Ministering "on the fly": meet the airport chaplains

Ministering "on the fly": meet the airport chaplains March 10, 2011

Yesterday was one of the busiest days of the year for priests everywhere — including at America’s airports.

From the Wall Street Journal:

For the Rev. Michael Zaniolo, Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year. He’s the head chaplain at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which had three Masses and 14 different ash ceremonies.
Here, services can’t go longer than 30 minutes to fit into workers’ breaks. He has his “regulars” at services—airport workers and airline employees as well as travelers who have made going to church part of their layover routine at O’Hare. He hears confession from many every day.

“They carry around a lot of spiritual burdens, and I’m a convenient guy,” he says. “I can help people get things out of their system or see things in a different perspective, or see where God might be.”

At least 140 airports around the world have designated chapels, and more than 250 have airport chaplains, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, an ecumenical non-profit organization. While chaplains are among the first-responders in the event of a crash, day to day they spend their time offering solace to travelers, consoling the bereaved, hearing confession or offering blessings to passengers before they board airplanes.

“It’s a ministry of presence,” says the Rev. Chris Piasta, a Roman Catholic chaplain at New York’s Kennedy International Airport. “Years ago people enjoyed flying. Nowadays, no one talks about an enjoyable experience anymore.”

Airport chaplains counsel people through the stress of both flying and daily living. Some travelers are filled with anxiety because of circumstance—they are on their way to funerals, medical treatment or family emergencies, for example. Many don’t have the time to go to church, synagogue or a mosque. So the faith institutions have come to them. Chaplains roam through airport train and tram stations, control towers and gate areas.

“We’re trying to be where people are at and move with people,” says Rabbi Bennett Rackman, who works out of JFK and hosts lunchtime study programs for workers, leads prayer sessions for Jewish travelers and offers blessings for youth groups about to depart to Israel. He believes JFK’s synagogue is the only airport synagogue in the western hemisphere.

It’s fascinating stuff.  Check out more.

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6 responses to “Ministering "on the fly": meet the airport chaplains”

  1. Back in the mid 1990’s, a permanently ordained deacon out of the Diocese of Charlotte North Carolina was the Roman Catholic Chaplain at that very busy International Airport — CLT.

  2. I have worked as a volunteer Lay Chaplain at our local airport for almost two years now. It is a very rewarding role, and brings me in to contact with so many people. It is a real privilege to be able to be used by the Lord to try and bring people closer to Him in such hectic surroundings.

  3. Fiergenholt:
    There is still a Catholic deacon working as the Charlotte airport chaplain.

    Deacon Chip Wilson
    Belmont, NC

  4. I remember one layover at O’Hare years ago, back then the airport’s chapel was an actual CHAPEL, not a sterile room with soft lighting.

  5. Responding to Deacon Chip Wilson #3.

    I am confident you were not there in the mid 1990’s — that’s the deacon I remember — I just cannot remember his name. I have been at CLT in the interim but have not had the chance to get back to your Chapel — connecting flights were too close together.

  6. Deacon Ben Wenning was the longtime chaplain there. Deacon George Szalony has taken his place.

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