Looking to do some 'New Evangelization'? Try airports, chaplain says


As hard as it may be to believe from the outside, the normal business of the Vatican has not come grinding to a halt as a result of the recent leaks scandal, the various internal probes that affair has launched, and an almost daily dose of damaging new revelations.

Proof of the point comes in a June 11-14 conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, being held in a Roman hotel near the Vatican called the “Casa Tra Noi,” or “Home Among Us,” for Catholic airport chaplains. The meeting gathers roughly 100 chaplains representing 32 major airports and fifteen countries, including a strong presence from the United States.

I sat down this morning with Fr. Michael Zaniolo, the Catholic chaplain at both O’Hare and Midway Airports in Chicago, and president of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains in the States. According to Zaniolo, there are roughly seventy-five Catholic chaplains working in American airports, though only about twenty-five or thirty are priests, with the balance being permanent deacons and laity. Only O’Hare and JFK actually have a priest assigned as a full-time chaplain, though Zaniolo said the ministry is growing.

I spoke with Zaniolo about this somewhat unusual ministry, including the role it could play in Pope Benedict XVI’s much-ballyhooed “New Evangelization,” which is the official theme of this week’s gathering.

What does it mean to be an airport chaplain? In concrete, what do you do?

That’s a question that a lot of priests ask me. From the outside, the airport looks like kind of an easy job. There’s only one daily Mass, we’ve got a full set of Masses on the weekend, but it’s not like being in a parish where there’s a lot of weddings, funerals, whatever. The main difference is that at an airport, you have to go out to the people. Unlike a parish where people come to you all the time asking, ‘can you marry us?’, and so on, my job is to be as visible as possible.

At O’Hare and at most airports, the job started because the people who work there didn’t have access to Mass on Sundays. You’ve got airport workers, you’ve got pilots and flight attendants, and they all have what the rest of the world would term crazy schedules. For them to be able to go to Mass and to go to confession at the airport is an absolute gem. For instance, at O’Hare there’s 40,000 people who work there. It’s a like a city, practically. The flight crews especially are completely grateful that the Mass schedule is the same at O’Hare as it was fifty years ago, so they can count on being able to go to Mass, to go to confession if they need it, or just to talk to a priest.

On top of that, of course, you’ve got all these travelers. Some are regulars, some not.

How many of those 40,000 workers are Catholic?

Chicago is a pretty Catholic city. If I had to guess, I would say somewhere between fifty and seventy percent are Catholic at O’Hare, and at Midway it’s probably even a little bit more. I see so many, all the time. I always dress as a priest, with the white collar, and I put on my airport badge. It’s just amazing, first of all, how many people want to go to confession. Think about it: For people who are just passing through, I’m Fr. Nobody. They can make a really good confession, without fear. For the workers, they come to know me the way they know their parish priest, and they know I’m very accessible. Even if it takes them a while to work up the strength to say, ‘I haven’t been to confession in a while, I guess I’ll go this guy,’ it happens a lot. Or, they’ll see me in the terminal and they’ll say, ‘You know, Father, I need to get my marriage blessed by the church.’ The thing I hear the most is, ‘Father, could you pray for …’ whatever it is. You know, my mother’s in the hospital, my wife’s having a baby, I’m having difficulties with one of my kids, I’m worried about losing my job. The list is just endless, and people are always looking for prayers and blessings. I wish I had more time to pray!

Are you at O’Hare pretty much all day, every day?

I’m at O’Hare or Midway every day except my day off, or out of town or something. I’ve also got a lot of retired priests who help me out.

When I first got the job, it was only O’Hare, and then a few months later they also gave me Midway. I had three prayers: First of all, that there wouldn’t be any major disasters to have to deal with; second, that I would have enough priests, clergy and volunteers to help me; and third, enough money would come in that I’m not sinking under any debt. The Lord has answered all of those prayers.

What do you need the money for? I presume that if your roof starts to leak, the airport pays for the fix.

I have to raise my own salary, and the one other full-time person who helps me. She’s not only my secretary, but the business manager, chief fund-raiser, and administrative assistant. We run not only the Catholic chaplaincy at O’Hare and Midway but also the inter-faith chaplaincy at both airports, which is a completely separate organization. Also, I was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains in 2005, and we base that office out of our office.

We’re very blessed at O’Hare and Midway to have a full-time priest, because very few airport chaplaincies have one. It tends to be a little easier for bishops to find deacons they can assign to be a kind of permanent presence. Atlanta, for example, doesn’t have any priest, but they’ve got nine deacons now. In Boston they have a full-time priest chaplain, but he’s also the full-time state police chaplain, city police chaplain, fire chaplain, so he’s got about five full-time jobs. I’m blessed to be able to dedicate myself to this one ministry, which is completely different from any other.

What kind of random encounters do you have in this job?

The nice thing about airport ministry is that everything is kind of concentrated. In an airport, somebody will see me and say, ‘Father, I gotta talk to you,’ and in two to five minutes, they’re telling me everything they need to tell me, and I’m giving them everything I can give them. They’ve got a flight to catch, or they have to get back to work, so it all happens fast. They may be walking in my direction and they’ll say, ‘Father, if my boss sees me I’m gonna get killed, so can you walk with me, I need to tell you something?’ By the end of the day, I don’t want to see or talk to anyone. I just want to sit like a vegetable, because everything is so intense. It’s like walking into a tornado from the moment I get there to the moment I leave. It’s terrific, though, because I can see the hand of God moving in the lives of people.

