Few people know that a Roman Catholic bishop serves in Saudi Arabia. Fewer would know this man’s name or details of his life and work.
The most recent bishop of Saudi Arabia, Camillo Ballin, died on Easter Sunday in Rome, where he was receiving medical treatment for lung cancer. He was 75 years old and had been preparing to retire as soon as Pope Francis would appoint a successor.
Formally Bishop Ballin was known as the Vicar Apostolic of Northern Arabia, the Catholic prelate responsible for four neighboring countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. An apostolic vicariate is a bishopric, almost the same as a diocese, but the terminology indicates it is a missionary territory whose church is not firmly enough planted to have the autonomy of a diocese. The vicariate’s largest flock of Catholics is in Saudi Arabia.
Another Catholic bishop has responsibility for the countries in the ecclesiastical administration the Vatican calls the Vicariate of Southern Arabia: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen.
Camillo Ballin was a northern Italian, a native of Padua. As a young man he joined the Catholic religious order called the Comboni Missionaries. This ministry had been founded by a 19th-century priest from Brescia, not far from Padua, Daniel Comboni, who was prolific in spreading the Gospel in north and central Africa, and whose followers expanded their reach to the Arabian Peninsula.
Comboni’s missionary initiatives and zeal were so admired by Pope Pius IX that the pope created an apostolic vicariate for Central Africa and made Comboni its bishop when Comboni was only 46 years old. Comboni died four years later in Khartoum, where he had headquartered the vicariate, just before the uprising of the self-styled Mahdi, who, as cinéastes know, was portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the film in which the Mahdi killed the British Governor-General Charles Gordon, portrayed by Charlton Heston. Pope John Paul II canonized Daniel Comboni as a saint in 1996.
Camillo Ballin was a true follower in Comboni’s footsteps. His religious order sent him for several years to study classical Arabic in Lebanon and Syria, assigning him afterwards as priest in the Catholic parish they administered in Cairo. Ballin later was assigned to Rome to earn a doctorate in church history. His dissertation was on how Christian communities in Sudan survived under the fanatical regime of the Mahdi.
In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Ballin as bishop and vicar apostolic in Kuwait. In 2011, the pope reorganized the church in the Arabian Peninsula. He expanded Ballin’s jurisdiction to include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. Formerly these three countries had been part of an overextended administration in Abu Dhabi. Paul Hinder, a Swiss-German Capuchin friar who formerly had led the Catholic church in the entire Arabian Peninsula, remained and today still remains bishop of the UAE, Oman, and Yemen, based in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.
My wife, daughter, and I lived in Saudi Arabia when I was employed there from 2009 until 2015. We had the privilege of knowing both Bishop Hinder and Bishop Ballin.
Bishop Ballin liked to say that “the Church in the Arabian Peninsula is an exclusively pilgrim and migrant Church.” There are more than one million Catholics, and probably another million or more Protestants and Orthodox Christians, in Saudi Arabia. All of them are expats. By law, Saudi citizens may not have any other religious affiliation other than Muslim. Christian practice and worship among guest workers in Saudi Arabia for many years has been tolerated to one degree or another by the Muslim monarchy so long as it remains an invisible “Church of Silence.” Proselytizing by Christians among Muslims, and conversion by Muslims away from Islam, are criminal offenses. The latter is the grave crime of apostasy.
When we lived in Saudi Arabia, our expat community had a large Catholic population with access to facilities allowing a priest whose presence was quietly tolerated to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments. At the time of the division of the two vicariates, we participated in a remarkable occasion when both Bishop Ballin and Bishop Hinder stayed in our community for about a week, hearing confessions for hours on end, celebrating Mass and meeting with the networks of lay people and a few clergy who organized worship and provided the Holy Eucharist to Catholics all around Saudi Arabia.
Since the reorganization of the regional church in 2011, Bishop Hinder has made remarkable progress in promoting the faith and in strengthening church institutions in his territories, especially in the principal UAE city-states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where there are many more expats than Emirati citizens. Bishop Hinder also has carried out the heartbreaking duties of leading the church in Yemen as it has suffered from years of terrorism and civil war.
