A Religious Sister who has devoted fifteen years to the ministry of airport chaplaincy has been awarded the 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice' medal by Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton. Sr Jo Threlfall SND received the medal at a Mass celebrated with several past and present chaplains as well as monks from nearby Worth Abbey. Many of Sr Jo's former Chaplaincy colleagues and airport workers were also in attendance. The celebration also marked the 45th anniversary of the foundation of the Chaplaincy at the airport.
Sr Jo has written the following reflection on the path which led her to airport ministry and looks back on the enormous variety of people and situations she has encountered along the way:
"After spending over twenty years of my religious life in Nigeria and then a brief period in Zimbabwe and South Africa, I reluctantly returned to the British Province. I was missioned to London where I worked in the Africa Section at CAFOD, taught English to asylum seekers and did some chaplaincy work in Brixton Prison. All this it seems was great preparation for being invited a decade and a half ago by the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton to be the first Catholic woman Airport Chaplain at Gatwick Airport.
This is a very rewarding and privileged ministry, being available to listen to and support passengers and staff of every nationality, culture and faith and those with no defined belief. Daily we meet people who are anxious, fearful, troubled in many different ways, who need someone they can turn to with confidence to share their burdens and give them courage to continue their journey. Many tell me that they find it easier to talk to a woman and know that they will not be judged.
In today's world it is most important to work in a multi-faith team. It is so enriching to share with Chaplains of other faiths whether Buddhist or Muslim. Pope Francis reminded us at an International Airport Chaplains Conference recently that - "Each has his or her own story, known only to God, with its joys and sorrows its hopes and troubles. In this setting, you are called to bring the message and presence of Christ, who alone knows what lies hidden in the heart of each person, and to bring to everyone, whether Christian or not the Good News of God's tender love, hope and peace."
When we have time, we walk around both landside and airside to chat with passengers. Our elderly Salvation Army colleague used to say we were… "Loitering with intent". I like to go and talk with the vulnerable elderly people in the Special Assistance Area Airside, who may be returning to the Caribbean having visited their family members in this country.
One day a mother in tears told me that her son whom she thought was working in South America was imprisoned in Spain on a drug trafficking offence. She certainly needed prayers and assurance of God's help as she travelled to visit him in prison.
Another time, a Sister who was known to me was travelling to Germany. She called into the Chaplaincy before going to departures. Ten minutes later she returned looking very distressed. In her rucksack she'd been carrying a small Swiss army knife and was about to be arrested. She had explained to officials that she could leave it with the Chaplain who would return it to her community. This seemed to be sufficient for her to be released.
There is certainly never a dull moment in this ministry. Emergencies occur more often than we hear of in the news, and even the police find the need for a friendly chaplain to talk to a distressed passenger or homeless person.
This recognition of this award has really made me proud to be a Sister of Notre Dame. It is a sign of the high regard that Bishop Richard has for SNDs and the work that we do."
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