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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

IV European Seminar for Catholic Airport Chaplains

Lyon (France), 13 May 2003

Challenges for the Pastoral Care of Civil Aviation

Archbishop Agostino Marchetto

Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the 

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

1. In his message to the participants of the Third European Seminar of Catholic Airport Chaplains held in Brussels in 2001, Pope John Paul II clearly indicates the most significant challenges (we could say: unity in diversity) of the Catholic Airport Chaplaincy in the 21st century (Vatican, 14 May 2001, Cfr. Proceedings of the Third European Seminar, page 7). 

For the benefit of all, I want to recall what He said by identifying his points one by one,:

  • first, “the airport is a true crossroads of humanity where people of all nations come into contact with one another at particular moments of life’s journey”;
  • second, “the airport Chaplain, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist and in various forms of pastoral assistance, reminds travellers of God’s loving presence and bears witness to the fundamental truths affecting all human life”;
  • third, “at a time when for various reasons many people are crossing frontiers in search for asylum and a new life, airport Chaplains can provide much needed support and understanding to those uprooted from their homes and all that is familiar to them”;
  • fourth, His Holiness encouraged the airport Chaplains to intensify their invaluable service to the gospel of charity.

Thus, I believe that the Pope has clearly showed us what the challenges for the pastoral care of civil aviation are. It is our task now to analyse and reflect on them, so that we can carry out our airport ministry in a better and more efficacious manner.   

2.The airport is a true crossroads of humanity,said the Holy Father. In fact no one knows this reality better than Pope John Paul II, who has just completed his ninety-ninth apostolic journey outside Italy by flying to Spain and is preparing for the hundredth journey next month with the visit to Croatia. In our airports we come across people of all nations, races and religions. Millions of passengers pass through our airports every year, and their number is increasing by leaps and bounds in spite of everything. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Annual Report, in 2001 the commercial carriers carried 1.621 million passengers. Undoubtedly airports are places of meeting people – those who are coming and going for leisure or pleasure, for business or necessity, maybe to spend some happy moments with their families or to face a sad situation at home such as death or sickness. Among them are migrants and refugees, children and elderly people, sick and handicapped persons as well as those who need special care and attention. 

In the Catholic Civil Aviation Pastoral Directives, however, we read: “Civil Aviation Ministry is specifically directed to all crew members, including those on training, ground personnel, airport personnel and service workers, workers in service-based services catering to airline or passenger needs. When necessity demands or usefulness requires it, the ministry is also directed to passengers and to special categories like refugees in airport holding centres, stranded people, homeless people taking refugee in the airport, and the like (5). Summing up, Civil Aviation ministry is directed to all those who, in one way or another, belong to the Civil Aviation community, either permanently or temporarily, regardless of nationality, creed or culture, with special attention to those among them who are poorest, underprivileged, suffering or marginalized (8)”. 

Therefore, it is very clear who are the persons entrusted to the pastoral care of airport Chaplains. Their primary concern is for people “who are employed or give their services at the airport and on airplanes” (Pastor Bonus, 150 §3); and, when necessary or opportune, this pastoral care is extended to “passengers”(Church and People on the Move, Letter of the Pontifical Council addressed to the Episcopal Conferences on the Pastoral Care of Human Mobility, 1978, No.2).

Airport Chaplains operate in a difficult and complex environment. The Chaplaincy thus has to be a point of unity in diversity for all the categories of people, in conformity of the theme of our meeting.  

In this context we see at the present moment that the airline companies find themselves in a serious crisis, both due to the consequences of attacks of September 2001, to the recent war in Iraq, as well as to the atypical pneumonia epidemic ("SARS"). All this has seriously hit air transportation, foreign commerce and tourism. What is more, some airline companies have gone bankrupt, leaving grounded personnel without salaries and some other companies have sent home part of the workforce considered “redundant”. These factors have created – we know - serious financial difficulties to families.