After becoming responsible for three more countries in 2011, Bishop Ballin moved his residence and bishopric from Kuwait to Bahrain. There he had easier access to Saudi Arabia; the island of Bahrain is connected to the Saudi mainland by a causeway. Ballin was a brilliant diplomat. When he moved to Bahrain in 2011, he could visit Saudi Arabia only on a one-off basis, whenever he was granted an infrequent single-entry visa. His diplomatic efforts with the Saudi and Bahraini royal families bore fruit when the King of Bahrain granted him Bahraini citizenship, giving him virtually unlimited freedom to travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait without having to apply for visas.
Bishop Hinder also is a superb diplomat. His leadership made it possible for Pope Francis to receive and accept an invitation to visit Abu Dhabi in February 2019. It is sad that few Catholics paid attention to the pope’s apostolic visit to Abu Dhabi, and that for the most part the few who did make note of the visit became fixated on what they perceived as a theological error or innovation on the part of Holy Father.
I am the kind of Catholic who is nostalgic for the doctrinal clarity of Pope Benedict XVI. That said, as one who has lived on the Arabian Peninsula, I wish to say as emphatically as possible that the truly important thing about the papal visit to Abu Dhabi was that the Muslim Arab authorities allowed the pope to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula and celebrate Mass there, in public, for a vast live congregation and on television. This was unprecedented, and it dramatically broke with a tradition among many in the stricter observances of Islam, that non-Islamic worship never should be allowed at any time or any place on the Peninsula — the Holy Land of Islam.
It is virtually certain that the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi could not have taken place without the consent of the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The UAE is truly independent of Saudi Arabia as a state, but it cannot possibly have arranged a papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula without the assent of the Saudi king, whose first and most cherished title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” that is, the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. It is to be inferred therefore that both Bishop Hinder and Bishop Ballin performed essential diplomatic roles in making the papal visit possible.
The Saudi rulers allowed their subjects to see television and newspaper images of Pope Francis visiting the Arabian Peninsula. This was as important a happening as glasnost and perestroika, but the secular West ignored it.
My wife and I became close friends of Bishop Ballin, and we visited with him numerous times in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. He was a tall man with a strong but not heavy build, impressive in the white missionary’s cassock he wore on the streets of Bahrain. He had a dry sense of humor and startling candor.
Bishop Ballin had known both Popes John Paul and Benedict. I asked him once about his personal impressions of the pontiffs.
“Benedict is great to work with,” he replied. “Everything is clear and orderly. Thank God, he’s a German.”
And John Paul?
“Every meeting I had with Pope John Paul was a disaster,” he said.
“What? We’re talking about John Paul the Great — he’s going to be canonized a saint one of these days.”
“Oh, he’s a saint,” Bishop Ballin admitted, “but whenever we met he was never as focused as I needed him to be.”
It’s likely that Bishop Ballin’s unsatisfactory encounters with Pope John Paul II were when the pontiff was debilitated by Parkinson’s Disease. He did not make his remark to me about the pope with the intention that it be made public. I am certain he meant no disrespect. My purpose in telling the anecdote after the demise of both men is to illustrate that while I never knew Bishop Ballin to be unreasonable or uncharitable, he was averse to any sort of circumlocution. Others have claimed to be running a “Straight Talk Express.” Camillo Ballin really did so.
Since the election of Pope Francis, Bishop Ballin kept me informed that his working relationship with the new pope was the best ever. They met and spoke with one another with some frequency, and, of course, Francis made his historic visit to Arabia.
Camillo Ballin was a hard-working and bold bishop. Soon after he was given pastoral responsibility for Saudi Arabia, he let it be known that he was going to create parishes. He explained that every Catholic community in the Saudi kingdom up until that point had been informal in the sense there were no “canonically” established parishes. He traveled from place to place in Saudi Arabia, celebrating Mass in our more brightly lit versions of catacombs, towering in his tall miter, pronouncing solemn episcopal proclamations establishing parishes and installing parish priests in their pastorates.
