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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 84, December 2000


Pastoral contacts in the airport world


Dr. Peter Scheuchenpflug
Research Assistant in Pastoral Theology
Regensburg, Germany

[French summary, Spanish summary]

          The problem of how the existence of a transcendental sphere can be recognized in a modern world, of how people can experience that there is a personal God who wants to guide people through their lives, is common to everyone who lives and acts as a Christian person

         Those who try to do pastoral care as pastoral workers are constantly being confronted with these problems. Modern world and the phenomena that are connected with it, like mobility, individualisation, the loss of confessional ”knowledge”, fragmental contacts with religious traditions and an inability to express and to explain religious questions and experience culminate in several places. One of these is the modern airport. The following considerations will concentrate on the work of those people who try to do pastoral care at the airport, because this specific case can direct the attention to a way of life under the extreme conditions of modern society and to the paths of pastoral care.[1]

1. Theological approaches: Pastoral contacts in the horizon of the presence of God

         Concerning the context of God’s presence in the airport world, it is necessary to raise the following questions: 

  • How can people today experience God in surroundings, that are determined by technical proceedings? 
  • Are there accentuated places or settings according to the way how people arrange their  way of life in modern societies? 

         I maintain that there is an exceptional situation where people can perhaps discover God’s existence and his presence in a life and that he guides and accompanies people in good and in bad times. And in my opinion this exceptional situation can be the pastoral contact with the staff of the church. 

1.1    God and the experience of God in the Airport world

         Firstly it is necessary to ask the question how people can find traces of the presence of God. Secondly it is important to ask ourselves where there could be places, concentrated spaces of time which could be opened for the dimension of transcendence.  

         In his article in the “Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche”: “the experience of God” (Vol. 4, pp. 907-908) Norbert Scholl states that every single experience arises from interest and situation, “will and grace” (Martin Buber). 

         This means that the starting point has to be the material and perceptible world. But this starting point is connected with a great hindrance for the experience of God because the existence of God is characterised precisely by the fact that he is the total difference to the world. God and world are not at the same level. Nevertheless it is true that God is in this world, that one can experience him in and through reality. 

         Karl Rahner has always emphazised this coherence: God is the incomprehensible origin, creator and end, destination of all reality. In this way he is present as the hidden secret behind every reality. Norbert Scholl comes to the following conclusion: “A theology that plans to bring people to God must first of all help them to be able to call the material and perceptible world” in question and - I would like to go on - help them to call their own way of life and their own experiences in question. 

         Once again: The first step is the interrogation of the concrete experiences. Then, a second step could follow: searching all the situations and stories of life for their deepest ground: Gods presence. 

         In doing so, we must not forget that there exists a fundamental mental reservation: St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Now we see indistinctly in a mirror, but then face to face. Now we know partly, but then we shall understand as completely as we are understood”. 1 Kor 13,12.

         By the way; if we draw a conclusion of the mystery of incarnation, that God’s own son has become a part of this world, and that he has redeemed whole of the world, then we can say that there is no part of the world far away from God’s presence.

         I would like to draw another conclusion. Every experience of life is dependent on interpretations, explanations showing the deepening structure of reality.

         And this step: interpreting daily and extraordinary experiences is a step many people cannot do on their own. Therefore they will need another person, an interpreter.

         That means in the context of the airport world: How can God’s existence be experienced in the airport world, and how can people be enabled to interpret their experiences?

In the following, two distinctions have to be made:

  • Firstly: The surroundings and the place ‘airport’
  • Secondly: The people who live and work at an airport. That also includes the airport chaplaincy.

 1.1.1   Airport world as a part of the creation

          Creation and the world around us make us feel astonishment and admiration. The words of the psalmist who expresses his astonishment can illustrate this: “Oh Lord, how innumerable are Thy works; in wisdom Thou has made them all! The earth is full of Thy well-made creations!” Ps 104, 24. 

