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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 106, April 2008



Airport chaplains and chaplaincy members amidst a multi-religious milieu in a secular society*


Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO


Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care

of Migrants and Itinerant People

1. The European society

A culture that is fairly widespread in Europe now “relegates the manifestation of one’s own religious convictions to the private and subjective sphere.” Policies built on this foundation not only repudiate the public role of Christianity but also exclude engagement with Europe’s religious tradition.[1] This – we can say – is the outcome of a secular vision of society.

Yet, despite the fact that – if we consider the youth – many young people today grow up without being aware of their spiritual heritage, the religious dimension has continued to influence vast groups of people. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that believers still play a positive role in public life, even without explicitly referring to their religious background in carrying out their public profession. This, of course, does not contradict the sound secular nature of the State, but rather corresponds to the requirements of a healthy pluralism in society and contributes to building up authentic democracy.[2]

On the contrary, when legislation promotes religious indifference, relativism and religious syncretism –  maybe even justifying them by means of a mistaken understanding of tolerance –, in reality, it violates religious freedom, as was meant by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and society and civil institutions are impoverished.[3] A result could be the appearance of “a contradictory attitude …, supported by some today, which demands the visibility of the symbols and practices of minority religions but seeks to abolish and conceal the symbols and practices of Christianity, the traditional religion of the majority. [Indeed] genuine religious freedom alone is a guarantee of peace and a premise of development in solidarity.”[4] Hence, “if Europe wishes to be healthily secular, it has no other option than to accept the patrimony of spirituality and humanism of every religion while at the same time rejecting anything in it that does not conform with human dignity.”[5] It is in fact “precisely the non-European cultures, already consistently represented in Europe, which help render obsolete the concept of private religious freedom that was long cultivated by a certain secularized culture…. Every authentic religious tradition desires to show its identity rather than to hide or camouflage it.”[6] 

2. The presence of various religions in Europe

Indeed the social context in Europe today is marked by the presence of many different ethnic groups that bring with them their own culture, traditions and religion. This is particularly the fruit of globalization, which tends to make the world a “global village”, at least up to a certain degree. People cross the frontiers of their native lands to go there where they perceive standards of life are better. They also move from one country to another as multinational companies shuffle their personnel across international borders.[7] Variety could be an enrichment, if coming together takes place harmoniously, but it could also be a confrontation, if fundamental principles are threatened, especially if they are those of the local society’s identity.[8]  

3. In European Airports

International airports are clearly affected by the effects of globalization. Airlines hire international personnel, according to their services’ and clients’ demands and needs, and quite a good number of them work at the airports. For the same reason, Airport authorities recruit employees from other countries. At  the other end of the labour continuum, there are jobs in airport services or businesses that are often given to immigrants, mainly because locals are not willing to do a job of that kind, or because foreigners are ready to receive a lower pay. Of course, there are also the airport police officers, firemen, taxi drivers and other services offered by the local population, as well as homeless people and migrants in an irregular situation in the detention centers. Here, we are before a variety of cultures and religious beliefs.

Needless to say, airports are crossroads of people traveling around the globe. Each of them is a microcosm. With their own culture and religion, they carry their baggage of happy and sad experiences in life. The airport’s anonymous milieu makes it impossible for others to know exactly what they have in their heart as they go through the various phases of air travel, although that is not difficult to imagine because all of them have something in common: human nature. I recently read a book written by Khaled Hasseini, entitled “Il cacciatore d’aquiloni” (The Kite Hunter), about Afghanistan, which confirms what I am saying: in spite of differences in culture and religion, we are all the same. Moreover, the airport chaplaincy itself is often a multi-religious community. Airport chaplains and pastoral agents also represent different Christian denominations and various religions.

As a consequence, a few pointers on how Catholic airport chaplains and pastoral agents can effectively carry out their mission in the multi-religious environment of “secular” European airports would be useful, and I will try to point them out. 

4. The mission of Catholic airport chaplains and chaplaincy members

First of all, let us go back to our Pastoral Directives[9] – which, by the way, could be updated after having applied it for 13 years – to find out the definition of ministry at the airports. Here it is:

The Pastoral Care of Civil Aviation is an aspect of the Church’s responsibility toward her faithful and a participation in her universal mission to proclaim the Good News to all people, in the specific context of the world of Civil Aviation. So as not to deprive anyone of the Message of Salvation, the Church reaches out to all those who, because of the circumstances of their lives, cannot sufficiently avail themselves of the ordinary pastoral care or are even totally deprived of it. Among them are all those who are employed or give their services at the airport or on airplanes. When necessary or opportune this pastoral care is extended to passengers.