On the increase is also the phenomenon of passengers without documents – often refugees and asylum seekers – who are detained in the airport premises for short or long periods, sometimes without adequate human and spiritual assistance. There are also occasional tragedies in the airport premises, for instance, hijackings with their grave psychological consequences and air-crashes killing passengers and crews alike. People end up in the midst of sadness without the support of friends, colleagues and relatives, in desolation. It is also under these circumstances that the Chaplain is called for and sought out. People need comfort, consolation and encouragement. Often they want the sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In general they are well disposed to listen to the Word of God and the one of the Man of God.

It may be frightening, sometimes, for Chaplains, to think about their enormous work and responsibilities. But with the divine grace, we are confident they will be able to carry out their mission in the airports successfully. But since this one is a modern ministry and there are very few experts and masters in this field, Chaplains should look for help from one another. So it will be a good practice, as some Chaplains already do, to make occasional visits to other airports and also learn in loco the nature of their ministry. For this same reason the Pontifical Council is promoting and encouraging Seminars of Catholic Airport Chaplains at different levels, and Chaplains should make use of these occasions in vision of ongoing formation. Airport Chaplains should also give conferences to the seminarians and invite them, with the agreement of their Superiors, to airports to understand the nature of this ministry. They should invite their Bishops and fellow-priests to spend a few moments in the airport chapel when they pass through the airport or for a special occasion. Some airport Chaplains have also been occasionally inviting neighboring parishioners for Holy Mass in the airport as a way of livening up liturgy with song. In this way maybe Chaplains will also be able to obtain volunteers for the airport ministry.

In fact the airport is such a vast area that it is physically impossible for Chaplains to reach every place. Besides, if the Chaplaincy functions well, there will be a continuous presence of some qualified person in or around the chapel, or in the chaplaincy office. Thus the Chaplains have to form a group of volunteers, willing to spend some hours of the week in the service of the chapel. They should also prepare a pastoral team among the airport workers. More over if the Chaplains are not able to speak many languages, the presence of these volunteers, with experience in different fields and languages, will be a great help in enriching the ministry. The Chaplains of course should also cultivate friendly relations with the priests and religious men and women of nearby parishes so that they can get help to replace them during their absences from the airport. This will be also – hopefully – a preparation for finding successors. The truth is that many people, priests too, are afraid to set foot into a strange and unfamiliar place like is the airport, at lest at the beginning. Thus by introducing them gradually to the airport ministry is a sure way to ensure a successful and permanent ministry at the airports.

3. This takes us to our second challenge, which is theCelebration of the Eucharistin the airport chapel. Speaking on World Air Transport Day, on 10 December 1991, in Rome – Fiumicino Airport, Pope John Paul II said “the airport’s spiritual heart, where Christ speaks intimately to people in silence, is the chapel”. The Catholic airport chapel is canonically a sacred place “intended for divine worship, to which the faithful have right of access for the exercise, especially the public exercise of divine worship” (Codex Juris Canonici, can.1214)

So we can conclude that the first factor in choosing a place for the intended chapel must be easy accessibility for the airport “population”, properly indicated through the use of conventional signs. In other words it should be visible, and this is a big problem – I know by experience - in several airports. In fact it sometimes takes great pains and perseverance to find the location of the airport chapel. It must be said that it is sad to realize that sometimes even employees in international airports, of Catholic country, where the Catholic chaplaincy is functioning for several years, are unable to indicate where the chapel is. Some even are wondering when they know that there is a chapel in that airport. So we encourage you again to fight for the visibility because of the situation and of the indications (signs) of your chapels. An indication is already a testimony.

Speaking on the visibility of the chapel, we have also to mention the necessity of visible presence of the Chaplain at the airport. If his duty is to give witness and proclaim Jesus Christ to the people at the airport and be present in a visible manner. From his personal attire, also, any person should recognize him as a Catholic priest or even as a Catholic Chaplain at the airport. God’s grace working in the heart of every person may bring about a desire to communicate with “someone” who listens and understands. Given the singular situation in which a person may find himself at the airport, the presence and availability of someone “qualified”, right there, could be a unique chance for that person to have an encounter with God.