         And the astonishment leads him to praise the Lord: “Bless the Lord, o my soul! O Lord, my God, Thou art very great!” Ps 104, 1. 

         Indeed, many people are very impressed, especially if they come to the airport for the first time. They are fascinated by the technical world. But it is just not only God’s creation they are fascinated by and it is mere the world made and created by man himself; the ability to fly and the atmosphere of service and business. 

         Then, the praise of people might sound: “How wonderful is the knowledge of mankind, in wisdom it is all produced and organised!” What I want to say, is that people experience which great inventions mankind has produced. God as the creator could only appear in a second step of reflection. And this is a difference between Christians who are able to reflect on their experience in the light of their faith and others. Christians can come to the praise of the Lord by this second step of reflection: “How wonderful are Thy works, o Lord, you have enabled man to start this work!”

         Conclusion: Although it is indeed possible to experience God’s presence in a technically dominated world, it causes problems for people who are not used to the Christian way of reflection. For them the question about God will only arise when the wonderful technical world breaks down, e.g. when there is an aeroplane disaster.

1.1.2   The airport world as a place where human beings live and work

           The starting point of my considerations was, that God is the hidden secret, the reason for each kind of creation. As a secret, he is also present in every person’s life. He is there as a transcendental condition for the possibility of existence; in the several thoughts, feelings and acts of people and in the meeting and contact of people. With regard to the airport world three groups of people can be distinguished: 

  • Firstly:People who work at the airport and spend their daily life there, e.g. pilots and charwomen, members of the security service and coach drivers. Franz Gasteiger emphasises the importance of pastoral care for these people in the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 3, 1338. The presence of the churches at the airport is in this context comparable with their presence at other places of work.  
  • Secondly:Passengers, who regularly use the airport: businessmen and others. 
  • Thirdly:Passengers and their dependents: for these people the airport is a strange world and in many cases a visit to the airport is at a crossroads in the everyday life: starting for holidays or coming home, goodbye and hello, the deportation of undesirable aliens, (change of native place), pilgrimages. Pastoral care at the airport is in most cases a service for people who need help with financial, religious or psychological problems. (Gasteiger, Flughafenseelsorge 1338).

         For most people the presence of God remains hidden in the fundamental experience of life everyday. In this new context of the airport however perhaps evoked through the key function of the present moment people could get a presentiment of the deepening dimension of life. People who believe in God will perhaps be able to express their feelings. They look for the chapel, write some words in the book of prayer requests there, light a candle, say a prayer and so on. Other people can feel this dimension but are not able to explain it. The reason for the inability to do this may be found in the following. I am going to take a look at the circumstances in most countries of middle-Europe. Although pastoral care has made many efforts in the past decades to help people to reflect on their daily life in the light of faith there has been a contrary social development. 

         Indeed faith and life have become more and more separate. Many people now think that Religion is no longer relevant to everyday life and everyday life and religion are two separate areas. They are not able to discover the connection between these two apparently separate worlds.

         I am convinced that many people are looking for enlightenment in their lives and their experiences. That means that the presence of the churches, and especially of pastoral care is a big chance for the development of the personal, social and religious sphere of people’s lives and that it is a necessary service. 

         In the following I am going to focus on the meeting of two persons. The pastoral worker or spiritual counsellors and the passenger: A meeting happening in the context of the presence of God.   

1.2    The theological significance of people meeting

         Pastoral care is in a fundamental way the internal dimension of life and acting of Christians who believe in the truth of the Holy Scripture and who live and act within the meeting and accompanying people mostly under the circumstances of crisis and helplessness.          Konrad Baumgartner states that the community between God and the several persons as it is shown the Old and New Testament can be explained and realised by pastoral care which happens by talking with the other person (K. Baumgartner, Gottes Sorge um den Menschen, in: Theologisch-Praktische Quartalschrift 147 (1999) 371-380). Therefore, it is necessary to have a look on the several kinds of meetings a pastoral worker at the airport has during the day. 

