AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

ATLANTA – The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.

Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.

On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.

“He didn’t say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.

“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.

The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend, but he dumped her at the start of the trip.

“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk says.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

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Got news? Concerning Catholic priests, Mass and padlocks

Because of my background in church-state studies, for the past third of a century or so I have been interested in the many legal puzzles linked to the work of military chaplains.

The bottom line: There is no easy way to provide doctrinally specific care to all of the sailors on a submarine (or a very small, remote base near the front lines).

It is possible for one clergy person to show tolerance and sympathy for believers in a number of different religions with clashing doctrines, but there is no way one or two chaplains can turn into doctrinal Swiss Army knives and provide the same degree of care for Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Mormons, Baptists, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, etc., etc. At some point, people feel left out. At some point, there is a Catholic who needs to say a sacramentally valid Confession before going into combat and the only chaplain available is a female Baptist or United Methodist or Episcopalian or Disciple of Christ.

Doctrinal conservatives in various traditions often try to wish this conflict away, even though it is just as important for neopagans to have religious liberty as it is for Southern Baptists.

Doctrinal liberals in various traditions are the leading advocates for the theological Swiss Army knife approach, since their faiths almost always take a more Universalist approach to issues attached to salvation and sacraments. Thus, when a Catholic male declines to say his confession to a female chaplain in a liberal mainline church, that is the male soldier’s problem. Why can’t everybody just get alone?

As a result of my fascination with these issues, I have been paying close attention to the debate about whether Catholic priests who are under contract (as opposed to being regular military chaplains) will be allowed to volunteer (as in for free) say Mass on bases affected by the government shutdown.

Alas, cruise through the results of this logical Google News search file and it will be easy to see a familiar trend.

The Daily Caller? Check.

The Washington Times. Check.

TheBlaze.com? Check.

The Christian Broadcasting Network? Check.

Lifesite? Check.

National Review Online? Check.

The Christian Post? Check.

Yes, indeed. It appears that this is a conservative news story, one that falls outside the approved template for the mainstream media’s coverage of government-shutdown horror stories.

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