A thought directed to God before departure...
Fr Cezary Chwilczynski
House of God at the airport
Archbishop Marian Golebiewski of Wroclaw and Fr Krzysztof Janiak, chaplain at the Wroclaw airport, invited chaplains of European airports for a conference held on 22-25 May 2006, organised by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. The chaplains discussed what to do to meet their tasks in new conditions of increasing air transport, how to make travellers aware of airport chapels and how to minister to groups of pilgrims. The participants of the International Congress of Civil Aviation Chaplains elected a new secretary general ( Fr David Lacy from Birmingham who replaced Fr Slawomir Kawecki, chaplain at the Warsaw airport. He has just finished his second 5-year term.
There are 40 civil aviation chaplaincies in Europe. In the world the first chaplaincy was established in Boston, USA, in 1947. The first Polish chapel at a civil airport was opened in Warsaw. It was the first chapel in Central and Eastern European countries. The bigger number of passenger flights in the world, the bigger number of airport chaplaincies. They are a special field of pastoral work.
Airport chapels are usually of ecumenical character and are arranged in such a way that people from various denominations and religions can pray there. Therefore, Protestants, Orthodox, Greek Catholics and representatives of other faiths come to airport chapels. I had a special experience at the Frankfurt airport. Waiting for a plane I entered the airport chapel for a short prayer. Nicely wooden decoration, cross, tabernacle. I was reading the breviary. After a while a Muslim in a traditional robe came in. I saw a small prayer rug in the corner of the chapel. It portrayed a mosque directed towards Mecca. The Muslim knelt on the rug and began his prayers. And in one chapel we were praying together; he as a Muslim bowed, whispering the verses of the Koran, I was praying David's Psalms. When my plane took off I remembered the verses of Ps 24 'To Yahweh belong earth and all it holds, the world and all who live in it'. The airport chapels are special places, places where followers of various religions can stand side by side, showing great respect to one another and they feel some kind of unity between them.
A very important element of the functioning of airport chapels is their general accessibility. Unfortunately, this is not evident in all airports. If chapels are located in transit areas there are available only after check-in. This is the location of the chapel at Okecie. The chapel in the newly built terminal in the capital will be in the public area.
Congresses of civil aviation chaplains
Civil aviation chaplains have held regular meetings in various regions in the world. They share their experiences of the pastoral work and prepare plans. They also have the occasion to help one another to solve difficulties they face. Some chaplains have not got official chapels at airports, which makes their pastoral ministry difficult. Once the American chaplains faced the problem of suitable transport of urns with people's ashes and coffins. Finally, thanks to their efforts it was decided to section off a part of the baggage area for this purpose.
Media on board
Another issue that is worth of attention is the media for passengers. During long distance flights passengers can watch several films, can listen to many radio stations or read many periodicals. Some of the media have negative attitude towards the Church, Christianity and religion. For many years passengers on Polish flights could not read Catholic press but that has changed. For a few years they can read the Catholic Weekly 'Niedziela' aboard the Polish national airlines.
Guests at airports
The chaplain's ministry is not only to celebrate Mass in the chapel but also to be among passengers as well as among the employees at the airport, which is very valuable. The task is also to create a good Christian atmosphere of work.
Religious people as passengers often visit chapels at airports and on the occasions of big celebrations bishops come to chapels, too. It has always been so. Bishops are asked to dedicate new planes of the Polish Airlines LOT. The first Mass and dedication were celebrated at the Mokotow airport in Warsaw in 1929. It was the beginnings of the Polish Airlines. Naturally, the situation changed during the communist times but in the late 1980s when Poland modernised its fleet, choosing American Boeings, every new plane was dedicated during a special celebration. Polish priests working in that city dedicated the first two Boeings 767 at the Fidel airport in Seattle, USA.
Bishops frequently visit the chapels in airports. The Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk celebrated midnight Mass in the chapel at the Warsaw airport. Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Primate of Poland, visited the chapel during Christmas time. Other visitors were Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris and Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague. Fr Slawomir Kawecki recollects his meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who waited for a delayed flight for a few hours. He also remembers meetings with outstanding personalities. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was several times at the Okecie airport and she always stopped longer in the chapel.
Thanks to the efforts of the chaplain the employees of the Okecie airport were able to meet the Pope Benedict XVI. These included the passenger service, technicians, customs officers and the border guards as well as their families.
Prayer for pilots
Lord, when you walked on earth,
There were no planes.
You commanded us to look at birds
Man watched them well
And learnt to fly in the air
Quicker and longer than birds.
We thank You
That You let us see the mysteries
You left in the world,
That You commanded us to conquer the earth.
We thank You for good pilots.
Let them feel how beautiful the sky is
And when they land
Let them long for
What is up in the sky.
In 1920 Benedict XV announced the Virgin of Loretto the Patroness of pilots and travellers. During his visit to the Marian Shrine at Loretto on 8 September 1979 John Paul II spoke about that, 'The planes traversing endless expanse of the sky through vast areas of the world glorify Your name and make people's activities easier. May pilots and technicians as well as all airport service have Your blessing and may them fulfil their duties with prudence and wisdom so that all those who fly reach their destinations safely.'