This, my dear brothers and sisters, is your identity card!

Airport ministry therefore is a mission of proclaiming the Good News, a work of evangelization, that takes place at the airport. I repeat, a work of evangelization, a new one, as John Paul II used to say.

His mission encyclical Redemptoris Missio[10] moreover states that the  first form of evangelization is witness.

“People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers…. The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission …, the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community, which reveal a new way of living. The missionary who, despite all his or her human limitations and defects, lives a simple life, taking Christ as the model, is a sign of God and of transcendent realities. But everyone in the Church, striving to imitate the Divine Master, can and must bear this kind of witness; in many cases it is the only possible way of being a missionary” (no. 42).

Indeed, this could be the case in the airports of Europe, where you carry out your mission, but I would add that this could be done by means of a visible sign by which your identity can be recognized. In addition, I wish to underline once again the importance of clear airport signage indicating the location of the chapel or place of worship.

Airport ministry is also one of presence. The chaplain or pastoral agent is called to shed Christ’s light on that more or less secular environment just by being there. As a minister put it, a “deep conviction must reside in your heart that indeed, Christ should be present in that place, and you, as Christ's minister …, are also to be present. This conviction will be challenged many times, and it must be strong…. As ministers, we are also called to be boldly present, … proclaiming this Jesus as being relevant, even when the communities we are in do not see that relevance.”[11]

However, where and when it is possible, presence does not suffice and proclamation needs to be explicit. In fact this “is the permanent priority of mission” and its subject is “Christ who was crucified, died and is risen …; through him God bestows ‘new life’ that is divine and eternal. This is the ‘Good News’ which changes man and his history, and which all peoples have a right to hear.”[12] Christians cannot keep this treasure for themselves because the “multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ.”[13] However, “this proclamation is to be made within the context of the lives of the individuals and peoples who receive it” and should be done “with an attitude of love and esteem toward those who hear it, in a language which is practical and adapted to the situation.”[14]

Nowadays – I must say unfortunately – there is a tendency to keep silent about one’s religious convictions, certainly under the influence of today’s secularized mentality. Even signs of religiosity can be prohibited, as was the case in London, not a long time ago. Safeguarding freedom of conscience is often used to motivate such an attitude. It is therefore necessary for us to reiterate that “proclaiming Christ and bearing witness to him, when done in a way that respects consciences, does not violate freedom.”[15]

Christ whom we proclaim, by our life witness and by our words, promised to be with us till the end of time and He has not disdained to remain hidden in the tabernacle, even in the airport chapel, where he speaks intimately to people’s hearts, in silence.[16] The airport chapel is a suitable place for people to learn “the meaning and the beauty of spending time with Jesus” and “to cultivate a sense of awe before his presence in the Eucharist.”[17] This is why it is important for airport chapels to have His real and sacramental Eucharistic presence. In the wake of secularization which pushes “the Christian faith to the margins of life as if it were irrelevant to everyday affairs… there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman.”[18]

5. The multi-religious dimension in airport “chaplaincies” situated in a secular environment

As we have already mentioned, European airports are secular environments, highly influenced by today’s more or less secular European culture. However, in Western Europe, culture has a deeply-imbedded Christian component, whether people admit it or not. This brings about respect for everyone’s religious belief. This is why it is generally not difficult to get the authorities’ approval for religious ministry at the airport or, even to have a place in the airport station where worship may take place. What may not be readily understood is the need to have a separate place of worship for every Christian denomination and religion. The underlying reason, though, is not religious but financial, if not ideological. Rent for airport space is quite high, but a place of worship is considered as a public service and therefore pays no rent.

In Central and Eastern Europe instead, except for a few countries, after decades of communist rule, the younger generations may have lost, to a large degree, their links with their Christian roots and have grown fundamentally without any religious reference. With them now leading their countries’ institutions, it could be more difficult, but not impossible, to explain the importance of religious ministry at the airport, and even more, the need for a place of worship in there. In any case, the exigency of international passengers and the needs of foreign airport employees could be brought up to motivate the request.       

Moreover, if the Ordinary of the territory where an international airport is located would give his backing to the request, it could frequently, although not always, make a difference. The hurdle to overcome is sometimes convincing the Bishop of the importance of this mission and the need to assign a priest, a deacon or a pastoral agent for ministry at the airport, maybe part time, in spite of the scarcity of priests.

How then should Catholic airport chaplains and pastoral agents effectively carry out their mission of proclaiming the Good News in this environment?  

