Congregations on the move are Father John Jamnicky's specialty.
For 18 years, as chaplain at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, he welcomed thousands of travelers to Mass, confession and prayer in the airport chapel — and counseling wherever they happened to be when they needed it.
Now he's taking his ministry on the road.
In December, this co-founder and former longtime president of the National Catholic Conference of Airport Chaplains moved to new headquarters at the office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. As newly appointed coordinator for mobility apostolates and national director for the Bishops' Apostolate for the Sea, Father Jamnicky is looking to bring his “ministry of the moment” to all U.S. air and sea travelers — not to mention people who find themselves in truck stops and national parks.
He has a lot of experience to draw from: Father Jamnicky is quick to share, from an amazing storehouse of memories, his enthusiasm over God's grace working to dramatically changes lives through even the briefest exchanges.
“You never realize the impact on people's lives in these graced moments, says Father Jamnicky. “We only have people for a moment, yet somehow these ‘travel moments’ can transform lives like little else can.”
Father Jamnicky recounts the testimony of one man who, 15 years ago, had time to kill while waiting for a connecting flight. He wandered into the chapel even though he had stopped going to church 20 years earlier. While there, he felt moved to go to confession and stay for Mass.
Recently, that man found himself with another layover at O'Hare. He sought out Father Jamnicky and told him: “I am head usher at my parish and I even head up of one of its committees.” The man explained that his first wife had died and he had just remarried. “In fact,” he said, “I am just going on my honeymoon with my new bride. Our trip brought us through Chicago, and I figured, if that priest is still here, I want to tell him all that one day 15 years ago has meant to me. It changed my life.”
The value of travel ministry isn't missed on one Catholic traveler whose opinion means a lot to Father Jamnicky.
“There are marvelous opportunities in the mobility apostolates for doing good and preaching the Word,” says Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., who is himself a licensed pilot and for the last 10 years has served as episcopal liaison for Catholic airport chaplains in the U.S. “Wherever there are large numbers of people, there will be problems and the need for ministry.”
The bishop points out that an average of 250,000 people make their way through a major airport each day. Of these, many are in need of the hope provided by priestly Christian witness.
‘We only have people for a moment, yet … can transform lives like little else can.’
Take the woman who stopped in the O'Hare chapel while en route from Seattle to Chile. Earlier that morning, in Seattle, she had waited for her husband to go to work and then left him to return to her South American homeland.
“It is not right for you to do this,” Father Jamnicky told her. Then he got the couple together on the phone, scrambled to get her luggage off the flight to Chile, and haggled with a ticketing agent to have the woman's tickets exchanged for a return flight to Seattle.
Another time, TWA called Father Jamnicky to counsel a mother and daughter arriving from London. A second daughter, terminally ill and coming to the United States for a last-chance treatment, had died in-flight. For hours, the chaplain tried to comfort the two women until their return flight was ready. Grief-stricken, they would not be consoled; they expressed little but hostility and anger.
Yet he persisted with his counsel and, two weeks later, TWA informed him that the women had sent the airline a thank-you note. In it, they stressed how much the American airport chaplain had meant to them through the ordeal. “I was flabbergasted,” recalls Father Jamnicky.
This mobility apostolate also reaches airport and ship workers, along with their families. Citing the 40,000-plus who work in large airports, Bishop Timlin says he recognizes this as another opportunity to minister to those who may not be involved with their local parish.
Michael Brennan was one of those. A longtime employee of a major airline at O'Hare, he testifies to the impact the chapel had on his life.
He recounts how, in 1984, he was troubled spiritually. He wanted to get right with the Church, so he went to Father Jamnicky for confession. (Travelers often go to confession, explains Father Jamnicky, because of the anonymity away from home.)
In that brief meeting, Father Jamnicky recognized Brennan's potential and asked him to become editor of the chapel's weekly bulletin. Later, Father Jamnicky asked him to travel to Rome to tell his story to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Tourism, who had requested input from laity at the annual airport chaplains' meeting.
Then, at a Vatican conference in 1993, Brennan served as lector at Pope John Paul II's Mass for airport chaplains in the Pope's private chapel.
“In a 10-year period,” Brennan says in a tone of disbelief, “I went from being down on my luck and spiritually dying, to finding myself [a lector for the Pope]. What an incredible turn of events — and it was all directly related to Father Jamnicky's nurturing and encouragement.”
Michael even married his wife, Margaret, in the O'Hare chapel; they had their daughter baptized there. Weddings and baptisms at the chapel are only for airport workers and personnel, not travelers — though not just a few have asked Father Jamnicky to marry them there, on board a plane or at the boarding ramp. “Chicago isn't Las Vegas,” he has told them, then used the opportunity to clarify the Church's teaching on the sacrament of matrimony.
Mostly, though, the frivolous take a back seat to the famished. “When travelers feel like they're in a desert, the chapel is like an oasis,” says Father Jamnicky. “People savor their time here and it makes a great impact on their lives.”
A recent message on his voice-mail confirmed this. Some time ago, a young, traveling woman had heard an announcement for Mass over the public-address system. Distraught, estranged from her family and away from the Church for years, she decided to attend.
The “ministry of the moment” so impacted her life that she returned to the Church, reconciled with her family and got a job caring for a blind person. “My life is truly rewarding now,” she said in the voicemail message, “and it all started with that one visit to O'Hare Airport.”
“Travelers are unconnected from the comfortable routine of their normal, daily lives,” explains Father Jamnicky. “They are disorientated in many ways. They don't have around them the support structures they're used to. That lets them be open in a unique way to the Lord — to hear him in that moment. That's where our chaplaincies have a unique role to play.”
Bishop Timlin says Father Jamnicky's knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for this unusual ministry make him a perfect fit for his expanded duties in Washington. Already he is deeply involved in setting up chaplaincies in airports that haven't had one. For example, Miami International and Seattle are now “in the loop,” and San Francisco and New Orleans will soon follow.
This “ministry of the moment” will also reach out to seamen on freighters and fishing vessels. “Some are away from home a year at a time,” says Father Jamnicky. “Plus the apostolate is looking very seriously into placing chaplains on cruise ships. There has been no formal selection for them, but the need is there. Last year, 7 million people took cruises.”
“People recreating, confined to a ship, are more willing to talk to a priest,” adds Bishop Timlin.
Vast swaths of humanity also move through the large truckstops that dot the American interstate-highway system, says the bishop. “They don't fit into the normal parochial structure, and many are in need of what the Church has to offer.” He says there are already evangelical ministries with mobile chapels in 18-wheelers. Also in the works are chap-laincies in national parks.
“The Church needs to be here for these very special moments,” adds Father Jamnicky. “You don't have a lot of time with travelers. You have to be there for them now because they aren't going to look you up later. This reality makes for some very graced moments. I think that's what is so powerful about this ministry.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.