Coronavirus brings troubled times to airport

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Fr. John Mullins maintains a visible presence at Pearson International Airport.

By Mickey Conlon

ONTARIO, Canada, (The Catholic Register)  – It’s not been difficult for Fr John Mullins to practise social distancing in his ministry at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. After all, the 150,000 to 170,000 daily passengers the travel hub normally sees has dwindled to a trickle during the COVID-19 pandemic. And many of the thousands of workers who make up the airport community have seen their jobs put on hiatus due to the drastic drop in air travel.

But Mullins still sees the need to maintain a spiritual presence at the airport. The need is particularly apparent at the chapel outside his office, particularly on Sundays when the hunger for the Sunday Mass is strong at a time when services have been suspended in parishes around the world.

“Our chapel spaces are open and people do come in and pray,” Mullins said. “I know when I do my Sunday Mass in my office, when I look inside the chapel space, there’s people praying as if they’re coming to church on a Sunday.”

The pandemic has made for quite a different scene at Canada’s busiest airport — the second busiest international air gateway in the Americas — since the country went into lockdown mode in mid-March. The huge complex had been one of those rare places that seemed to be bursting at the seams 24 hours a day. Now it’s a cavernous space with people few and far between, save for staff necessary to maintain the operation.

“It’s devastating to watch all my friends here — and the core of our community are the employees here — saying their farewells to me over the last number of weeks as they were going off on wage subsidy or (Employment Insurance),” said Mullins, who has served the airport and its two chapels for the past four years.

A scene that vividly shows how much traffic has slowed is the airline limousine parking lot behind Terminal 3, said Mullins. Usually filled with up to 1,500 limos waiting for travellers, it’s pretty well empty now, affecting so many whose livelihoods are now on hold. In early May it was announced that 10 limo drivers have died from COVID-19.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “The whole world got cold-cocked by this.”

The crowds are gone but the importance remains of maintaining a spiritual presence at the airport. Pearson may be at a mere fraction of its normal capacity, but it’s still welcoming people from places as far-flung as China, Germany and Pakistan, and from the United States and Mexico. Domestic travel also continues and rescue flights repatriating Canadians are still arriving, and many of these people, and airport employees, seek a spiritual presence.

Mullins is at the airport daily, saying Mass in his office, like all the other priests in the archdiocese. And he’s out in his field, wandering the huge terminals and getting in about 20,000 steps daily to make his presence known among the screeners monitoring incoming travellers, the bare-bones airline staff and other core workers keeping the airport open.

“In prayer and solidarity, I walk around with the rosary and that’s what draws people,” he said. “They say, ‘Good, keep praying Father.’ ”

Mullins has been keeping an ear to the ground at the airport over the years and finds it’s an under-appreciated part of the local fabric. Economically, about 25 percent of activity in the Greater Toronto Area is connected to Pearson, and on the world scene it’s really a “global nerve centre.” You see it when crises envelop the world or at least certain parts of it.

Not long before the pandemic, the major crisis involved a Ukrainian airliner shot down Jan. 8 over Tehran as tensions were ramping up between Iran and the United States. The incident killed 130 Canadians who were scheduled to arrive at Pearson. But he’s seen nothing like this pandemic.

“It’s an incredible collapse of what makes this operate.”

The slowdown has allowed Mullins to gain a new perspective of the airport community. Recently, he went downtown for training in case he was needed for hospital chaplaincy (Mullins previously experienced dealing with a coronavirus when he ministered at St. Michael’s Hospital during the SARS scare in 2003). He saw deserted downtown streets, save for the homeless. It opened his eyes to a similar situation at Pearson.

“We have a homeless population here, too,” said Mullins. “They became much more visible as there were fewer passengers. Then there were no passengers at all and they became so conspicuous they kind of just disappeared in the woodwork.”

He’s also seen happy faces, people departing for Florida or other warmer climates and a needed mid-winter break one day, only to watch as many of these same faces returned mere days later “looking like displaced people,” shell-shocked by fast-moving international responses to contain the virus.

“Our comfortable lifestyle was shaken up.”

As the lockdown continues, he’s also noticing other changes, like how extra traffic spurred each May by Marian pilgrims has dried up. He also has “air-side” access to hangars and behind-the-scenes areas that are closed to the public. He’s amazed at the number of planes that normally would be filling the skies, 50, 60 of them, idled side by side.

But he’s also seen the good. There’s an ecumenical spirit between the faiths and a solidarity that’s been strengthened by the crisis, and it all began with the opening declaration signed by all faiths announcing the suspension of services at the multi-faith chapels.

It’s a ministry, Mullins said, that is a “beautiful place” for interfacing with other faiths and the secular world. And it’s a ministry that will survive this “bump in the road.” Air travel may slow down, but it won’t stop.

“There’s always going to be a ministry here,” said Mullins. “A ministry of welcome, a ministry of presence.”

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