 Pope John Paul II affirmed the necessity to approach all cultures with the  respectful attitude of one who knows that he or she does not only have something to say or to give, but also much to receive. This brings about inter-cultural dialogue, “an open process that, by accepting what is good and true in the different cultures, can remove certain obstacles in the journey of faith.”[19] This in turn makes inter-religious dialogue possible, a process necessary “to rediscover common spiritual values on which to found the project of a society worthy of man.”[20]

 However, with this point of view, let us be warned against a risk that could easily arise. Pope Benedict XVI stated that “in our multicultural and multireligious world, many are tempted to say: ‘For peace in the world among the religions and cultures, it is better not to speak too much about the specificity of Christianity, that is, of Jesus, the Church, the Sacraments. Let us be content with things that can be more or less in common….’”[21] The Holy Father then continued, “At this very moment, the moment of a widespread abuse of God’s Name, we need God who triumphs on the Cross, who does not conquer with violence but with his love. At this very moment we need the Face of Christ in order to … bring reconciliation and light to this world.”[22]

In intercultural and inter-religious dialogue – as Pope John Paul II had earlier mentioned – it is necessary that “pastors accept precise responsibility, promoting an evermore generous evangelical witness given by Christians themselves. Fraternal dialogue and reciprocal respect must never serve as a limit or barrier to Gospel proclamation.” He therefore encouraged the particular Churches to help “the faithful to overcome prejudice” and teach them “to become, in their turn, missionaries ad gentes in their own countries, but he also specified that “love and welcome are the first and most effective forms of evangelization.”[23]

As the encyclical Redemptoris Missio affirms, “interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission…. [It] is not in opposition to the mission ad gentes; … it has special links with that mission and is one of its expressions.” Further on it continues: “The Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and engaging in interreligious dialogue…. these two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore they should not be confused, manipulated or regarded as identical as though they were interchangeable.”[24]

 In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples” jointly published the document “Dialogue and Proclamation”[25] which mentions various concrete forms of carrying out interreligious dialogue:[26]

  1. the dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and concerns;
  2. the dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people;
  3. the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values;
  4. the dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.

“Prayer is the bond which most effectively unites us” – these are words of Pope John Paul II in his Message for the World Day of Peace in 1992[27] with which I would like to conclude this address. “It is through prayer – the Pope said – that believers meet one another at a level where inequalities, misunderstandings, bitterness and hostility are overcome, namely before God, the Lord and Father of all.”

Go and do likewise yourselves. These are the words of encouragement that we, the Superiors of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, address to you. Although we are not physically present, we have you in our minds and our hearts, particularly during these days that you are spending in Birmingham. We are praying for you and your difficult ministry! Nevertheless, know that yours is a frontline ministry, a response to the situation we are facing today in our mission to bring the eternal, ever ancient and ever new Beauty, that is God, into the heart of contemporary humanity, in continuous mobility.  


Cappellani d’Aeroporto e Membri delle cappellanie aeroportuali nell’ambiente multireligioso di una socie tà secolarizzata

La cultura secolarizzata d’Europa relega la manifestazione della propria religione alla sfera privata e soggettiva. Eppure la religione continua ad influenzare vasti gruppi di persone e i credenti giocano ancora un ruolo positivo nella vita pubblica. Al contrario, legislazioni che promuovono l’indifferenza religiosa, il relativismo e il sincretismo, in realtà, violano la libertà religiosa. Se l’Europa vuol essere secolare in modo sano non può far a meno di accettare il patrimonio di spiritualità e umanesimo che ogni religione porta con sé, e allo stesso tempo rifiutare ciò che in essa non è conforme alla dignità umana. Ogni autentica tradizione religiosa desidera mostrare, anziché nascondere, la propria identità.

Il contesto sociale in Europa oggi è segnato dalla presenza di molti gruppi etnici, ciascuno dei quali ha la propria cultura, tradizioni e religione. La varietà può essere un arricchimento, se tutto procede in modo armonioso, altrimenti potrebbe portare ad un confronto, soprattutto se la società che accoglie si sente minacciata nella sua identità.

Gli aeroporti sono crocevia delle persone che viaggiano attraverso il mondo. Le cappellanie aeroportuali stessi sono spesso comunità multi-religiose. In questo contesto è importante conoscere il modo efficace per svolgere la propria missione. Si potrebbero identificare alcuni punti.

