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Airport chaplain prepares passengers for spiritual lift-off

OUR LADY OF THE SKIES
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Father Chris Piasta makes sure his floating congregants have their faith in the upright and locked position.

Most people may not notice the small chapel of Our Lady of the Skies as they quickly bustle from gate to gate looking for their connecting flight, but for those of the faith with a long layover, the Catholic Chapel in Terminal 4 of JFK is an invaluable place for a respite before a long international flight.

There in the small 22 ft x 24 ft room, Father Chris Piasta, JFK’s chaplain, can be found welcoming his floating congregation, which includes the airport’s 40,000 employees and an additional 60 million airline passengers who pass through the New York travel hub each year. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, as Father Piasta told NY1:

“We don’t ask, ‘What is your religion?’ We ask how can we help,” said Fr Piasta.

Although it is just a chapel, in a miniature city like JFK — complete with restaurants, police departments, post offices, and housing accommodations — Our Lady of the Skies functions like a church. Father Piasta celebrates five times a week. While the average attendance is just three or four congregants, holidays like Ash Wednesday can draw crowds of over 100. Father Piasta went on to explain that they perform all of the sacraments at JFK:

“Baptisms, confirmations, first communions, RCIA, weddings. You name it, we have it here,” said Piasta.

The duties of the Polish priest, who was educated at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, do not end in the chapel. In an interview with The Tablet, Father Piasta said that his ministry takes him all over the airport’s grounds:

“We call it the Ministry of Presence. It is not necessarily what I do at the actual chapel or in the office, but what I can do on my feet as I make my way around the nearly 5,000 acres of JFK Airport,” Father Piasta told The Tablet.

He said that he wanders the property checking in with the airport employees, whom he considers his “main congregation.” He explained that he has developed close relationships with many employees who now know him better than they know their own parish priests.

“This chaplaincy allows these people to experience the Church at a good time for them, during their lunch breaks, coffee breaks, and allows me to respond to their needs, quickly and effectively, right where they are without an appointment,” he said to The Tablet.

Father Piasta says he enjoys the job because no two days are ever the same. Airport chaplains are trained to provide support during major crises, like a plane crash or natural disaster, but with so many people passing through the international terminal on a daily basis, there’s no telling what individual problems will be brought to his attention.

In 2010, much of the European airspace was shut down as a result of a volcanic eruption. With several hundred passengers who were stranded at the airport for nearly a week, Father Piasta organized a group of volunteers to provide food, fresh clothing, laptops to check emails, and even helped refill medications.

“These types of things are not as often seen by parish priests,” said Father Piasta told The Tablet. “Every day when I go to the airport, I don’t know whom I am going to see or what I am going to see, which is very challenging. It makes me very happy that I can provide these people with help. It humbles me in terms of what God provides and how God uses each us to spread the Gospel and live the mission of Christ.”

Father Piasta has been the chaplain of Our Lady of the Skies since 2010, but he is also the pastor at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in South Jamaica, where he resides in the rectory. He told NY1 that the two duties are completely different:

“It’s like two lives, basically. Over there, I have the community,” said Piasta. “But here, I like the unknown because every day brings something completely new.”

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Skies is always looking for people to volunteer. If you’re interested in taking part in their ministry, contact them by phone at 718-656-5348 or email chaplain@jfkchapel.org.

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