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Sunday Sitdown: Rev. Mike Zaniolo, O’Hare Airport chaplain

As the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport, the Rev. Mike Zaniolo is used to giving spiritual guidance, comfort and advice — and doing it very quickly.

One minute, the Northwest Side native is leading services for a group of kids headed out on vacation with their family. Then, he’s having a private word with someone rushing home to be with a dying parent.

And don’t forget airport employees. They need counsel, too. Zaniolo estimates he spends half of his time talking with people in transit who need to pray with him or give confession or just hear a supportive word and the other half ministering to airport employees looking for some guidance from the Catholic priest.

Wearing a clerical collar and an airport identification badge, he also leads many of the airport’s daily services inside the glass-walled chapel in Terminal 2.

How did you end up ministering at the airport?

As a young priest, you’re generally put in charge of the youth group and the altar service and all that . . . I had put together these little field trips for the kids, and one of them was to come to the airport. This is back in the early ’90s, I brought about a dozen kids, and I talked with the priest who is my predecessor, and he said, “I’ll put together a little program, come on a Saturday, I’ll show you guys around.”

And as he was taking us around the airport, it became obvious to me that this was a very important ministry. Everywhere we went, people would say, “Hey, Father, thanks for praying for my wife, we had a baby, it’s a nice healthy baby.” And he would say, “Oh, great, Charlie! That’s great. I’ll keep praying for them.”

They’d also come up to him and say, “‘Father, can you please pray for my mother, she just went into the hospital.”

Everywhere we went, this was happening. I always compare it to [a priest] getting up every morning and walking through their neighborhood and ringing the doorbells of all of their flock and saying, “I am your pastor. What can I do to help you?” As I walk around the airport, I am being visible to them. And so all the workers here and the travelers will see me and say, “Hey, you know what, there’s a priest who’s got an airport badge. This is probably somebody I can talk to.”

Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times
Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times

How did you get the job?

I kept telling the priest who had the job before me” “If you are going to get a new job or if you’re going to be moving on, let me know — I’d be interested in this.” One day, I got a phone call from him: “I got a job now in Washington, D.C., and this job is going to be open.”

I found out that there were other guys that wanted the job, and I had the least seniority. So I wrote a note to [Cardinal Francis George], and I said . . . “If you want a priest who’s going to be going out to the airport, going in to all the little areas that nobody sees, the baggage rooms, where the baggage handlers are, or the electrical block houses or the fire stations that are on the other side of the airfield or the cargo section where they all work at night — if you want a priest who’s going to do that kind of stuff, just consider picking a younger man.”

Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times
Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times

I got a phone call that I had been assigned. And I met with the cardinal after that, and he said, “I am assigning you there because I was a missionary. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve seen how important it is for the church to have an outreach not necessarily to make converts but to reach out and to take care of people.” He said, “That’s how I see your ministry, and that’s what I want you to do.”

How is the airport different from ministering in a parish?

We have these intense encounters with people — whether they work here or whether they are traveling — within five minutes, sometimes even less. People will state their need, and we just have a few moments to really work through something, whether they want to go to confession or whether they want to talk, they’re asking for prayers or whether they need me to give them a phone number of someone else they can contact. And then I have to move on. Or they have to move on. And then I walk another couple of feet, and somebody else is there. And it starts all over again.

Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport, in the airport chapel in Terminal 2. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times
Rev. Mike Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare Airport, in the airport chapel in Terminal 2. | Tim Boyle/ Sun-Times