When he was in high school Father Michael Zaniolo wanted to get married and have a family and career. His life started going in that direction when an interest in building and designing led him to becoming an electric engineer. But “I felt a spiritual emptiness,” he tells the Chicago Sun-Times. “The more I prayed, the more I kept sensing and hearing, ‘I want you to be priest.’ And I kept telling God, you’ve got the wrong guy. Finally, I said to the Lord, OK, if this is what you want me to do, I will explore it.” Ordained a priest in 1988, Zaniolo has been the chaplain of Chicago’sInterfaith Airport Chapels
“With 50,000 airport employees and tens of thousands of travelers passing through daily, the airport is fertile ground for ministry to anyone who needs to talk about what is going on in their lives,” he says.
Zaniolo is the city’s one full-time chaplain who with several other priests is available to hear confessions and celebrate the Eucharist. Three deacons and several lay volunteers also assist at ten weekend Masses. In addition, his work involves being visible and available to workers, travelers, and even homeless people at the airport. “Once people find out I’m a priest, they’ll say, ‘Father, can you pray for so and so?’” Zaniolo’s “parish” also includes three fire stations that serve the airport, a police station, and nearby hotels, restaurants, and parking facilities.
“I hear confessions every day,” says Zaniolo. “It’s something that people usually don’t do every day, but for some reason, here at the airport . . . I hear them regularly. For the travelers, I’m sort of like an anonymous priest, so they can really unburden themselves.”
A tough part of his job is being one of the go-to people at the airport for emergencies. “I remember once a teenager committed suicide and her parents were on their way to Hawaii. I had to deliver the bad news and comfort them until they could find a flight back home,” he tells the Sun-Times. “Once a flight attendant’s eighth grader got hit by a train while the flight attendant was on the plane. They always call me for those things.
“The nice thing about being an airport chaplain is that it really allows me to be a priest. I do have a lot of administrative things to do . . . but I also have more opportunities to hear confessions and to give some advice and counsel to people.
“The reward is I get to really see the movement of God within someone’s life,” he says. “I could not have designed a life better than I have now.”