By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
His love affair with the flock he shepherds began five years ago for Bishop Thomas Zinkula during his ordination to the episcopacy and installation as ninth Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport. The Church’s nuptial imagery resonated with him then — and now. “We’re married today. As far as I’m concerned the love affair has begun,” he told the gathering at St. John Vianney Church in Bettendorf on June 22, 2017.
Every marriage comes with joys, challenges and some curveballs. “What’s that saying? If you want to hear God laugh, tell him what your plans are,” Bishop Zinkula said during an interview last week in which he reflected on his episcopacy. “We always have to, in our lives, be open to the events that occur and surprise us along the way, to adjust, adapt and be flexible and let the Holy Spirit work within the situation. Squeeze grace out of it. That’s a line I use a lot.”
Bishop Zinkula’s interview with The Catholic Messenger covered a wide range of topics:
Q. Evangelization is the centerpiece of your episcopacy beginning with your Vision 20/20 initiative. How is your vision of evangelization following your hopes and expectations?
A. “It started out with a bang, with the Vision 20/20 Convocation (in 2019). Preparing for the convocation took a lot of work: listening sessions, planning the event, executing it, etc. It clearly was a good experience for people. We were going to have a celebratory event at St. Patrick in Iowa City the following year. COVID interfered with that. We still did things during that time, like hiring a Director of Evangelization and initiating Emmaus (small faith-sharing) groups, and we’ve been actively engaged with the Synod (Pope Francis’ call for Catholics around the world to journey together to explore what it means to be Church). We’re getting rolling again.”
Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your episcopacy?
A. “We started out really focused on ‘reading’ the virus, trying to figure out, ‘What is this thing?’ ‘How does it work?’ ‘What do we need to do to avoid transmitting it?’ Over time, we also needed to learn how to read people.” Initially, Catholics went along with the precautions. There was a sense of, “We’re all in this together, this mystery. We don’t know how this thing is playing itself out,” he said. Ultimately, you have to find a balance. Even though a purist would say, ‘Here’s what we need to be doing,’ you can push people only so far. Even though the right thing would be for everybody to stay masked, stay at a distance and take other precautions, eventually people are going to push back.” Bishop Zinkula learned by experience to balance precautions with people’s patience, mental health and the need to get back to work and school, “especially once we had the vaccine. That’s what I’ve learned managing an institution and people. The virus didn’t always bring out the best in people, so it was about trying to help people view it through the eyes of faith, in terms of our pro-life perspective and the common good, rather than politics or secular ideologies. How can we find some middle ground, as close to the Kingdom as we can get?”
Q. What are five highlights from your five years as bishop?
A. “The relationships I have developed with people, which have grown over the five years. That’s who we are as human beings; it’s all about relationships, so that’s been a highlight for me. A second highlight is diocesan events, such as the Chrism Mass and ordinations, along with major parish events that I have been invited to participate in. Those are joyful occasions for me, gathering together with people throughout the diocese who embrace the faith and want to celebrate it.” A third highlight is hands-on ministry, such as school Masses, confirmation Masses, prison ministry and subbing on weekends in parishes, “the regular parish priest kinds of things.” The fourth highlight is the major initiatives, such as the Vision 20/20 Convocation, the Capital Campaign and the diocesan Synod.
A fifth highlight fits in the category of travels. He traveled to India to give the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award to the Dalai Lama and bicycled across Iowa as a participant in RAGBRAI 2018 with the Pedaling to the Peripheries team. He offered Mass at the end of each day’s ride. He also participated with deacon candidates in a border immersion experience to El Paso, Texas/ Ciudad Juarez, Mexico last fall. Later this summer, he will travel to Ireland, serving as spiritual leader for The Catholic Messenger Faith of the Irish pilgrimage. In September, he travels to Africa with a representative of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Africa on which he serves. Travels to other countries provide another opportunity to experience the universal Church, which broadens his perspective as he leads the diocesan Church.
Q. What are five challenges in five years as bishop?
A. “Secularism, people stepping away from the Church, especially young people, declining church attendance, people not availing themselves of the sacraments.” A second challenge is the declining number of priests. Third is polarization, division and partisanship in society and the Church. A fourth challenge relates to clustering, linking and closing parishes because of demographic changes and fewer people practicing the faith. “That’s a daunting task,” he said. The COVID-19 pandemic is the fifth challenge.
