BURLINGTON, Vermont — Father Mike Zaniolo has two suggestions for priestly ministry at an airport.

“Be merciful and quick,” the 62-year-old chaplain of Chicago’s airports tells Crux.

The hurried pace of his work environments — which host a combined 100 million travelers per year — keep employees and passengers on precise timetables. Whether they’re at work or just passing through, Zaniolo only has fleeting moments with the people he encounters.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t need pastoral attention, he says. Catholics at airports deal with the same issues as Catholics at parishes, but their unsettled surroundings often put faith at the front of their minds. That’s one reason why Zaniolo is grateful to work as a full-time pastor of the Midway and O’Hare airports.

“It’s a place where — as soon as you walk in — you are in control of practically nothing in your life; you’re surrendering your life,” he says. “That combination of being confronted with your mortality, and having time to think and reflect, and all of a sudden a priest pops up on the scene… that’s a good time to really help people understand God’s mercy.”

Zaniolo — a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago — offers confessions and a Mass every day of the week, plus more on Sundays, from the chapel in each airport. His ministry, though, consists of more than just the sacraments.

Zaniolo describes his job to parish priests this way: “It’s like if you as a pastor got up every morning and started walking up and down the block in your neighborhood, ringing every doorbell, saying, ‘I’m your pastor, I’m your priest. What can I do for you?’”

While not a traditional parish job, Zaniolo says the role of airport chaplain fully embodies priestly ministry. In fact, that’s what attracted Zaniolo to the position in the first place.

As a young priest, Zaniolo brought a group of men discerning the priesthood to the airport, hoping to acquaint them with priests who worked outside a parish. There, he saw his predecessor “doing what a priest should do.”

“He’s out among the people, he knows them, they know him, and he knows their needs,” Zaniolo recalls. “From my point of view, it was a cool place to be a priest.”

Most of the people who Zaniolo sees on a regular basis are airport or airline employees, but he also tries to be a presence for travelers.

“Everybody I talk to – when they see a chaplain, it puts them at ease,” he says. “I’ve been at the airport almost 20 years, and I have never had anybody say to me, ‘what are you doing here?’ or ‘why are you here?’ Everyone seems to be comforted knowing that there’s a place that they can come to pray no matter what.”

Zaniolo makes a habit of intercessory prayer. When he encounters people, he assures them he will pray for them, then writes their name on a piece of paper and places it on the altar to remember when he says Mass. 

“It is just really important for people to know that somebody’s praying for them,” he says. “When people ask me to pray for them, I see that there’s a lot of relief in their eyes.”

“I wish there were more hours in a day to pray,” he adds.

Zaniolo ministers to people of other faiths as well. As administrator of the Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago, he manages each airport’s chapel, and connects people with spiritual resources from their tradition. 

“Different but the same”

Even though COVID-19 has reduced air traffic to a near standstill, Zaniolo still maintains his regular schedule walking around the terminals. 

“Every time I go to the airport, there’s hardly anyone there,” he says. “I’ll walk around and I’ll look at a gate area and say, ‘I know so-and-so worked there, I know that they’re on furlough now, or they’re laid off,’ and I wonder how they are.” 

When he says Mass, Zaniolo remembers the faces and names of the people who would normally fill the pews of the modest airport chapel.

“I really wish I could see my people,” he says, “even with the six feet of distance.”

But for now, without a vaccine or widespread immunity against the virus, travel is still risky, and goes against recommendations put forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zaniolo predicts most of the travelers in the coming months will have no choice but to travel, meaning they will be “on edge” about their safety. With that in mind, Zaniolo is brainstorming ways to adapt his ministry for compliance with new regulations. He’s already converted a multipurpose room bordering the chapel into a socially-distant confessional.

“It’ll be different but the same. People will be able to talk to a priest,” he says, “and people will be able to experience the sacraments, the mercy, the comfort, the peace that comes directly from our Lord.”