We from the Pontifical Council often make it point to visit airport chapels, whenever possible, and try to meet the Chaplain, not looking for his assistance, but to share with him a few moments about his work and to understand his pastoral problems. In this way our Dicastery is in contact with the airport chaplains, not only during the Seminars. This has enabled the Pontifical Council to nurture very healthy and friendly relationships with almost all airport Chaplains. This is something very important and special, as far as the Apostolate of Civil Aviation is concerned, and I would encourage you to keep up this spirit of fraternal collaboration, not only with the Pontifical Council but also with your brother Chaplains, who may need your suggestions, support and encouragement.

I stress here that the ideal location of the chapel is in the space between the general public area and the zone open only to those who have passed through border checks, with entrances from both sides, taking obviously necessary precautions to ensure proper security measures such as an unbreakable glass wall between the two areas. 

If there is an airport chapel, naturally one expects that the Eucharist be celebrated there regularly. The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Eucharistic celebration is at the center of the Church’s growth. And this vision is confirmed by the last Encyclical Letter starting by its title: Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Incorporation into Christ, which is brought about by Baptism, is constantly renewed and consolidated by sharing in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet. Since the celebration of the Eucharist is the summit and center of the whole Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11), on Sundays and days of precept, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass (can. 1246). On those days, the sacrament of the Eucharist should be celebrated at least once at the airport to allow the airport faithful to assemble and listen to the Word of God, take part in the Paschal Mystery, and fulfill more easily this obligation. Thus, on Sundays and days of precept the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the norm and cannot be replaced by an ecumenical service (Ecumenical Directory, ED 115, and, now, Ecclesia de Eucharistia No.30).

 In this respect, one of the difficulties that Catholic Chaplains face today, at least in some international airports, is to have a space for the conservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapels, because the Authorities, in some airports, grant only a single space for all religions.In his last Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II reminds us of the importance of the conservation and the cult of the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass. He writes, “The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Mass is of inestimable value for the life of the Church. This worship is strictly linked to the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The presence of Christ under the sacred species reserved after Mass…derives from the celebration of the sacrifice and is directed towards communion, both sacramental and spiritual. …The Eucharist is a priceless treasure: by not only celebrating it but also by praying before it outside of Mass we are enabled to make contact with the very wellspring of grace” (EE 25). Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei (1965) said also: “In the course of the day the faithful should not omit visiting the Blessed Sacrament, which in accordance with the liturgical law must be reserved in churches with great reverence in a prominent place. Such visits are a sign of gratitude, an expression of love and an acknowledgement of the Lord’s presence” (cited in the note 49). Thus we may conclude that every effort should be made to have a special place for the conservation of the Blessed Sacrament in our airport chapels. 

However, the reality today is that more and more chaplaincies are becoming ecumenical and even inter-faith. We cannot ignore this fact in the present day circumstances, so that when and where there is no possibility of obtaining separate space for a Catholic chapel, the Catholic Ecumenical Directory attests that sharing a chapel with other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities should be done only after due consultations with the appropriate respective authorities concerned to seek out possibilities for lawful “reciprocity” according to the doctrine and traditions of each denomination (cfr. ED No.106). In a shared chapel, Catholics must certainly show a sincere respect for the traditions of worship of other Churches and ecclesial communities. These, in turn, are asked to have the same respect for the Catholic discipline (cfr. ED No.107). This applies all the more when space is shared with the believers of other religions. 

