By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
He learned how to be a bishop in the Diocese of Davenport and now, six years later, Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula is preparing to move, a confident shepherd ready to lead the Archdiocese of Dubuque, beginning Oct.18.
“When I came here, I needed the people of our diocese to teach me how to be a bishop. It wasn’t classroom instruction. It was about trying on that role for size and finding my way. I think I’ve grown in confidence, being a bishop feels more natural now,” he said during an Oct. 3 interview with The Catholic Messenger.
Preparations for his move are evident in his third-floor office, with its nearly empty bookcases and packing boxes that await their final contents. He is packing less tangible items as well, memories of the people he has ministered to and encountered along the way. Asked what he leaves behind, he said, “I’m leaving behind a chunk of time that I spent ministering here, which has been meaningful to me, a blessing to me, and a privilege. I shared who I was and whatever gifts I have with people. I’m leaving behind part of my spirit.”
The imprint of his spirit appears on the defining aspect of his episcopacy: evangelization, going to the peripheries to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people. In the beginning, he strove to “carry out the good work of the bishops who preceded me.” By the end of his first year, however, “I said, ‘Evangelization is the thing I’m going to focus on’ … it’s the mission given to the Church by Jesus. I felt a need for that to be at the center, and to name it. So, we had Vision 20/20 and the Vision 20/20 Convocation (in 2019).”
“That was impactful, and then COVID slowed things down for a while. Now, with the Synodal Summit, we’ve picked things back up with our three-year plan with three themes: welcoming and belonging, youth and family engagement and Church teaching and tradition.”
The pronoun “we” figures prominently in all of Archbishop-elect Zinkula’s references to impactful aspects of his ministry. He is proud of the Chancery staff, the commissions, boards, clergy, women religious and the faithful who have helped him to realize accomplishments that benefit the diocese.
Among the accomplishments:
- Upon This Rock Capital Campaign, which reached its $28 million goal this year to aid priests in their retirement and health care costs, pay for seminarians’ education costs and benefit parishes throughout the diocese.
- The launch of the diocesan Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. For starters, maintenance staffers are installing 1,400 LED lights in the Chancery building.
- Creation of a Gender Committee, which devoted two-and-a-half years to studying gender-related issues. That deliberative process led to promulgation of “Guidelines for Pastoral Accompaniment of Sexual and Gender Minorities” last week.
- Collaboration with St. Ambrose University. St. Ambrose hosted the Synodal Summit this past June, the Vision 20/20 Convocation in 2019, and organized other significant events, including the “Francis at Ten: a Papacy of Possibilities” conference this past March. The diocese and the university’s theology department collaborated on adult/family formation and St. Ambrose’s KALA Radio station produces the Catholic Messenger Conversations podcast with the archbishop-elect.
Among the memorable events of his episcopacy, he said, was delivering the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award to the Dalai Lama in India in 2019. The archbishop-elect has long admired the Tibetan Buddhist leader, renowned for his commitment to fostering peace and freedom.
RAGBRAI — the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — isn’t just memorable. People remind him all the time about it! He led the Pedaling to the Peripheries diocesan team on RAGBRAI in 2018. “The attention that got in terms of the focus on evangelization was really great for the Church.” He’s made portions of other RAGBRAI rides, as his schedule permits, including one involving all four Iowa dioceses this year.
Archbishop-elect Zinkula has made memorable trips this year to Vietnam with newly ordained diocesan priest, Father Dominic Nguyen, and to Guatemala with Father Rudolph Juarez to meet the religious community of nuns who will minister in the Davenport Diocese for five years.
“A lot of the day to day things are memorable, too,” he said. “Whether it’s a school Mass or confirmation, the 50th wedding anniversary Mass, NCYC (National Catholic Youth Conference), posadas, Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations, the Lunar New Year with the Vietnamese Catholic community, visiting prisoners and celebrating Mass with them. I have fond memories of all those things.”
“Subbing at a parish on a weekend is also memorable because it’s about being there in the faith life of the people.” The trip down to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with deacon candidates and collaboration with the Iowa City Catholic Worker leave lasting memories as well.
“I’ve met lots of wonderful, faith-filled people and collaborated with them,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic that began in March 2020 was the most significant challenge of his episcopacy because of the uncertainty over how to deal with a virus “we didn’t know very much about. Hospitals were filling up and people were dying. That was a confusing experience for all of us and the decisions we made to keep people safe weren’t always popular.” Emotional reactions led to “people being in different camps and being so harsh with each other.” That was discouraging, especially seeing it happen within the Church.
One diocesan priest had special training to minster to pandemic victims in the hospital and when he became exhausted, others picked up the baton, including Archbishop-elect Zinkula. “We never said which priests were doing this ministry because we didn’t want calls to overwhelm them. God bless them, they were true heroes. They risked their lives.”
The lesson learned from the pandemic: “As time went on, I realized we needed to balance the need for safety precautions with the need to attend to people’s mental health. It’s not good for us to be so isolated. There are risks associated with people being together, but after the vaccine became available, we responded by striving to keep people safe and also connected.”
The close connections he has fostered in his commitment to being among the people has led to a long series of goodbyes in the three months since the announcement of his appointment to the Dubuque Archdiocese. Every event becomes someone’s final goodbye. He understands that people need a sense of closure, but admits that as a self-described introvert, he is uncomfortable with all of the attention.
Archbishop-elect Zinkula has experienced plenty of transitions in 33 years of priesthood, with the Davenport Diocese being his longest stay in one place. “I always find transitions to be an important time in one’s life. You can grow in ways you wouldn’t otherwise, in this in-between space. It is an important time for prayer. There are things you can learn about yourself, about life, about God.”
He is hopeful that what “we’ve been doing here in the diocese continues, the plan we have in place for evangelization.” He hopes the diocese receives a “good bishop as the 10th Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport who models Jesus’ love.” He also hopes “people forgive me for any times I’ve been uncharitable in word or action; that they are merciful and forgiving. I’m an imperfect human being.”
Asked what advice he would give the future Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, he said:
“Love the people of the diocese. Be a good shepherd. Sometimes you need to be a strong leader, a loving leader, knowing where you’re going. Sometimes you’re walking with the people; you’re one of them, supporting them along the way. There’s also a time when you’re in the back. There are stragglers and you’re helping them. Sometimes the people may be better at judging where to go, the direction and route to take. They’re part of the body of Christ, baptized prophet, priest and king, just like the bishop. They need to show the bishop the way.”