Bishop Ballin, like Bishop Hinder, often had to cope with the headache of trying to exercise authority simultaneously over Catholics of both the western and the eastern rites. As missionary bishops, this was authority given to them explicitly by the pope. In their home countries, eastern rite Catholics are accustomed to being under their own hierarchy and subject to their own separate codes of canon law. About 20 percent of the Catholics in the Northern Arabia vicariate belong to the eastern rites.
There are only a tiny number of Catholic priests in all of Saudi Arabia, and the official fiction presented to the public is that they do not exist at all. As though this alone were not enough of a problem, Bishop Ballin once told me that he was having a dispute with one or more clerics of an eastern rite within the Saudi kingdom who did not want to accept his authority. Later, he told me with an expression of relief that on the day before Pope Benedict relinquished the papal office, Benedict had signed a letter making it clear to the insubordinate priests — and the eastern rite hierarchy in their home countries — that Bishop Ballin had authority over all rites within his territory.
In his new headquarters of Bahrain, Bishop Ballin persuaded the king to donate land and give him permission to build a cathedral. He raised funds and began construction of the Bahrain Cathedral before he died. He told the members of his flock dispersed among four Arab countries that a cathedral was necessary as a focal point, a catechetical center, and a sign of the strength and permanence of the Catholic Church in the region. The pastoral and institutional groundwork he prepared is likely, sooner because of him than later, to bring about replacement of the vicariate with a canonical diocese. When the Bahrain Cathedral is completed, the vicariate will have two cathedrals, the other already existing in Kuwait.
Other fruits of Bishop Ballin’s labors included his role in bringing about the successful visit in 2017 of Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite Catholic patriarch, to Riyadh, where the prelate wore his cassock in public and on television as he was received by the king and crown prince. At the same time, the crown prince encouraged expectations — not yet fulfilled — that Saudi Arabia one day would consider allowing construction of a Catholic church edifice within the kingdom.
Pope Francis soon will need to appoint new bishops in both of the Arabian vicariates. Bishop Hinder in Abu Dhabi is well past retirement age.
These transitions should be anticipated not with sorrow but with great joy. Thanks to bishops Ballin and Hinder, the Catholic Church is stronger than before in the Arabian Peninsula.
When I left Saudi Arabia I returned to a United States, where the Catholic Church confronts demoralization, closing parishes, and disappearing parochial schools. In the Arabian Peninsula, Catholicism is thriving in spite of — or more likely because of — the fact that it is more or less a church of the catacombs. Every time one attends Mass in Saudi Arabia, it feels like — and it is — a miracle.
The overwhelming majority of Catholics on the Arabian Peninsula are guest workers from either the Philippines or India. My impression is that about 45 percent of the Catholics are Indian and 45 percent Filipino, with the remaining 10 percent divided among Catholic Arabs from the Levant and Americans and Europeans.
The Vatican curial prelate responsible for the missionary vicariates now is a Filipino, the newly appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle, former archbishop of Manila. The apostolic nuncio to both Arabian vicariates since 2016 is also a Filipino, the veteran papal diplomat Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla.
With or without an ethnic Filipino in one of the Arabian bishop’s chairs, surely the cultural sensitivities of the huge Filipino flock there will be respected carefully. The culture of the Catholics from the Indian subcontinent also is likely to be given great solicitude. It is of course possible that one or both of the new bishops will be European, but there’s a greater likelihood of new bishops from India, the Philippines, or from Latin Rite Jordanian or Palestinian communities. My prayer is that the vast territory will receive both bishops and auxiliary bishops.
God has a plan for everyone. Christians believe that Jesus chose this Easter Sunday as the day to welcome Bishop Camillo Ballin into his Risen presence. Death came for Arabia’s bishop in the presence of his religious brothers at the residence of the Comboni Missionaries’ general headquarters in Rome. Catholics in Arabia can take Bishop Ballin’s Easter Sunday homeward journey as a beautiful sign that Christ will give His Church in their region new life, life more abundantly.
Joseph P. Duggan is a writer, public affairs consultant, and investor in St. Louis. He worked in the State Department and White House during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, and in corporate public affairs in Saudi Arabia from 2009–2015.