I am again starting with some distinctions: 

  • Firstly:People who work at the airport: in this case meetings can be repeated. A relationship can develop between the pastoral worker and the different persons. Confidence can grow step by step.
  • Secondly:With most of the people the pastoral worker meets during the day he will only have one single meeting. The other person is a stranger. The meeting is desired or a spontaneously decision. People might also come with a special wish. 

         If these meetings only happen once, I am going to call them contacts. A special effect of these contacts is that the pastoral worker is not only present as a person but also as a representative of an institution. In other words: People meet a person who represents the transcendent dimension of life. They expect to meet a specialist for the questions about the great themes of life like sense, God, welfare, salvation, consolation and revelation. In modern language one could call this person a modem or an interface to God. 

         The contact itself is the first step into this transcendental dimension of life. In most cases however the pastoral worker cannot know the concrete ideas people have of the system he represents. And not in every case will the prejudice be helpful for a successful outcome of the contact. 

I would like to give some examples:

         I worked as a pastoral assistant in a parish in Regensburg, Bavaria ten years ago. Many Catholics still cannot deal with this new kind of pastoral profession. Once I visited a woman at her 80th birthday. Her first question was: What is your profession, young man? Are you a reverend? Although I explained it to her, she could not reconcile it with her picture of Catholicism. The content of our conversation therefore remained unimportant.

         Two days later my boss, Father G. told me this very woman had complained about the situation: I must be worthless for the parish because you sent me only a lay! Father G. himself visited her once again and she poured out her heart to him. 

         This example shows that this woman wanted to make sure, that the person visiting her was really a representative of the great questions of life before she would talk about the central themes in her life. The recognition is, indeed, an important presupposition for pastoral contact. 

         If I look at german theological studies about these questions I must say that in most cases it was emphasised that the contact should happen as a meeting between two equal persons. 

         But the identification as a representative is really a fundamental aspect which must not be neglected in the context of a pastoral contact. By the way, the expectations people have when they open a conversation with a pastoral worker are not in every case verbalised: 

         Sometimes people want to bring their experiences and their feelings to the pastoral worker to put them into the sphere of transcendence. Many people expect their partner being able to reflect on and to talk about these experiences of life in the horizon of God’s presence. Other people reveal themselves in the contact, it makes them prick their ears.

         A second example: Andrea, a woman of 48 was very active in our parish. I was friends with her whole family. It was a great shock when suddenly Hans her husband wanted to get divorced because he had a girl-friend. Andrea sank into a deep depression. I don’t know how often I have paid visits to her and the children. Most of the time I just listended to her complaints. Sometimes we only remained silent. Two years later she told me: “I couldn’t believe in God any more but you were there and this helped me not to forget him and his grace.” 

         I think a contact is not only then a religious one if the two persons talk about religious things. It is also not always necessary that a contact results in something concrete. In most cases the presence of God remains in the background. But that does not mean he was not there!

         On the other hand attention has to be paid to the following fact: the consequences which a single contact can have cannot be foreseen. I am going to explain this with a third example: 

         I remember of Herbert, a young man whom I met at the hospital where I was visiting the people from my parish. He welcomed me with the words: “Don’t waste your time. I don’t go to church, and I am not interested in the old stories about the Bible. You’ll waste your time trying to christianise me!” I answered with a smile: That’s a real pity my young sinner. You should know that I get a reward for each great sinner who comes back to church on his knees and I need the money to go to Paris with my wife this weekend. And if we can’t go, it is your fault!” We both had to laugh heartily and we spent half an hour talking about things like eating and drinking, the hospital nurses, the Olympic Games and so on. 

         My successor at the parish told me some time later that a young man whose child had been baptised at the age of three had asked him to pass on the regards of ”the stubborn sinner from the hospital” whom I had brought to think about the sense of life.

I would now like to end this section with some more thesis:

         A pastoral worker has to proceed from the assumption that every contact takes place in the context of Gods presence. 

