Church and the Emirati society, I put a lot of emphasis on the importance of this document which is very strong in content and has a great outlook. The fact that it was signed in Abu Dhabi makes me understand that, as a Church living in that context, we have to keep it alive and explore what the possible cultural, social and religious consequences are. Interfaith dialogue can be pursued on many levels. On the one hand, we need to foster a good and respectful understanding of each other, because you can’t really be in a relationship if you don’t know each other well enough. In terms of the document, religions have to contribute creatively to the good of all, to the good life of all. I think that aspect deserves to be explored further. The worst thing to do is to try to get everyone to agree on doctrine. Of course, it’s essential to know it and respect it, but the relationship will only grow as we gradually realise, as people of faith, that we can contribute to the good life of all. That’s what the text asks for. It’s not about reaching agreements on doctrine.


Should theology take a step back, then?

Theology should be reread from a more positive standpoint. The fundamental point is that we are different together, we are different within the same society. We have to preserve the beauty of being different people living together. In that respect, the religious experience makes a crucial contribution to society. That’s the fundamental point. Dialogue at the theological level has to be in the context of this aspect of life. 


If we are not mistaken, Mons. Paul Hinder has stayed in Abu Dhabi as apostolic administrator of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia until a new Bishop is appointed. So for a while the two Pauls will be working alongside each other. I imagine that will be of great help to you, given your fellow bishop’s rich and fertile pastoral experience in the Emirates. 

Yes, his presence truly is a blessing. He’s got a good deal of experience. He’s been there for eighteen years and people love him dearly. He’s gradually getting me acquainted with the new context. 



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation