Military chaplain shocked at being named bishop for Fairbanks


Pope Francis decision to tapped Father Chad Zielinski to become the new bishop for the Diocese of Fairbanks shocked the active military chaplain at Eielson Air Force Base.

Bishop-elect Chad Zielinski, at age 50, will be the 11th youngest of 267 active U.S. Catholic bishops. He will lead 11,000 Catholics who reside in the nation’s most northern and geographically vast diocese — the first time in recent history that an active military chaplain has been called to shepherd a diocese.

Bishop-elect Zielinski’s ordination and installation will occur on Dec. 15, at 3 p.m. in the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. A vespers prayer service will take place the night before at 6 p.m. in Sacred Heart Cathedral.

The Fairbanks Diocese, encompassing 410,000 square miles, has been under the temporary leadership of Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz since last November after Pope Francis asked then Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler to lead the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Archbishop Schwietz praised Bishop Kettler’s successor.

“Bishop-elect Zielinski exemplifies many of the qualities needed to serve the people of the Diocese of Fairbanks,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “He has learned to work with people from all backgrounds, and do so under the stresses of war. Yet he is also humble and prayerful. I understand why the Holy Father chose him as a servant leader for Fairbanks.”

Bishop-elect Zielinski, however, was surprised by the appointment. Writing to his parishioners at Eielson AFB, he explained he received a 6:15 a.m. call from the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, telling him of the pope’s appointment. At first he thought the Nuncio had made a mistake.

“I was so tired and could not think straight, and just kept saying, ‘This makes no sense; how can this be?’” he recalled.

The Vatican ambassador “could sense my overwhelming confusion, frustration and bewilderment,” Bishop-elect Zielinski added. “So, he said, let’s talk on Monday. I later apologized and thanked the saintly man for his patience.”

Bishop-elect Zielinski was ordained a priest for the Catholic Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan in 1996. He was an active duty Air Force serviceman for four years, before feeling called to the priesthood.

On learning of Bishop-elect Zielinski’s appointment to lead Fairbanks, Gaylord Diocese Bishop Steven Raica noted the priest’s ardent response to God’s call.

“Father Chad is an avid fisherman,” he said. “Our Lord seemed to favor fishermen when he called his first disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John. They responded with a resounding “Yes!” to our Lord’s invitation: ‘Follow me!’ Now Father Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the Bishop of Fairbanks. Father Chad has responded with his resounding ‘Yes!’”

Bishop-elect Zielinski attended seminary at Mt. Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, Oregon, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1989. In 1996 he received a Masters of Divinity degree from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.

Following his ordination as a priest, he served at several parishes in Gaylord as well as in Hispanic outreach. Then in 2001 terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He saw a need for Catholic chaplains in the military and asked his bishop if he could serve as a chaplain. He was granted permission, and in 2003 he found himself serving in Baghdad.

Bishop-elect Zielinski has seen three tours of duties in war zones. His last assignment was in Afghanistan where he served 18 forward combat positions. Often his prayer services and Masses were punctuated by the sound of live fire. On one occasion he was traveling in a military convoy that came under attack and the truck in front of his was destroyed by a rocket. One of his parishioners was driving that truck and died in the attack. He ended that day conducting a funeral service.

Archbishop for the Military Services in the United States Timothy Broglio celebrated the Fairbanks Diocese’s gain.

“Bishop-elect Zielinski is an exemplary priest,” Archbishop Broglio said. ”His service as a recruiter of Air Force chaplains brought us into frequent contact. He later impressed me with his piety, zeal and immense kindness in his service at the Air Force Academy. The faithful in Fairbanks will find in him a shepherd after the Heart of Jesus. I only regret losing a fine chaplain!”

Bishop-elect Zielinski was assigned to Eielson AFB in 2012. Until he received the call to be a bishop, he served as Deputy Wing Chaplain, 354th Fighter Wing. He wrote his parishioners at Eielson that he spent a long time praying in the chapel after he finally comprehended the pope’s request.

“My simple approach to this call in life is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul and all my mind and serve my brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Fairbanks,” he told his parishioners.

While the Fairbanks Diocese has a small Catholic population, it presents unique challenges for a bishop.

Only eight of the 46 parishes are financially self-supporting with most situated in small villages of 300 to 900 residents. Eight of these locations lack running water and in deep winter the temperature often sinks to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit with the sun coming out for only three hours a day.

To assist him in shepherding the diocese, Bishop-elect Zielinski will have the service of 15 priests, 30 ordained deacons — most of whom are Alaska Native, seven religious sisters and two religious brothers.

While there are no Alaska Native priests, most Catholics in the diocese are Alaska Native, including Athabaskan Indians, Yup’ik and Inupiat Eskimos.

To reach the many scattered communities, planes are integral, but fuel costs run about $400 per hour of travel.

Bishop-elect Zielinski has chosen as his motto: Illum Opertet Crescere, “He must increase.” It is taken from the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel in which Saint John the Baptist expresses his joy at the arrival of Jesus, telling his disciples, “He must increase; I must decrease.”


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