  • Every contact has a religious dimension even if it is not the subject of conversation. 
  • Every pastoral worker is a symbol of the transcendental dimension of life. For that reason, he should be identifiable. 
  • The ecclesiastical background of the pastoral worker can have a positive or negative impact on the contact. 
  • A pastoral worker should not only wait for contacts but also go out to meet people. 
  • A presupposition for each contact is an attitude of openness, authentity and empathy. 
  • In correspondence with the presence of God, a spiritual preparation and reflection of the contacts during the day would be helpful.

         In the following chapter I’m now going to try to find some more aspects of this kind of meeting that I have called the pastoral contact.

2. Elements of a theology of the pastoral contact

         Having described the contact as a meeting that happens only one time from the point of view of the pastoral worker, I’m now going to try to draw the reader’s attention to the context in which the patterns of life are determined today. As the circumstances for people’s socialisation in the western world have totally changed over the past decades the conditions for contacts with pastoral workers have become different. 

         The following paragraphs can only draw a rough picture of the situation in Germany but there surely are many parallels in other countries.   

2.1    Pastoral contacts in the context of the course of modern life

         In the past years the social research in Germany has been concentrated on the exploration of today’s patterns of life. This attention to biography has inspired theological research, of which some aspects and results will now be mentioned. 

         The classical social surroundings have decreased; for example the surrounding of workers, of citizenship and of intellectuals who all guaranteed a protection for the course of life of their members. Social status, friendship, neighbourhood, work and recreation happened in these surroundings. They stabilised biographical processes. It was the same with regard to religious aspects of life. Families and their surroundings stabilised religious education and socialisation. Within the processes of modernisation and globalisation these surroundings lost their power to integrate people. This means that religious socialisation, religious praxis could not function any more in a complete way, only as fragments. 

         In correspondence with the loss of the classical surroundings and the dynamism of the labour market chances for individualisation increased. Individualisation means that each one is free to choose between endless possible ways for his own life. Everybody gets able to design his own biography. All aspects of the course of life are afflicted with the following items: work and recreation, education and knowledge, partnership and friendship, the place he or she lives and so on. This means, in the context of religiosity that religion has developped from a matter concerning all spheres of life to one sector among others. The conditions of religion have changed, too. It is not any more a presupposition but a section where the individual person can determine. The responsibility is in the hands of the individual person. 

         Among the processes of individualisation is mobility, which is in most cases determined by the working activities. Not everyone, who goes to live somewhere else, does this freely.  Place of working, home and family can be separated, and during the course of life it will be necessary to move house. Every change forces the individual to reorganize his life. Since religion is a part of the circumstances of life, people have to rearrange this part, too. In fact, often other things come first so that the religious sphere of life is thrusted into the background for some period of time.  

         A religious culture (reading the Bible, periodical attendance at church, prayers and so on) cannot be developped during only some periods in life. The consequence is that there are only fragments. In a positive sense, this means that contacts or meetings with the religious sphere can become events of the day, possibly with an exceptional relevance for the person. From this follows that contacts although fragmental necessarily lead into the centre of the Christian faith. Pars pro toto; this piece must have the dynamic to widen one’s horizon.  

         The fact that the religious sphere is only one part in the design of the pattern of life also has effects on the choosing of people. People are accustomed to make use of things which are relevant for their lives. They know that a professionally organised service exists for anything. A professionally organised service according to the individual situation is expected also from the representatives of religion. For cultivating my religious part of life, I can look out for a specialist.

         The development of religion to a segment of modern life means that society tries to delegate certain tasks to religion. The following example can make this clear: 
         Some years ago in Eschede, Germany, a terrible train accident happened. The first report in the evening news on TV mentioned that the rescue services and spiritual counsellors had quickly arrived at the scene of accident. Meanwhile this connection of rescue service AND spiritual counsellors can be heard with any disaster. 
         Incidentally German churches do make efforts to establish a pastoral care service especially for cases of emergency. What I actually wanted to show with this example is that religious service is accepted from the society for several reasons. In cases of emergency, for example, where the enigmatic dimension of world and life appears, for social activities with fringe groups and for the organisation of great feasts like Christmas. Modern societies don’t reject the religious dimension of life but they try to put it in a certain place.Christian faith surely must protest against this marginalisation but it will at the same time be necessary to pick up the expectations of society. 

