Spirituality 'just tip of iceberg' for airport chaplain always on the go

Father Chris Piasta, Catholic chaplain at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in the Queens borough of New York, prepares the altar prior to celebrating Mass at JFK's Our Lady of the Skies Chapel Aug. 5, 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

JAMAICA, N.Y. (CNS) -- As the Catholic chaplain at John F. Kennedy International Airport ambled through Terminal 4 on a hot summer afternoon, security personnel, airport employees and flight crews shouted a cheery hello or stopped for a quiet word.

"That's my priest," one uniformed woman told her companion with a confident nod. The bearded man in a black polo shirt, black trousers and scuffed black Crocs smiled back at them.

"There's no average day here. Most of my ministry happens on the go," Father Chris Piasta said in an interview at the airport, located in Jamaica in the New York borough of Queens.

He is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Jamaica and is now in his 10th year as the face of the Catholic Church at the nation's busiest airport.

"It's a ministry of presence," Father Piasta said. "At its core is being an open and friendly human being to someone else, being open to the humanity of others and simply embracing their needs at a particular time.”

Sometimes that entails giving arriving passengers directions to connecting flights or answering what he says is the most common question, "Where is the nearest restroom?”

Once he found himself washing dishes in a sushi restaurant when a hurricane prevented employees from getting to the airport. That encounter started with a challenge from the overwhelmed proprietor of the eatery and ended with a deep conversation with two of the 60 million people who pass through JFK each year.

Most often, the chaplain is ministering to the spiritual needs of some of the airport's 40,000 employees. Five days a week, Father Piasta celebrates Mass at the small well-lit chapel of Our Lady of the Skies tucked into a quiet space on terminal's upper level. The patroness is depicted in a wooden statue at the side of the altar, perched on an airplane propeller.

A simple display case testifies to the ministry's long association with travelers including St. Paul VI who presented a chalice on his 1965 visit. The holy water font is a blue ceramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and the continents it touches.

At Mass on a recent Monday, the half-dozen worshippers included airport workers on their lunch break from posts in different terminals at JFK. Among the intercessions was a prayer for those who are stranded and the people who come to their aid.

Father Piasta said his first large-scale experience of aiding the stranded happened in February 2010 shortly after he was appointed chaplain. Ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded flights in Europe and caused large-scale disruptions to air travel around the world. Airport authorities used the area outside Our Lady of the Skies and the other denominational worship spaces to set up 400 cots for travelers.

"We called it 'Camp Kennedy,'" Father Piasta said. He and the rabbi with whom he shares office space distributed bagels and cream cheese to the people who were stranded for a week. Father Piasta said volunteers brought food and supplies for the travelers and he was able to use funds from the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York to help meet the needs of his unexpected guests.

Father Piasta is one of four chaplains at JFK. In addition to the rabbi, there is a Lutheran pastor and an imam. "We are constantly educating one another," he said.

Our Lady of the Skies is not a parish, but Father Piasta offers the sacraments, spiritual direction, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, critical incident stress management, assistance for grieving passengers and Masses for traveling groups.

It is not unusual for him to be asked to meet an arriving passenger whose family member has died during his or her absence. Father Piasta said he and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent meet the person on board the plane, share the sad news and invite them to pray if they want and go to Father Piasta's office. The customs official expedites the passenger's reentry and collects luggage.

Father Piasta said managers of various airport offices refer stressed employees to him. "Sometimes they need to talk or vent and then they feel better," he said.

He also described spending many hours with an international supermodel who was "sitting on the floor having a breakdown in the chapel" over the loss of a modeling contract. "Security was ready to take her out," the chaplain recalled, but they moved to his office and talked for four hours before she abruptly stood and left.

Among the many services at the chapel, Father Piasta said memorials for deceased employees are always poignant. "People rearrange their flight schedules to be here. You see a lot of goodness going on," he said.

Father Piasta said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn is supportive of his efforts in many ways, but the chaplain is responsible for raising the $35,000 to $40,000 annual budget for his ministry. He does this through an autumn luncheon held with the assistance of the Catholic Guild of JFK.

The Catholic Guild was established in 1952 to promote, foster and maintain the faith and the chapel. Early on, Masses were held in a restaurant, celebrated at an altar that was rolled from a hangar across the tarmac before and after the service.

The first Catholic chapel at the airport opened in 1955 when the hub was known as Idlewild Airport. Subsequent construction projects at the airport caused the worship site to be moved several times. The current Our Lady of the Skies chapel was dedicated in 2002.

The chapel's name is a tribute to Mary, of course, and its history reflects the battlefield promise and later efforts of Bob O'Brien, a soldier in World War II.

Nonetheless, a pious tale also circulates: Tony Scimeca told CNS when he started to work for TWA in 1956 he heard that a pilot who tried to land at Idlewild prayed for help when his engine stalled. He looked out and saw the Blessed Mother on the frozen propeller and landed the plane safely, hence the name, Our Lady of the Skies. Perhaps.

Father Piasta hails from Katowice, Poland. He was ordained in 1995 and served in Germany, earned a master's degree in communications at New York University and served in campus ministry in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.

After summer assignments in the New York area, he settled in the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2005 and offered to help his predecessor airport chaplain develop a website. Since 2010, he has been the chaplain for JFK and LaGuardia Airports, although construction at LaGuardia prevents him from offering Mass at this time.

Father Piasta said airport ministry is sometimes more intimate and more urgent than parish ministry. "We work together and we are buddies and people feel comfortable telling me things they might not mention to their pastor." He recalled a woman who asked him to pray for her son who wanted to commit suicide. Later she told him the young man had not taken his life.

"Spirituality is just the tip of the iceberg," he concluded.