October 1, 2021, was the start of the Universal Exposition (EXPO 2020) in Dubai. The Expo concludes on March 31, 2022.
Almost every nation in the world is participating in the event and has its own pavilion. Even a little corner of Assisi has found its way to the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the Sacred Convent was responsible for training and posting young volunteers to run the pavilion for the Holy See. I served as such a volunteer last November and I can summarize my experience at the Holy See Pavilion in two words: fraternity and encounter.
My experience as a volunteer began a few months before I left for Dubai. Last August, Friar Simone TENUTI and some other friars conducted a training program that lasted a few days in Assisi. This training was vital because it was the key to fully experiencing the Dubai Expo. There we were, in Assisi, a group of young Italian volunteers, spending a few fraternal days together to learn about various issues related to the pavilion. More importantly, we got to establish some rapport among ourselves. We came together not knowing each other, but we were motivated by the same cause. Our first meeting also included some young people who would be taking the shift before ours and others who were in charge of organizing all the shifts. Spending this time together after almost two years of pandemic and being able to rediscover St. Francis helped me to stop and understand where I was going. After that fraternal meeting, I realized that the Dubai experience was not some kind of internship; it was going to be an experience of giving to others. When I arrived in Dubai, I came to understand what my training in Assisi was really about. First, I realized that the Expo was meant to be experienced, not from the mindset of an individual, but from the viewpoint of being part of a greater journey made together with those who had volunteered before me, those who were volunteering with me now and those who would volunteer after.
During the two weeks I spent serving at the pavilion of the Holy See, I came to understand the value of meeting and dialoguing with those who are different from me. I will never forget the amazement on the faces of the people who entered the pavilion and saw the works on display. Our meetings went beyond explaining what the pavilion was about; they were encounters with the stories of individuals. Often, Catholics who had moved to Dubai for work would visit the pavilion and see, in the presence of the Holy See at the Expo, a fundamental sign of the presence of the Catholic Church. Everyone remembered Pope Francis’ extraordinary apostolic visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019, and many of them recounted with joy that they had been there.
Most of our meetings, however, were with people of the Muslim faith. They often asked questions about the meaning of the works on display, especially the reproduction of the “Creation of Adam.” Their curiosity often led to discussions about matters of faith. There were many questions about the Catholic religion and through this dialogue I came to truly understand the meaning of faith as a bridge that unites people. These meetings gave me a better understanding of the document on Human Fraternity that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago.
Finally, what made the Expo Dubai 2020 experience unique was living in fraternity with seven other young volunteers from all over Europe, under the guidance of Friars Elias MARSAWANIAN and Stephen BORG. Our group of volunteers did more than run the pavilion in Dubai, our presence was an experience of silently giving witness. The experience would not have been the same without a group as united as ours was, guided by Franciscan style and faith in Jesus Christ. One cannot take for granted how ten people, who started as strangers, ended up having such an engaging experience of fraternity. Together, we dealt with all the difficulties and hardships connected with running the pavilion at the Expo. We also had some joyful experiences during the day at the Expo and some happy moments in the evening after the working day. We each played a part in a journey and that part had its own qualities and limitations. Thanks to the friendship we forged, we enjoyed some additional activities besides serving at the pavilion: we visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi and even went on an outing in the desert.
The pavilion features a reproduction of the fresco in the upper Basilica in Assisi that shows the meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan. It is nice to know that eight hundred years after that famous encounter, a group of young people are still meeting, dialoguing and listening in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.