Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, are both located in Saudi Arabia. As guardians of these sacred sites, the Saudi royal family has decreed that no non-Muslim house of worship may be erected in the kingdom.
Of course, not everyone who lives in Saudi Arabia is Muslim. There are many thousands of foreigners in the country. They teach at the universities, work for corporations or the oil industry. There is also, of course, the international diplomatic corps with their often-large staffs. And there are thousands of Filipino Catholics who come to find jobs as laborers or as domestic servants and nannies in Saudi homes. Finally, there are American Christians and Jews on the military bases.
Yet, even on the bases, chaplains are forbidden to designate a room or a tent as a chapel. Something so simple as posting a notice on a bulletin board of the location and time when religious services will be held will provoke Saudi government officials — even more so if the flyer contains a religious symbol such as a cross or a menorah. So, the chaplains tell as many troops as they can, and the details of when and where services will be held are spread by word of mouth.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Father David M. Fitz-Patrick, a Catholic priest from Washington, D.C., was serving as a military chaplain on the American military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Finding a neutral, inoffensive location to say Mass is a challenge. In a reminiscence published in Blessings From the Battlefield, an interesting and enlightening little collection of first-person memories of chaplains, Father Fitz-Patrick recalled an especially bleak time leading up to Christmas 1991. “Erratic phone service made it virtually impossible to talk with the folks back home,” father Fitz-Patrick writes. “New terrorist threats were being posted almost hourly. The last plane bringing holiday mail had come and gone.”
Further complicating that holiday season, Father Fitz-Patrick had a tough time finding an inconspicuous place to say Midnight Mass. He had abandoned all hope of locating anything that could remotely be described as suitable, so he settled on an underground parking garage. It was small: unlike the cavernous garages we find in American cities, this place had spaces for only 30 cars.
In preparation for the Mass, he and volunteers erected a makeshift altar, tracked down what Father described as “a primitive Nativity scene,” and set up chairs for a congregation of 550. They worried it would not be enough — Father Fitz-Patrick was the only Catholic priest in Dhahran; in addition to military personnel, he and his helpers expected European Catholics working in the city would want to attend Mass, too. It was government policy that Filipino, Indian, and Hispanics living in Saudi Arabia were barred from going to American bases for Mass or any other religious service. Lord knows why.
As midnight approached, torrential rain fell on Dhahran. Father and the congregation discovered that the garage leaked badly. Water ran down the walls and streamed across the floor. The garage chapel was packed, and more stood outside in the downpour. At midnight, a little procession made it’s way down the improvised aisle, led by the four-year daughter of a Catholic family living in Dhahran. She carried a little statue of the Infant Jesus, which she laid in the manger. A soldier had brought a guitar and began to play “Silent Night.” As everyone sang the old, familiar carol, Father Fitz-Patrick found himself getting teary eyed. After he had kissed the altar, he looked up at his parishioners and saw that everyone in the garage was wiping their eyes.
There was none of the solemnity, none of the grandeur, none of the beauty that Catholic parishes strive for at Christmas. The “chapel” was wretched, although no worse than the stable in Bethlehem. But it was still Midnight Mass, offered on the night Christ was born. Even the Saudi Royal Family can’t stop that. “As I looked up at the faces of the young soldiers,” Father Fitz-Patrick recalled, “I realized how happy I was to be there… a visible reminder of the holy, in support of our military family.”
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.