It is important to note what Pope John Paul II writes in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia regarding the Eucharist and ecumenism: “The Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship between priestly ministry and the Eucharist and her teaching on the Eucharistic Sacrifice has both been the subject in recent decades of a fruitful dialogue in the area of ecumenism. …Nevertheless, the observations of the Council concerning the Ecclesial Communities separated from the Catholic Church remain fully pertinent: ‘The Ecclesial Communities separated from us lack that fullness of unity with us which should flow from Baptism, and we believe that especially because of the lack of the sacrament of Orders they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery’. …. The Catholic faithful, therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth. This would result in slowing the progress being made towards full visible unity” Here too we find therefore diversity in unity.

In our last International Seminar (2002), held in Rome, many of you were listening carefully to the dissertation of Fr. Velasio De Paolis, C.S., who is undoubtedly an eminent Canonist, on the figure of the Catholic airport Chaplain. The discussion, which followed his discourse, was equally important and interesting. We tried to continue it with a questionnaire we sent to you to ask concrete proposals for the aggiornamento of our magna charta. Please send us your suggestions if you have not yet answered. The scope of Fr. Velasio de Paolis’s dissertation was to ascertain who really is a Chaplain. He said that the figure of the Chaplain is a “juridical instrument” to which the Church has recourse more and more frequently - in different fields - especially to respond to situations to which the ordinary territorial pastoral care, based on the parish, is not able - for different reasons - to give an adequate response. Of course, it is up to the Bishop to designate the person and bestow the office on him. (He is also empowered to remove him according to Can. 572.) In any case, as an office with care of souls, a chaplaincy can only have a priest as its office holder and Can. 564 states this expressly because, in fact, many of his tasks require the priesthood. In this regard, Can.150 decrees that an office, which includes care of souls in its full sense, cannot be validly conferred on someone who has not received the priestly order. With regard to the faculties given to the Chaplain, Can.566 § 1 states one general principle of great importance: “A Chaplain must be given all the faculties which due pastoral care demands”.  

I know that when Fr. De Paolis said that a chaplaincy can have only a priest as its office holder, and that it excludes the deacon from this office, the participants of the Seminar were a bit taken aback, also because many Deacons were present in the hall. But Fr. Velasio was only stating the law of the Catholic Church in this matter. In fact, Can.517, §2 demands that if, because of a shortage of priests, the diocesan Bishop has judged that a Deacon, or some other person, or a community of persons, should be entrusted with the share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, he has to appoint a priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest, will direct the pastoral care. 

As far as the diaconate is concerned, the Second Vatican Council authorised its restoration as a permanent step of the Holy Order. A Deacon is in fact an ordained minister of the Catholic Church, and in virtue of his sacramental ordination he has functions in relation with the Word of God, the Sacraments and Charity. As ministers of the Word, Deacons proclaim the Gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of the Sacraments, Deacons baptise, lead the faithful in prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services. As ministers of Charity, Deacons are leaders in identifying the needs of others, and then marshalling the Church’s resources to meet those needs. According to the statistics published by the International Diaconate Centre, Rottenburg (Germany), as of 2001 there were 28,238 Permanent Deacons serving in 135 countries. There were 13,000 in USA alone and 9,198 Deacons in 35 countries in Europe. Therefore we can understand that our Church is re-discovering the services of Deacons as very precious to carry out various services. So, due also to the shortage of priests to serve in the diocese, more and more Bishops are appointing Deacons to be in the airport ministry. Addressing the Permanent Deacons gathered in Rome for their Jubilee on 19 February 2000, Pope John Paul II said: “As ministers of God’s People, you are called to work in liturgical service, in teaching and catechesis, and in the service of charity in communion with the Bishop and the presbyterate”. …(and he asked them to) “be active apostles of the new evangelisation”. It is very clear, therefore, that Deacons have an important role in the ministry of the Church, but when they are assigned to the airport ministry, according to the canons of the Church, they are not de iure Chaplains. Here too we have unity in diversity of ministries. 

