An evening with a ‘spiritual father’


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Sixty balloons were suspended above the head of Bishop-elect Thomas Zinkula as he caught up on emails in his office at St. Pius X Seminary the night of April 19. The rector was too preoccupied to notice the floating birthday gift from the seminarians to their “spiritual father.”

Barb Arland-Fye
Bishop-elect Thomas Zinkula, left, and Father Jerry Kopacek pray before dinner with seminarians at St. Pius X Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, in this April 25 photo. The bishop-elect will be ordained and installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport on June 22. He had been serving as rector of the seminary when his appointment was announced.

The balloons were placed on the ceiling in honor of his 60th birthday, which coincided with the April 19 announcement of his appointment as the Ninth Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport. He spent the day in Davenport and later stopped by his mom’s house to celebrate his birthday with a Dairy Queen treat.

Seminarian Eric Zenisek, 24, instigated the birthday balloon project but Bishop-elect Zinkula returned the favor — once he looked up from his desk. He found a window-cleaning squeegee and pushed some of the balloons into the hallway to “share” with the seminarians. Eric, whose duty is to clean the hallway, jokingly reminded the bishop-elect: “Personal property isn’t allowed in the public area.” The bishop-elect “handled the balloons like a champ,” added seminarian Jeff Frieden, 20.


A week after the life-changing announcement, Bishop-elect Zinkula was focusing on his seminarians, completing another year of study and formation. On a Tuesday evening in late April, they prayed Evening Prayer in the seminary’s chapel, just down the hall from the rector’s office. Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, creating a glow in the ornate chapel where 16 seminarians, the bishop-elect and

Father Jerry Kopacek, the seminary’s director of spiritual formation, prayed from their breviaries.

After Evening Prayer, the young men and their spiritual leaders walked downstairs to the kitchen and gathered around a large island where supper was laid out. One of the seminarians led the group in prayer and another announced: “There are enough Sloppy Joes for everyone to have two servings.” Also on the menu were corn, fruit and dessert (rhubarb cobbler) that a seminarian’s relative brought in. The bishop-elect waited to fill his plate until everyone else was served. The men share dinner with their rector/bishop-elect four days a week. The other three days they go to Loras College or eat leftovers. Seminarians spend plenty of quality time with the rector, who lives with them.

The Catholic Messenger visited St. Pius X Seminary and interviewed the seminarians to get their perspective on the next bishop of the Diocese of Davenport. Here are insights they shared:

“What do you call Bishop-elect Zinkula: “Zinkster,” “Boss Man,” “Father.” “What about ‘awesome dude?’” Bishop-elect Zinkula joked. That was the “title” that surfaced in a “Whispers in the Loggia” blog the day of the announcement. “When are you going to start handing out $20 bills so your stories don’t get told?” a seminarian teased.

What qualities would you use to describe Bishop-elect Zinkula?

“Very paternal,” said Chris Grow, 22. “Definitely a servant leader,” observed Eric Zenisek. “He’s very good at calling you out when you need to grow, but in such a caring way. You never feel personally attacked,” said Joel Smith, 19. “He has a pastoral approach,” Eric said. “Very collaborative; proper level of authority,” Kyle Tietz, 24, said. “He’s willing to talk with us, engage with us. He sets the guidance.”

“He relates to young men very well,” said Jayden Burke, 19. “I always say he’s strong physically and mentally as well as spiritually,” Joel said. “He’s probably the most physically fit bishop-elect in the country,” Kyle added. The others, agreed, but mentioned that they were equally impressed by the bench-pressing skills of Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., which made national news!

How has your faith formation benefited from Bishop-elect Zinkula’s guidance? “He’s definitely a product of the Pope Francis model, pastoral model of Vatican II. He’s definitely open to changes and our suggestions,” Eric said.

Chris noted: “He’s so personable, so paternal, and avuncular….He’s easy to open up to, to be honest with, because he’s so personable. We can be honest with him and with ourselves.”

“If anyone starts a discussion that is insulting, he’s turned off by that,” Joel said. “He turns it (the conversation) in a loving, Christian way.”

Eric: “We talk about Catholic stuff … some of the best conversations we’ve had with him are over breakfast or lunch, talking about (Archbishop Robert) Barron’s podcast,” for example.

Putting formation into practice

Kyle recalled a sacred time when he and Eric were invited by Bishop-elect Zinkula to accompany him to the hospital for an anointing of the sick. An older man was dying and the family had called for a priest; Bishop-elect Zinkula got the call. “I was still new in the seminary,” Kyle said. “I didn’t know what to expect.” Even though the grieving family didn’t know the bishop-elect, “he engaged them in prayer, lifted them up in prayer,” Eric said. “It was great to see him do that; it was a huge blessing. We always talk about the pastoral, but to see him put it into practice was great.”

Household chores

That morning, the bishop-elect had sent out an email reminding the guys about house chores. “He used a crying emoji,” (an icon showing sadness) Chris said. “He’s big on the ‘compliment sandwich.’ He always makes sure to affirm people,” Chris added. Here’s how the compliment sandwich works: Bishop-elect Zinkula starts out with something positive about the person he’s addressing, then lets that person know what needs to be improved and concludes with an affirmation.

What’ will you miss most about Bishop-elect Zinkula?

“He’s our father,” Eric said simply. “His presence,” Joel responded. “It’s just like any parishioners when they have a priest who is changing assignments,” Chris said. Kyle will miss “his witness to the priesthood and his mannerisms. He’s got these (expressive) hand movements,” Kyle demonstrates and the ‘growl.’” Everyone made the growl sound, which actually is a self-effacing mannerism on the bishop-elect’s part. Jayden will miss the bishop’s friendship. “He’s got a great sense of humor,” Joel said.

The seminarians noted that Bishop-elect Zinkula was the first person to sign a “sympathy card” for Jayden, pertaining to the retirement of race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. The card, Jayden said, “was a big surprise to me.”

When they learned the news

The seminarians were not aware of the bishop-elect’s appointment until the early hours of April 19, when the Vatican made the announcement. One of the seminarians, an early riser, discovered the news and started texting messages about it. Up until that point, the bishop-elect had been sworn to secrecy. Eric recalled that on the Saturday of Palm Sunday weekend (after the bishop-elect received the phone call) “he was pretty pensive.” Eric thought the rector might have been worried about a relative and Eric asked how the relative was doing. The relative was doing fine, so Eric didn’t ask any additional questions.

Their reaction to news of Bishop-elect Zinkula’s appointment:

They all had joked at one time or another that their rector would become a bishop. They also knew of the opening in the Davenport Diocese with the retirement of Bishop Martin Amos. Some had teased the rector: “You’ll probably be the next Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport.”
The day of the announcement, however, was “surreal” for Chris. Eric was so preoccupied that he missed a scheduled appointment. “The whole day was a blur,” he said. “We used it (the live stream broadcast) as an excuse to get out of Spanish class,” said Jeff Frieden. “He’s one of the best pastoral figures I know. He actually confirmed me and Jacob Francois.”

Bishop-elect Zinkula, on leaving his ministry as seminary rector

“Basically, you’re a spiritual father. I got to know these guys really well, every one of them … living with them, praying with them … these guys are bright, fun-loving; they’re on fire with the faith.”

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