Severals conclusions can be drawn from this: 

  • Every pastoral worker has to cope with the fact that in most cases religious socialisation only happened in fragments.
  • On the one hand, the number of people who cultivate the religious dimension of their  lives is getting smaller. On the other hand spontaneous events can possibly have a great effect on the biographies of individuals.
  • Many people have great problems in articulating their religious feelings and experience.
  • Everyone is responsible for his own religious dimension. 
  • Changes in circumstances of life often put the religious dimension in the background.
  • The contact with a pastoral worker can be an important impulse for revealing the hidden religious dimension.
  • There might be great expectations of the spiritual counsellors’ pastoral competence.
  • Pastoral workers have to deal with the position society assigns to them. 
  • Faithful Christians who are obliged to travel around might seek a contact to the spiritual counsellor to cultivate their religious life.

2.2    Pastoral contacts and the ecclesiastical ways of acting

         In a last paragraph I’m now trying to integrate the pastoral contact into the ecclestical ways of acting (leitourgia, marturia, diakonia, koinonia). I want to connect this with the original question about the presence of God in the airport world: 

         leitourgia: In this way of ecclesiastical acting, the dimension of God’s presence is clear. Both the priest, or pastor, and the church-goers want to celebrate their lives in the light of God’s grace.

         marturia: Preach of the gospel happens in this case especially within the person of the pastoral worker. He is a living testimony of the existence of a God who is healing, liberating, full of grace and love. Preach of the gospel also happens when ever the life of a person is considered or is interpreted in the light of faith. 

         Even if the pastoral worker merely listens to the stories of the other person in an attentive way when he shares some of his problems and experiences and feelings with him, even then a Christian service takes place and in the original meaning of the words a divine service. 

         For many people it will be enough to know: “With this spiritual counsellor my problems are in good hands because he is in contact with God. If I feel that I am not able to tell God my problems, he will do that for me.” The consequence is that it can be explicitly recommended to look at the human experiences with regard to the theological relevance which people talk about during the contacts. In a fundamental way this is described by the Second Vatican Council. The Pastoral Constitution opens with the following sentences: “Joy and hope, sorrow and fear of people today, especially of the poor and hard-pressed of all kinds, are also the joy and hope, sorrow and fear of the disciples of Christ. And there is nothing really human that does not find an echo in their hearts.” (GS 1).

         diakonia: Most of the pastoral worker’s contacts happen in the context of a service for people who need it. Financial help, if someone has lost his money, logistic advice for people without personal papers, help for refugees, consolation and so on. These contacts, too, are surrounded by the presence of God. 

         Â“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you entertained me; naked and you clothed me; sick, and you looked after me, in prison and you visited me”. (Matthew 25, 31-46).

         koinonia: The community of Christians is only represented in a very fragmental way at the airport. The pastoral worker may be a symbol of the community of Christians. Forming a community at the airport will not be possible under the circumstances described. But even there will be a small fragment of community in Christ within the contact between the pastoral worker and the persons he meets: “For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there with him” (Matthew 18,20).

[1] The article is based on a lecture held at the Congress of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains in Freising, Bavaria, 21.9.99.

Les Contacts pastoraux dans le monde de l’aviation


Cet article était, à l'origine, adressé aux adhérents de l'association internationale des aumôniers de l'aviation civile qui se sont réunis lors d'un congres à Freising le 21 septembre 1999.

L'aéroport présente, dans une manière pointue, des problèmes, des possibilités et des défis de la direction pastorale dans les conditions actuelles de la société moderne. La direction pastorale se développe dans un environnement complètement technicisé et consiste pour une partie en rencontres occasionnelles avec les passagers, pour une autre partie en rencontres plus fréquentes avec le personnel de toutes les catégories.

