Airport chapels celebrate jubilee year honoring Our Lady

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Airport chapels celebrate jubilee year honoring Our Lady

Celebrations for a jubilee year at the chapels of O’Hare and Midway airports had just gotten underway when COVID-19 hit and airline travel was drastically curtailed.
Father Michael Zaniolo, chaplain of the Catholic Chaplaincy at O’Hare and Midway Airports, delivers a homily on Feb. 21, 2020, during Mass in the interfaith chapel in O’Hare’s Terminal 2. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the devotion to Our Lady of Loretto, the patron of air travelers, Pope Francis called for a jubilee year to be celebrated at airport chapels. Catholics who make a pilgrimage to chapels at O’Hare or Midway Airports and complete the necessary requirements before Dec. 10, 2020, the feast of Our Lady of Loretto, can receive an indulgence. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Flight attendants, pilots and others attend Mass at the Interfaith Chapel in Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport on Feb. 21, prior to the COVID-19 restrictions that drastically reduced air travel. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic )

Celebrations for a jubilee year at the chapels of O’Hare and Midway airports had just gotten underway when COVID-19 hit and airline travel was drastically curtailed.

Pope Francis announced a jubilee year, which began Dec. 19, 2019 and runs through Dec. 10, 2020, to commemorate Our Lady of Loretto, the patron of aviators and air travelers.

Now that the state has loosened pandemic restrictions, Father Michael Zaniolo, administrator of the Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago and chaplain of Chicago Airports Catholic Chaplaincy, hopes people will make a pilgrimage to the chapels when visiting the airports and receive the plenary indulgence available for the jubilee.

Life at the airports and the chapels is coming back slowly, he said.

“For the months, right after the lockdown and April, May, June, it was really a ghost town at both O’Hare and Midway. One day I was at Midway and counted eight people, that included the cops and TSA people,” Zaniolo said.

Around the middle of June, people started traveling more, but the number of people is only 10% or 15% of what it was before the pandemic, he said.

“On the other hand, we’ve seen about 10 or 15% of our usual crowds at Mass,” he said.

Mass is offered daily at O’Hare and on Sunday at Midway. O’Hare’s chapel is located in Terminal 2, on the upper concourse outside security. Midway’s chapel is located inside security to the right of the main entrance on the upper level. The sacrament of reconciliation is also offered at both chapels.

Before the pandemic, Saturday evening Masses at O’Hare averaged 50 people each week. Now it’s five or 10, Zaniolo said.

“But it makes it easy for social distancing,” he said. “It’s going to be awhile before it comes back.”

The jubilee year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV naming Our Lady of Loretto patron of air travelers and aviators. He did so because of the House of Loretto, which tradition says is the home where the Holy Family lived in Nazareth, mysteriously appearing first in Turkey and then in Loretto, Italy, Zaniolo explained.

“The legend is that angels picked up the house and physically carried it to Loretto,” he said. “That’s why in some art you’ll see a house flying with angels carrying it or wings on the house flying through the sky.”

Pope Francis granted a plenary indulgence to those making pilgrimages to Loretto this year and to those who make a pilgrimage to an airport chapel. Individual chapels had to apply for the distinction of a holy year pilgrimage site. Zaniolo was notified that the O’Hare and Midway chapels would be pilgrimage sites earlier this year before the pandemic hit.

He believes the chapels at O’Hare and Midway are the only airport chapels in the U.S. to receive that distinction.

“The way that the indulgence is obtained is people come with the intention to receive it and fulfill a number of requirements,” he said.

Those requirements include praying for the pope’s intentions; receiving Communion; receiving the sacrament of reconciliation; and doing a good work, which in this case is praying the Apostle’s Creed and the official jubilee prayer. The plenary indulgence is a full remission of sin and can be offered for someone who has died.

“This is one way of God including us in his giving mercy to people,” Zaniolo said of indulgences.

The first airport chaplaincy for Catholics in the United States began in Boston in 1950.

