President’s Letter | May 2021

Dear friends and colleagues,

It was my estimated predecessor the Rev Georges Lane who told me about the origin of the words “chaplain, chaplaincy and chapel”. Did you know it referred to the St Martin of Tour’s cloak which, according to the famous legend he had shared with a freezing beggar at the gate of the French city Amiens. The young Roman soldier from a Hungarian noble family has been remembered for his famous generosity since then. The cloak was the property of the Roman army and it was probably the liner that the young man shared. Later the cloak (cappa in Latin) itself became a sacred relic, the church it was kept in was called a chapel (cappella) and the priests whose office was to carry the relic chaplains (cappellani). Beyond the fact that as a Protestant I don’t personally give much credit to relics in general and this one in particular, I must say that I love the story and what it means in the definition of our role and ministry in the airport.

Chaplaincy is about generosity; it’s about meeting the needs of those we encounter. They might sometimes be beggars in the airport but more often passengers trying to find the gate for their flight and so many other issues regarding their journey and situation. Generosity in our mission might not necessarily mean giving our cloak or spending our money (although it sometimes does) but is mainly a generosity with our time. Whom of us hasn’t spent a whole day or night (and sometimes both) with a passenger lost in transit? Whom of us hasn’t generously run from one terminal to another to spend a few minutes comforting a person mourning a loved one? Whom of us hasn’t spent hours on the phone trying to find a shelter or a ticket for a passenger in need? Whom of us hasn’t spent hours and cups of coffees with staff anxious for their job and how they are going to support their family? We could keep on the list of examples when we’ve been good Samaritans or indeed St Martins to the people who reach out to us or whom we “accidentally” meet in the terminals.

We define our role as bridging emotional and spiritual support to passengers and staff. I also love the way we talk about chaplaincy as a ministry of presence. But I have come to consider the importance of actually doing something for the people we help in order to be able to bring this support and effectively present for them when they need us. I recently met a lady who had spent a few days in the airport no knowing if the transaction she had made to purchase a ticket had been successful or not. She was exhausted and psychologically very week. The story she was telling was barely believable and full of very strange ideas. The airline with whom she was supposed to have bought a ticket couldn’t find a trace of her ticket and wouldn’t believe her story. I must admit that if she hadn’t been speaking in Spanish rather than in French, I would have thought she was a homeless person telling me a story with little reality in it.

What happened was that she had try to purchase the ticket on some cheap website. Her bank considered it as not safe, blocked the purchase and the credit card. She didn’t have a phone and simply needed to make two international phone calls, one to her family to tell them she was OK and another one to the bank in Latin America to solve the problem.

Listening to her was fundamental to understand her need but, in order to help her I needed her to trust me and that couldn’t be done without lending her my phone so that she would reassure her loved ones and solve her financial situation. It was by doing something for her that I gained her trust and that we managed to find a good solution and put her on the next flight home. She continued talking about her strange ideas which came out to include a bizarre spiritual dimension to it. But that simply was who she was, a strange lady from Latin America who needed someone to take the time to assist her buying a ticket and flying back home.

Doing something for a person or even better doing something with a person is what our job is all about. Whatever the need and whatever the situation. Our support cannot be ethereal. It has to consider the material and, dare I say, operational needs of the person we are trying to help. Yes, listening is essential, being simply available and present is so many time what people need. But, and we all know it very well, we also need to be aware of the material assistance people need. Holding both the spiritual and material dimension of life is what defines our specific role, calling and ministry in the airport.

Did you know the French word for chaplain? It is aumônier, it comes from aumône which translates to alms or charity. Our job is caring for the wholeness of the persons we encounter and meeting their needs generously with our capacity, desire to serve and passion for those we serve.

Pierre de Mareuil,
IACAC President
Paris-Charles de Gaulle