A prayer for the skies

By Daniel Harkins

The contrast between the pandemic and post-pandemic worlds is starkest in airports.

When I travelled in January they

were still filled with shuttered shops, dark hallways and only a trickle of passen- gers, making their way through security with a lazy calm.

By June, tourists were blowing the dust off their passports and filling airports again with frantic energy.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is a partic- ularly busy example of the new-normal (which is also the old-normal but with a wee sprinkling of Covid protocols). It is an international meeting point that rings with noise and frustration. Every inch is filled with that airport energy: a mix of idling and panic; missed fiights and endless delays; no exits but an escalator propelling the masses in and out. Some peace can be found though in one little corner, upstairs between an internet hub and a Heineken sign.

The airport’s meditation centre is a multi-faith room that offers the religious

and non-religious a place to pray and refiect.

When I visited a few weeks ago, only a handful of people were there. A family from Asia slept in one corner. In another, an African woman read a holy book while her daughter slept next to her and her leather- jacketed son tapped aimlessly on his phone.

The peace was broken by the chaplain, immaculately dressed in a blue-suit, who briskly bounded in and cheerily told all present that there is no sleeping in the medi- tation room, only prayer. The room is small, with a square of carpet, some candles, a shelf of religious books including Bibles in many languages, and some fiowers, carefully tended by the chaplain.

In my hour there very few Christians en- tered. Muslims make most use of the space, taking their shoes off, grabbing a prayer mat

– Salam Alaikum to the others – and then some quick prayers.

A few curious visitors and tired travellers also arrived, seeking a place to nap – and were quickly chased downstairs by the chap- lain to the ‘comfy’ airport seats where sleep- ing is allowed.

A book of travellers’ messages though re- vealed many Christians do pass through here. “Jesus is love,” says one from March. Another scribbler takes up a full page to quote the Gospel of John. Not to be

bettered, an Argentinian fills two pages alternating between English and Spanish.

Vana is less fulsome in her words, and sends ‘some blessings’ with a beautifully rendered, centered Our Father, with a Crucifix below. The messages are quite touching, post-Covid. It wasn’t too long ago that the book sat unread and unfilled.

Now all but one page is covered in international messages. They come from Ireland and from Syria; from Singapore, the US and the UK.

Fr Binoy Nilayattingal is a Catholic chaplain to such global passengers and staff at Gatwick Airport. He celebrates Mass three times a week in the airport. Fr Binoy, a Syro-Malabar priest, said things were tough during

the pandemic. “It was terri- ble,” he recalls. “Even at the beginning it was scary.

Lockdown started in March and then I practically stopped going to the airport. There was no life there.

“Now slowly it is pick- ing up. But the pandemic affected a lot of the people working (at the airport). Many people lost their jobs, especially those Europeans who were working in the duty free shops — most of them went back to their home countries.” He said one of the things he likes about the role is the oppor- tunity to hear travellers’


“A couple of times at least people have come for Confession. They are going on holiday and they want to make a confession and have a chat.

“That is one of the things I like because some- times you really feel that you are needed there.”

Fr Binoy said his biggest challenge is mak- ing people aware the chap- laincy exists.

“The sad thing is in essence we are providing a service and many people are not aware of it,” he said.

“So I always think you should be seen so people make use of the opportunity.”

If you are in Gatwick Airport over the summer holidays, keep an eye out for Fr Binoy walking the terminal. Make the time to say hello, visit the chap- laincy or, if you are free, pop in for Confession or Mass. There is no need to leave your Faith at the

check-in desk – take it with you to the meditation room or chaplaincy. Leave a message in the travellers’ book, if there is one pre- sent. The ones at Schiphol were written in many dif- ferent languages, bringing together many faiths, and speaking of love and God. Each ultimately shared the same message, whether expressed explicitly or left- unstated: good luck fellow travellers, and God bless.

Daniel Harkins is a journalist, former editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer and contributing editor to The Scottish Catholic.

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