Moving Picture: O'Hare chaplain helps travellers keep the faith

Over the years, the Interfaith Chapel at O'Hare International Airport has been home to daily religious services for a variety of faith groups, memorial services, weddings, baptisms, counseling and airport emergency response.

In 2000, the chapel, located in Terminal 2, welcomed its new Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Michael Zaniolo, 53, who currently lives on the property of St. Stephen Protomartyr Church in Des Plaines.

Under his direction, the airport ministry expanded to include Midway Airport in 2002. Father Mike, as he is known to folks at the airport, celebrates Mass on Sundays for firefighters and police personnel who can't leave airport property during their shifts.

He also enjoys walking the terminals and talking with the travelers. He says the familiarity of his priestly wardrobe comforts passengers and they know they can trust him. He even hears confessions in quiet corners of the terminal or behind a planter somewhere.

“It's exciting to be here. It's exciting to see the airplanes, it's exciting to see the hustle and bustle and the people who are traveling for fun reasons or difficult reasons,” Zaniolo says.

He recalls a story about being asked to accompany the fire chief to the end of a runway for an emergency landing for a plane with a mechanical issue.

He told the fire chief he was concerned that if there was trouble as the plane landed, they would be in the path of a potential disaster.

With a grin, he recalls the chief's response: “Well, that is why you are here Father. You're here to pray that this doesn't happen, that this thing lands safely.”

Father Mike has had to deal with many tragedies, like September 11, 2001. Since he knew it was United and American planes that were involved, he went over to the crew lounges to offer his condolences to the pilots and flight attendants arriving at O'Hare, as they were sure to know their colleagues who were onboard the ill-fated planes.

And with the many passengers he speaks with each day, he knows they often bring in more baggage than what they are carrying on their shoulders.

Being a priest for the last 24 years, Father Mike says it's humbling to see how God is working in the lives of people. Catholic or non-Catholic, people are happy to talk to someone who represents God and ask those hard questions that we all face on a daily basis.

Airport employees and travelers, alike, know they can find comfort in the chapel, where Father Mike greets them with a smile, prayers, and words of encouragement.

  Father Mike walks the campus of St. Stephen Protomartyr Parish near his home in Des Plaines. Mark Welsh/
  Father Mike, as he is known at O’Hare International Airport, walks Terminal 2 outside the airport’s Interfaith Chapel, listening to travelers such as this soldier heading down south for training. Mark Welsh/
  Father Mike prepares himself for Mass by donning his vestments. Mark Welsh/
  Father Mike says Mass in the Interfaith Chapel for travelers and airport personnel on a daily basis. Mark Welsh/
  The Rev. Michael Zaniolo ventures onto the concourse in Terminal 2 to meet and greet anyone who might need his services. Mark Welsh/
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