Prima di tutto, il ministero nell’aeroporto è una missione di proclamazione della Buona Novella, di Gesù Cristo, una missione di nuova evangelizzazione. Inoltre è un ministero di presenza, che però deve sfociare nella proclamazione esplicita con la testimonianza di vita e tramite la parola. Gesù, però, che si proclama si nasconde nel tabernacolo, presente nella cappella, da dove Egli parla ai cuori, in silenzio. Da qui l’importanza della cappella nell’aeroporto, con la presenza silenziosa ma efficace di Gesù nell’Eucaristia.

Nella cultura dell’Europa secolarizzata c’è comunque un forte componente cristiano, per cui generalmente si rispetta il credo religioso di ciascuno. Non è dunque troppo difficile ottenere una cappella negli aeroporti dell’Europa occidentale. Potrebbe essere invece meno facile nei Paesi dell’Est europeo, dove c’è una maggiore possibilità che i dirigenti delle varie istituzioni hanno ormai perso i legami con la loro radice cristiana. In questi casi, la richiesta per una cappella potrebbe essere motivata dalle esigenze dei viaggiatori internazionali e dei dipendenti stranieri delle linee aeree o degli altri servizi aeroportuali.

I cappellani cattolici degli aeroporti e gli operatori pastorali possono essere efficaci se essi avvicinano le altre culture con la coscienza che non hanno soltanto da dare ma anche molto da ricevere, senza però rinunciare a proclamare ciò che è più specifico del cristianesimo - Gesù, la Chiesa, i Sacramenti. La proclamazione non deve essere mai limitato o ostacolato dal dialogo interculturale e interreligioso. E’ comunque bene ricordare che l’amore e l’accoglienza sono le forme più efficaci di evangelizzazione.

Il dialogo interreligioso fa parte della missione evangelizzatrice della Chiesa, non in contrapposizione ad essa. Dialogo ed evangelizzazione sono intimamente connessi fra essi, ma distinti, e perciò non vanno confusi l’uno con l’altro o considerati identici o intercambiabili. Ci sono varie forme concrete per svolgere il dialogo inter-religioso: il dialogo della vita, dell’azione, dello scambio teologico, e dell’esperienza religiosa attraverso, per esempio, uno scambio relativo alla preghiera. Giovanni Paolo II afferma che la preghiera è il vincolo che più efficacemente ci lega gli uni agli altri.



La culture sécularisée de l'Europe relègue la manifestation de la religion individuelle à la sphère privée et subjective. Malgré cela, la religion continue d'influencer de vastes groupes de personnes et les croyants jouent encore un rôle positif dans la vie publique. A l'opposé, les législations qui promeuvent l'indifférence religieuse, le relativisme et le syncrétisme, dans la réalité violent la liberté religieuse. Si l'Europe veut être sainement séculière, elle ne peut pas ne pas accepter le patrimoine de spiritualité et d'humanisme que toute religion porte en soi et elle doit refuser en même temps ce qui, en elle, n'est pas conforme à la dignité humaine. Toute tradition religieuse authentique désire montrer sa propre identité, et non pas la cacher.

Le contexte social de l'Europe d'aujourd'hui est marqué par la présence de nombreux groupes ethniques, chacun avec sa propre culture, ses traditions et sa religion. Si tout se passe de façon harmonieuse, la variété peut constituer un enrichissement ; dans le cas contraire, elle peut conduire à une confrontation, en particulier si la société qui accueille se sent menacée dans son identité.

Les aéroports sont les carrefours des personnes voyageant à travers le monde. Les aumôneries des aéroports elles-mêmes sont souvent des communautés multireligieuses. Dans un tel contexte, il est important de connaître les méthodes efficaces permettant d'assurer sa mission. Il est possible ici d'identifier plusieurs points.

Avant tout, le  ministère qui se déroule dans l'aéroport est une mission de proclamation de la Bonne Nouvelle, de Jésus-Christ, une mission de nouvelle évangélisation. C'est aussi un ministère de présence, qui doit toutefois déboucher dans la proclamation explicite grâce au témoignage de vie et à la parole. Mais Jésus qui est proclamé se cache dans le tabernacle qui est présent dans la chapelle, d'où Il parle aux cœurs, en silence. D'où l'importance de la chapelle dans l'aéroport, avec la présence silencieuse mais efficace de Jésus dans l'Eucharistie.

