‘Religion-free’ spaces

‘Religion-free’ spaces

Visitors to Dublin Airport will be familiar with the simple yet profound message on the belltower of the on-site Catholic Church: God is love. That statement from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St John neatly encapsulates 5,000 years of salvation history.

At first thought, the presence of a church at an airport, and the ministry of chaplain Fr Des Doyle, may seem like a peculiar thing from another era. But as in all places of comings and goings, all human life is there in the airport.

Think, for example, of the emigrant taking the lonely flight home from Australia after news that a parent has died. Or the immigrant in Ireland frantically making their way to the airport for a long trip to the land of their birth in the hope of arriving for a brief ‘goodbye’ before a loved one dies.

Airports are often places we associated with happiness: holidays, a honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity etc. But, for many people they are also places where painful and difficult journeys begin. And if “God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday” as Kavanagh wrote, then God is surely in the airport.

Dublin Airport has announced that the traditional ‘blessing of the planes’ ceremony cannot take place as usual in coming years due to security considerations. Apparently, the regulator has changed security rules ‘airside’ and the chaplain blessing the assembled planes is now a no-no.

The airport authorities say they are looking at other ways to facilitate the blessing that will ensure that security procedures are adhered to.

Given that the decision was announced after atheist campaigners questioned the blessing given that atheists were not part of the ceremony, people of faith will understandably question what is really going on.

Sources close to the process have told this newspaper that the campaign by atheists has had no impact on the decision, and safety and security is indeed the reason.

Whatever the reasons behind the decision, it’s a curious campaign by atheists to try to stop a blessing ceremony because they are not part of it.

Secular campaigners often tell us that they have nothing against religion or people of faith. They simply want to be left alone, they claim.

But, at the same time, there is a strand of strident atheism that can only be described as aggressive secularism. They actually care little about deep philosophical debates, and care more about removing every vestige of faith from the public square.

If puritanism has been defined as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. What does one say of atheism de type irlandais?

At least for some atheists, their allergy around faith compels them to work to strip life of all transcendent meaning. Why, for example, if pilots, crew and passengers draw some comfort and consolation from knowing that at 35,000 feet their plane is blessed, try to stop this?

Not everyone who goes to hospital is religious, but people even people who wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘Gospel greedy’ often draw solace from religious iconography. Why should this be removed in favour of some sort of enforced bland uniformity with little more than lilac paint to lift the heart and mind?

Recent years have also seen a concerted effort by atheist campaigners to eject religious chaplains from hospitals and from the defence forces. These should be ‘religion-free’ spaces the logic goes.

There is a stunning tone deafness about the campaigns, and certainly no-one involved in these campaigns can have any experience of dealing with a chaplain at a difficult time.

Take, for example, when fallen soldier Private Seán Rooney was murdered by Hezbollah Islamists in Lebanon in 2022. As news spread in the close-knit Defence Forces community, it was the priest-chaplains who took the lead. It was the ‘padre’ serving in Lebanon who comforted Private Rooney’s comrades. It was another chaplain in Ireland who drove at pace during the night, to ensure that he could bring the dreadful news to Private Rooney’s mother Natasha that the child she had nursed in her arms just a few years earlier had died in the service of his nation.

Bland secular platitudes and cheap nihilism feeds nobody’s soul.