L'auteur se pose d'abord la question de savoir comment les hommes peuvent se rendre compte de la présence de Dieu dans ces conditions. Comme l'étonnement pour les merveilles de la création arrache le louange de Dieu au psalmiste (Ps 104), ainsi la surprise pour les merveilles de la technique dans l'aéroport peut porter le passager à l'éloge de Dieu. Mais cela n'arrive que très rarement, parce que la vie dans l'aéroport se déroule à une vélocité qui ne permet pas de moments de repos ou de silence. Pour passer de l'admiration des possibilités humaines à la reconnaissance de Dieu créateur il faut une double clé: la bienveillance de la part de l'homme et la grâce de la part de Dieu. Seulement ainsi l'homme peut découvrir la présence réelle de Dieu dans sa vie quotidienne et aussi dans les événements à l'aéroport. Le contact avec l'aumônier peut être un moment de grâce. L'aumônier doit y en être conscient.

Ensuite, l'auteur explique l'importance théologique du contact entre les personnes et il en tire des conclusions pour l'activité du père spirituel à l'aéroport. Tout agent pastoral doit se rendre compte de la position de la religion dans la société moderne, qui est marquée par une forte individualisation et une fragmentation qui ont causé un refoulement de la religion vers la vie privée et vers une extension de celle-ci. Cette situation augmente le défi pour l'aumônier d'être transparent et authentique dans ses contacts. Pour conclure l'auteur essaye d'intégrer les contacts pastoraux dans le schéma des activités ecclésiastiques: liturgie, témoignage (marturia), diaconie et communauté (koinonia). 

Los contactos pastorales en el mundo de la aviación


El texto original de este artículo iba dirigido a los miembros de la Asociación Internacional de Capellanes de la Aviación Civil, reunidos en un congreso que tuvo lugar en Freising el 21 de septiembre de 1999.

El aeropuerto plantea, de forma urgente, problemas, posibilidades y desafíos a la acción pastoral en el contexto de la sociedad moderna. La acción pastoral se desarrolla en un ambiente plenamente tecnificado y la mayor parte de veces consiste en encuentros ocasionales con los pasajeros, teniendo lugar también encuentros más frecuentes con el personal de todas las categorías.

El autor plantea, de entrada, la cuestión de cómo las personas pueden percibir la presencia de Dios en estas circunstancias. Al igual que la admiración por las maravillas de la creación lleva al salmista a la alabranza del Creador (Sal 104), así la sorpresa por las maravillas de la técnica dentro de un aeropuerto puede conducir a la alabanza a Dios. Esto, ciertamente, suceda muy raras veces, pues la vida en el aeropuerto se desarrolla a una velocidad que no concede momentos de reposo o de silencio. Para pasar de la admiración de las potencialidades humanas al reconocimiento de Dios Creador, se precisa una doble clave: la buena disposición por parte del hombre y la gracia por parte de Dios. Sólo así es posible que el hombre descubra la presencia real de Dios en su vida cotidiana y en el trasiego del aeropuerto. El contacto con el capellán puede ser un momento de gracia. El capellán debe ser muy consciente de ello.

A continuación, el autor subraya la importancia teológica del contacto entre las personas, extrayendo algunas conclusiones en referencia a la actividad del padre espiritual en el aeropuerto. Los agentes pastorales deben tener muy presente el papel que desempeña la religión en la sociedad moderna, caracterizada por un acentuado individualismo y por una fragmentación que ha relegado la religión a la esfera de lo privado o como su prolongación. Esta situación obliga a que el capellán sea transparente y auténtico en sus contactos. En la conclusión, el autor esboza algunas sugerencias acerca de cómo integrar los contactos personales en el esquema de las actividades eclesiásticas: liturgia, testimonio (marturia), diaconía y comunidad (koinonia)