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.
At JFK, four chapels sit side by side: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim. The location, on the fourth floor of Terminal 4, is outside security and well outside the mainstream passenger flow, but it still gets a steady stream of people who want to pray. The busiest chapel, JFK chaplains say, is the multi-faith chapel now outfitted as a mosque, with prayer rugs and signs that point toward Mecca.
The first airport chapel was established in Boston in 1951, and the idea spread as a way to comfort fearful travelers. Even though crash rates have improved dramatically over the past 60 years, safety remains a concern for many airline passengers.There have been times when airports or airlines have asked chaplains to lend a hand.
O'Hare's Father Zaniolo, for example, sometimes assists in crowd control. When passengers turn angry at gates because of airline messes, gate agents sometimes summon him because the collar can quiet the crowd. "One ticket agent told me, 'They act like human beings when you are here,' " he says.
Airport chaplains sometimes walk a fine line separating church and state. Since most airports are government-run, some airport administrators are reluctant to support religious services.
The Jacksonville, Fla., airport, for example, has a chapel but doesn't allow religious iconography or texts, doesn't sanction official airport chaplains and doesn't allow clergy to use the airport public-address system for announcements.
Somali immigrants pressed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for a private prayer room after six imams were removed from a plane in 2007 after praying in public. But the airport declined to offer a room designated for any particular religion. The airport doesn't have a chapel or prayer room, a spokesman said, but does have two quiet seating areas for reading, relaxing, meditating and praying.
Most chaplains avoid conflict by drawing salaries from local dioceses or establishing non-profit organizations to fund their work. Many hold fund-raisers and get support from local faith institutions, airport concessionaires and the airlines in the form of free tickets to raffle off.
Jonathan Baldwin, chaplain at London's Gatwick Airport and president of the IACAC, has been in crisis mode frequently through ash cloud disruptions, blizzards and, most recently, repatriation flights inbound from Libya, with de-planing passengers recounting stories of atrocities they saw.
"If they spot the collar and they are Christian, they may want to talk," said the Anglican priest. He regularly visits the airport's control tower and fire station, airport hotels and other venues where workers and travelers can be found. "Loitering with intent, we call it," he says.
When flights are canceled, some chaplains even provide assistance, from money for hotel rooms to clothing for some people stuck at the airport for several days.
At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Rev. Chester Cook, a United Methodist minister, says he often lobbies airline supervisors and station managers to waive fees or penalties for people in dire straits. If that doesn't work, local religious groups provide funds to help travelers in need, whether it's paying $100 for a bus ticket, $40 for a motel room or helping cover an airline change fee or baggage fee. Airport concessionaires also let the chapel offer airport employees a discount card good at airport restaurants in exchange for a donation to raise assistance funds.
Travelers who have had wallets or bags stolen are often directed to the Rev. Cook, who is actually an employee of the city's Department of Aviation and considered a customer-service agent for Hartsfield. He and other chaplains also work with large contingents of U.S. soldiers who pass through Atlanta every day
"Spiritual and humanitarian blur when people are going through crisis," he says.
When tragedy strikes families and someone has to inform travelers of terrible news, chaplains get the call.
Father Zaniolo recalls one day when he was beside a couple when they received the news that their daughter had committed suicide. "They couldn't be consoled. It was so hard," he says. In another instance, he informed a flight attendant whose eighth-grade son had been hit by a train and killed in Florida. His role in both cases was to help people get calm enough so they could travel back home.
"Those aren't bad days. Those are days when people need me," says Father Zaniolo.
Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org