Q. How do you spend your time in the car on travels around the diocese?
A. “Oftentimes, I just drive in silence, sometimes for a long period of time, reflecting. Or maybe I listen to a podcast or to music (all kinds).” He may pray. “I have a Liturgy of the Hours app on my phone that I can read or listen to. So when it’s dark and I haven’t had a chance to pray Evening Prayer yet or, if I leave really early in the morning and haven’t been able to pray Morning Prayer or the Office of Readings yet, I can listen to it. I’d rather read at my own pace, but listening works when reading isn’t possible.” Sometimes he makes “hands-free” phone calls.
Q. What have you eaten more of than any other food during visits to parishes?
A. “Cookies, bars, cake and doughnuts. I have to be strong so I don’t eat too much!” During his last parish assignment in the Dubuque Archdiocese, “we had about 100 funerals a year. So one thing I don’t have a need to eat is the traditional funeral lunch. People know what those are,” he joked.
Q. How do you deal with people who treat you like a celebrity?
A. “I try to ignore, downplay or deflect it. Sometimes I am not at my best and respond poorly,” he admitted. “I might say something a little sarcastic. People have good intentions, but it’s not good for me when people do that. It’s not good for my ego, my pride, and it’s not good for the Church. I try to transform it into a more normal interaction by being who I am. People see me as a bishop; I appreciate the respect for the position, definitely. I was called to be a priest; I was called to be a bishop. I said yes to God. I’m just an Iowa Catholic farm kid; at my core, that’s who I am. I don’t need or want to be put on a pedestal.”
Q. What do you appreciate most about being Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport?
A. “Wonderful collaborators; good and holy priests and deacons, faithful committed laity, a great chancery staff, a strong Catholic diocesan university. Those are the people I collaborate with, which is basically everyone.”
Q. What do you do to stay healthy as a bishop?
A. “Exercise regularly; try to get enough sleep and eat healthily. I’m not perfect at any of these things though,” he admits. Prayer also keeps him healthy as does getting together with family and friends. He takes an annual retreat and belongs to a priest prayer/support group that he has been a part of since his early years as a priest in the Dubuque Archdiocese. “Priests here call it an Emmaus group. It involves prayer, socialization and a meal. The main thing though is the sharing of your life. Each member takes a chunk of time to do that, while the others simply listen. His favorite place to walk when he’s short on time is the Duck Creek Parkway Trail, practically out the back door of his apartment. “Some of my best ideas for homilies and talks come when I’m walking.”
Q. People sometimes ask if you miss being a priest. How do you respond?
A. Occasionally, people “will address me as ‘Father’ and start to apologize. I respond, ‘Once a father, always a father.’ It’s more a term of endearment than ‘Bishop’ is. I was called to the priesthood; that’s what I discerned — parish ministry, serving as a parish priest. That’s where my heart is. Then I was called to the episcopacy and that’s fine. I enjoy being out there doing things that priests do rather than the administrative aspects of this ministry. It lifts my heart to be among the people.”
Q. What is your vision for the Davenport Diocese five years from now?
A. “That we are a diocese with more and more missionary disciples. Community is really important; there needs to be some turning inward for that, but there is a need for turning outward as well, reaching out to those on the peripheries, which could be anyone. We think of the poor and the homeless, but there are existential peripheries as well. I want parishes to be focused on mission, not maintenance; to be on fire with God’s love; and to have a strong sense of community among the priests and the laity, recognizing and celebrating that we’re all in this together. There are a lot of challenges out there. We need to be a strong community and to be evangelizing and reaching out to others.”
Q. Any final comments?
A. “There are times when — not at every Mass or occasion, but often enough — I look at people and I feel an overwhelming sense of love. These are the people of the diocese, the faithful for whom I am responsible. These are the people to whom I made a commitment when I was installed as bishop. I just feel that feeling of love, such as during the Chrism Mass. People come from around the diocese and really want to be there. It’s Holy Week and people are in a good, holy frame of mind. There are other events, too, like when I’m subbing at weekend Masses, when people embrace their Catholic faith with joyful hearts, and participate fully, actively and consciously in the celebration. Those are my favorite times.”