Dans la culture de l'Europe sécularisée, on constate donc une forte composante chrétienne qui fait qu'en général le credo de chaque personne est respecté. Il n'est donc pas difficile d'obtenir la concession d'une chapelle dans les aéroports d'Europe occidentale. Ce qui, au contraire, pourrait être moins facile dans les pays de l'Est européen où il y a davantage de possibilités que les dirigeants des différentes institutions aient désormais perdu tout lien avec leurs racines chrétiennes. Dans ces cas, ce pourraient être les exigences des voyageurs internationaux et du personnel étranger des lignes aériennes ou des autres services des aéroports qui pourraient donner lieu à la demande d'installation d'une chapelle.

Les aumôniers catholiques des aéroports et les agents pastoraux peuvent agir avec efficacité s'ils abordent les autres cultures en ayant conscience qu'ils n'ont pas seulement à donner quelque chose, mais aussi beaucoup à recevoir, sans toutefois renoncer à proclamer ce qui caractérise le christianisme – Jésus, l'Eglise, les sacrements. La proclamation ne doit jamais être limitée au dialogue interculturel et religieux ni entravée par celui-ci. Il est donc utile d'avoir toujours à l'esprit que l'amour et l'accueil sont les formes les plus efficaces d'évangélisation.

Le dialogue interreligieux fait partie de la mission évangélisatrice de l'Eglise, et non en opposition. Le dialogue et l'évangélisation sont étroitement liés entre eux, mais distincts, et ils ne doivent donc pas être confondus ou considérés comme identiques ou interchangeables. Il existe différentes formes concrètes de réaliser le dialogue interreligieux : le dialogue de la vie, de l'action, de l'échange théologique, et de l'expérience religieuse, par exemple dans un échange sur la prière. Jean-Paul II affirmait que la prière est le lien qui nous unit le plus efficacement les uns aux autres.


* Inaugural Address, read in Archbishop Marchetto’s absence by Ms. Nilda Castro, at the VI European Seminar for Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members (Birmingham, England, 31 March – 4 April 2008).

[1] cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the members of the European People’s Party on the occasion of the Study Days on Europe, Vatican City, 30 March 2006. Retrieved on 1 February 2008 from documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060330_eu-parliamentarians_en.html

[2] cf. John Paul II, Address to the participants in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 10 October 2003, nos. 2-3. Retrieved on 1 February 2008 from en.html

[3] cf. ibid.

[4] Tarcisio Bertone, Address during the Third Study Session of the Seventh International Conference on “The Religious Factor and the Future of Europe”, Krakow, 15 September 2007. Retrieved on 1 February 2008 from secretariat_ state/cardbertone/2007/documents/rc_seg-st_20070915_vespri-lichen_it.html

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Cf. also Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi, henceforth EMCC, nos. 4-8: People on the Move, Vol. XXXVI, No. 95 (August 2004). pp. 116-119.

[8] Cf. also Ibid., nos. 8-9, 30, 36, 40, 60.

[9] Idem., Catholic Civil Aviation Pastoral Directives, henceforth Pastoral Directives, Vatican City 1995, no. 4. Retrieved on 1 February 2008 from migrants_ doc_19950314_avci_directives_en.html

[10] John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, henceforth RMi. Retrieved  1 February 2008 from http:// edocs/ENG0219/_INDEX.HTM.

[11] Simon Tremblay, Presence prepares ground for future ministry: Stories from the Missions. Retrieved  1 February 2008 from Dioceses/Wh/Wh00b03mg01.htm.

[12] RMi 44.

[13] Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 53. Retrieved 1 February 2008 from _en.html

[14] RMi 44.

[15] RMi 8.

[16] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Pastoral Directives, no. 16.

[17] Benedict XVI, Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 67. Retrieved 2 February 2008 from sacramentum-caritatis_en.html

[18] Ibid. 77.

[19] John Paul II, Address to the participants in the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Vatican City, 18 May 2004, henceforth Plenary Session, no. 4: People on the Move, Vol. XXXVI, No. 96 (December 2004), p. 4.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Benedict XVI, Address at the Prayer Service in the Parish of Rhèmes-Saint Georges, Aosta Valley, 23 July 2006. Retrieved on 1 February 2008 from

[22] Ibid.

[23] John Paul II, Plenary Session, no. 5.

[24] RMi 55; cf. also Walter Kasper, Ökumenische Bewegung und Evangelisierung (Ecumenical Movement and Evangelization): People on the Move, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 102 (December 2006), pp. 157-175.

[25] Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation, Rome, 19 May 1991. Retrieved on 2 February 2008 from

[26] ibid., no. 42. Cf. also EMCC, especially nos. 59-69.

[27] John Paul II, Message for the 1992 World Day of Prayer for Peace, no. 4. Retrieved on 2 February 2008 from en.html