“The cardinal there at the time had been a military chaplain so he knew the value of a chaplaincy,” Zaniolo said.

In the early 1960s, the chaplaincy unofficially began at O’Hare when people who worked at the airport, including firefighters who worked 24-hour shifts and couldn’t go to church on Sundays, asked a priest in the neighboring parish of Our Lady of Hope in Rosemont to come and celebrate Mass for them. They would often use an empty conference room for Mass.

Zaniolo said the employees at O’Hare, who today number around 45,000, petitioned then-Archbishop John Cody to appoint the priest as a full-time chaplain. He did so in 1966. Midway’s chaplaincy began in 1988.

For those visiting the airports who may not be aware of services at the chapel, announcements go out over the airport public-address system at both O’Hare and Midway before services begin.

“Our Mass schedule hasn’t changed in over 50 years, so people know if they are flying through O’Hare, if they are based here, if they work here, they can come to the chapel,” he said.

What started out as a Catholic chaplaincy has since expanded to included Protestants, Muslims and Jews who regularly visit the chapel to pray.

“We keep the chapel neutral during the hours when we’re not having regularly scheduled worship services or Mass,” Zaniolo said.

To do that, the icon of Our Lady and the altar cross are removed. The tabernacle stays, along with the sanctuary lamp. The latter is important to Muslims, Jews and Protestants, who have some type of lamp in their own worship spaces, Zaniolo said.

Zaniolo’s ministry isn’t limited to the chapel and its office space. All of O’Hare and Midway is his parish, so to speak.

“That’s the part of the job I enjoy most, walking around talking to people, finding out what’s going on in their lives,” he said.

Often people will see him and just say hello. When they have a family member who is ill or another crisis, they will reach out and ask him for prayers.

“As a chaplain, and the whole chaplaincy here, we’re able to accompany people through some of life’s difficult moments, and beautiful moments too,” Zaniolo said. “There’s all sorts of good things that happen. The USO is right next to us [at O’Hare] so we see a lot of military people coming through and the recruits really need a lot of prayers.”

He enjoys being an airport chaplain.

“This is a great place to be a priest. I hear confessions every day,” he said. “For the workers, it’s a convenient place for them to get a hold of me. For the travelers, I’m Father Nobody so they can just really unload things that they may not have talked to a priest about.”

Karen Pride, director of media relations for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which includes O’Hare and Midway, said she reached out to Zaniolo last year when her sister was in the hospital on life support. She’s worked in the airport for over 12 years.

“I was in Miami and I called him,” she said. “I had a few friends who I called, but I knew I needed someone who could help me more emotionally and spiritually who was not so connected to my family.”

She said her conversations with Zaniolo were very helpful and important to her.

“I think for the airport community, both of the chapels are important because people have spiritual needs, they have their faith and they want to practice their faith and have an opportunity to celebrate their faith through the services,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t realize that sometimes you need someplace to go or someone to talk to. Having it here, a lot of people traveling say, ‘There’s a safe place to go. There’s a neutral place, but there’s a place where I can get into my spirituality or some spirituality, whatever that may be.’”

She knows Zaniolo doesn’t have all the answers, but his personality, training and experience make people feel comfortable and comforted, she said.

“I’ve seen him interact with people. It’s just good,” she said. “To me it’s how people should be.”

Having chapels at airports is important, Pride said.

“You don’t know what people are going through. If they are going to a funeral, if they are getting married, if they just lost their job, sometimes people don’t know what to do about those situations,” she said.

Even people who are afraid of flying or have never been to an airport before can visit the chapels and get something out of it, she said.

“There’s something familiar about it without it being your particular parish, or your mosque, your synagogue or no place because you don’t have any place to go because you don’t have that spirituality,” she said. “It’s really good because it helps people calm down, helps people open up.”

To Zaniolo, the chapels are places of peace and calm amid lots of activity in bustling airports.

“Everybody recognizes that, and everybody is so grateful to be able to have a place to come and pray,” he said.

For more information about the airport chapels, visit


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