4. Another challenge for the airport chaplains, especially in some European airports, is the increasing number of persons without documents and asylum seekers, or, better, with the words of the Holy Fatherpeople crossing frontiers in search for asylum and a new life, who are detained in the airport premises for short or long periods. The matter has come up again and again in our Seminars. There were different opinions among airport Chaplains on this matter, and the response has not always been very encouraging from our point of view. In any case we find, fortunately, a working group called “EXODUS” with roots in the European network of civil aviation Chaplains at major airports across this continent. It is not a comprehensive gathering of all Chaplains, but of those whose work brings them into contact with refuges and asylum seekers. The original Group (some time before it was adopted the name EXODUS) met in Brussels in 1989. It was called West European Refugee Group (WERG). The idea of getting together came up in the Manila Conference of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains (IACAC), in 1988. Its general purpose was to share experiences of the way refugees and asylum seekers were received and treated at the airports. Group meetings were never intended to be anything more than a mutually supportive networks of Chaplains and others engaged in the activities of Chaplaincies at airports. Their common ministry was much wider than the single issue of refugees and asylum seekers, although some social work teams focused on this aspect of the work.

The value of the Group seems to lie in the dialogue among Chaplains, Social Work Teams and NGOs who acknowledge the importance of understanding and sharing of what goes on at each other’s airports. This knowledge, personal contacts and developing friendly association also offer the opportunity for easier and trustworthy contacts between Chaplaincies when a refugee or asylum seeker is moved from one country to another. Nevertheless, generally, the opportunity to campaign on specific issues of a country’s national policy, as far as migrants and refugees are concerned, or to act as “advocates” in individual cases, goes beyond the role of the majority of Chaplains. It would be argued by some of them, in fact, that such activity could seriously limit their wider role, and others feel that a widening of the work to take on aspects addressing political, social and advocacy roles relevant to refugees or asylum seekers is beyond their scope and expertise. We know, finally, that when relations between chaplaincies and border authorities at airports are good, the chances of better treatment of asylum-seekers and other undocumented migrants are increased.

The Holy See, and particularly our Pontifical Council, is concerned with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers at airports and sees the need for an organized group work in their defense. We therefore support fully and encourage whole-heartedly the work of Chaplains and NGOs at airports in this field. The recent conference of the EXODUS Working Group, which was held in Prague (3-5 April 2003), in which our Msgr. Chirayath took part on our behalf, discussed in fact this growing phenomenon in the airports. There were present 25 international Organizations and NGOs and only one airport Chaplain, not a Catholic. The problem of assistance to migrants without documentation and asylum seekers should not be considered alien to your ministry, rather an integral part of it: “If Civil Aviation apostolate is to be in a position to offer Christ to all and be a leaven of the airport society, it must be immersed in the life, problems and contingent situation of the specific environment in which it operates” (Pastoral Directives No. 12). This is the significance of the words of the Holy Father in his message to the airport Chaplains gathered in Brussels in 2001 that theairport Chaplains should “intensify their invaluable service to the gospel of charity”. Here too we find unity in diversity

5. This is the last point of our illustration of some challenges for the pastoral care of the civil aviation, not all. I prefer here to leave you the chance, in some way, to “write” this last part, with your interventions, in the dialogue, which is foreseen now, at the end of my conference. As John Paul II invited the whole Church in Novo Millennio Ineunte, we have to “stake everything on charity” (49) and realise a “new creativity in charity” (50). 

In any case, I am sure, this is sufficient material for your thought and reflection. Since we are revising, with your help, the Catholic Civil Aviation Pastoral Directives, published in 1995, it will be good to listen to your opinions and proposals regarding all these matters. As you know, the Pontifical Council is always willing to listen to your ideas and remains at your disposal. In fact you are a very good and experienced team of pastoral agents, known for your hard work and spirituality and your attachment to Christ, the People of God as well as to the Pontifical Council and the Holy See. And this is a matter of great consolation for all of us. Thank you once again for your patience in listening to me and for your kind collaboration!