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The Deacon's Bench

Imagine running a parish with 50,000 members and 20 masses a week. That about sums up life for the chaplains working at some of America’s busiest airports.

They worry less about security than about salvation:

Can you find holiness at an airport? Father Michael Zaniolo thinks so.

Father Zaniolo has been an airport chaplain at Midway and O’Hare International airports in Chicago for the past six years, so he’s spent a lot of time meeting travelers from around the world and workers at the two airports.

From what he has seen, Father Zaniolo said, the presence of a chaplain and a chapel can bring comfort amid the stress and worry that travelers and workers often face.

The Chicago Archdiocesan priest celebrates Mass in the chapels at each airport and walks around the terminals, bringing “the presence of the church into a place where people never think of seeing the church.”

But Father Zaniolo said his job is not easy, especially because he is ministering at two airports. Combined, O’Hare and Midway offer 20 Masses a week, and he and the other chaplains also hear confessions every day.

“I’ve heard confessions in all sorts of little nooks and crannies, because I bring the chapel out to the people,” he said in a phone interview.

Although travelers through the airports are alerted to Masses over the public-address system, Father Zaniolo said his main outreach is to the people who work at the airports, because with their strange schedules, they often don’t have time to go to Mass in their own parishes.

The number of workers at the airports is enough to keep Father Zaniolo and the other chaplains busy. Approximately 43,000 people work at O’Hare, and another 8,500 people work at Midway.

“It’s like having a very big, busy parish with a lot of people moving in and out,” he said.

And, I suspect, when it comes to confession, there’s a lot of baggage some faithful really would prefer to lose …

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