One day I was walking around in one of the terminals, talking to the workers, and I see this little old nun walking toward me. She was Asian, and she asked in a sort of broken English if I was a Catholic priest. I said yes and asked if she needed some help. She looked at my name and asked in I spoke Italian. I said yes, so in beautiful Italian this little Asian nun told me she was travelling back to Japan and had to make a connection at O’Hare and was completely lost, because O’Hare is a gigantic place. I asked how she spoke such beautiful Italian, and she said that she worked for Vatican Radio, she’d been at the Vatican for twenty-five years. She got to go home to visit her family every so often, and her community. I helped her to get through security, I took her out for coffee, and finally she looked at me and said: Il mio angelo custode!, her guardian angel. I see the Lord working in all these crazy little ways, as well as the intense ways in which people are really searching for him.

What are you getting out of this meeting in Rome?

I’ve attended several of them, because I started airport ministry in 2001. They try to hold them every two years, but sometimes it’s not possible because the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees has to take care of basically everybody on this planet. Not only do we report to them, but so do the seaport chaplaincies. The big thing is asylum seekers and refugees. They’re also concerned with people who are migrating, gypsies, even carnival workers, all those kinds of people.

To be honest, when I first saw the topic, the “New Evangelization,” I thought, why are we talking about this? The bishops haven’t even met yet [in the synod on New Evangelization, scheduled for October] to really flesh out what the New Evangelization actually is. But then it hit me that maybe in this meeting what we could do is to give the bishops a little something from our perspective, so they can mull it over and use this as a way for the New Evangelization.

The New Evangelization isn’t going to work very well in a parish. The people coming to church, by and large, are already evangelized. They might need a bit more catechesis and so on, but …

They’re not the target audience.

Right. The targets are the people who aren’t coming, and who’ve kind of turned their back on the church. You have to go out to the world to find these people. An airport is a place where all the world passes by. You know, it’s rare to find somebody who’s never been on an airplane. I have one uncle, he’s 89, and he’s never taken a flight. But pretty much everybody comes, either to pick somebody up or they come to go somewhere. It’s just a fertile field. How can we present this to the Synod of Bishops to say, ‘If you’re looking for a place to start, how about here?’ They can use us, because we’re already established.

Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, spoke yesterday. What did you make of it?

What I heard wasn’t so much anything in particular he said, but a guy who’s really passionate about this. It’s not just that the pope gave me this job, so we’ll draw up some lineamenta and follow them, like some of the obstructionist cardinals at Vatican II at the beginning. This guy is passionate, and he’s looking at the long-term vision of things. He’s asking what’s going on in our society, and how we can make the gospel something fresh for these people for the next fifty to a hundred years. Who talks that way anymore? Nobody. Aside from the details he had, which we very good, I heard a guy who’s got fire in the belly for this.

This is a global gathering. What differences strike you between American experiences and what you hear from other parts of the world?

The point of commonality is being present to the workers and the travelers, and being available to them. Here’s one difference: In Europe and other parts of the world, the question of how to care for people who are coming into airports without their papers in order is a big deal. In America, our Customs and Border Patrol agents are trained very well to take care of people. They’ll pull them aside into what’s called secondary inspection. They try to figure out what’s going on. They may have to detain someone, but if they do, they take them to a safe place where they’re well fed and well cared for. They try to calm them down, make sure they’re not having panic attacks. Based on what I hear from other parts of the world, it’s not always that way. People sometimes are just told they’re being deported and tossed into a cell, and that’s that. For the chaplains, it almost becomes like a prison ministry. You go to them and you try to calm their souls, and if they need to talk or go to confession, if they’ve got something going on in their lives that’s aggravating the situation, then the chaplain is there to help. I don’t get called as much for those sorts of things, mainly because our people in the States are trained in a different way. It’s good to hear that, because we need to know the challenges others are facing and somehow support our fellow chaplains in other countries.

You happen to be here at a moment that’s perceived externally as one of great crisis for the Vatican. In your audience with the pope, and in your meetings with Vatican officials, have you detected an atmosphere of crisis?

First of all, I feel for the pope as a priest. You know, as a parish priest we have to do all sorts of things we don’t necessarily want to do. There was no training course in the seminary in how to fix a roof or pave a parking lot, or how to fire someone, or how to smooth the feathers of two people on the staff who are fighting each other or fighting against you. All that stuff is draining, because you kind of learn it on the fly, and because you’re not professionally trained in it, you’re always wondering, am I doing the right thing? The things that are life-giving for me as a priest come when I’m dealing with people, hearing their confessions, helping them, praying for them, visiting them in the hospitals. I think it’s probably the same way for the pope. Not being able to keep an eye on all these things personally, he’s got to depend on others to run them for him, and then he’s got to clean up whatever mess may happen.

With the Vatican officials you’ve met, do you get the sense that they’re not able to do their regular business because of all this other stuff that’s going on?

I think it might weigh on them, but it hasn’t stopped them, because it’s the regular business that keeps us focused.

You’ve got to imagine that Fisichella had a better time yesterday talking to you about the New Evangelization than if he’d been doing a press conference on Vati-leaks, right?

Absolutely. When they got the invitation, they probably thought to themselves, ‘I may not know much about airport chaplains, but I know there’s no butlers involved, there’s no secret papers shuffling around!’ Those things are distractions, and they can become major distractions, but this is the stuff that’s really closest to our hearts.

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