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Diocese of Gaylord Priest Named Bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska
Archbishop Carlo Viganò, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, announced this morning in Washington, D.C., that Pope Francis has appointed Fr. Chad Zielinski as Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. A priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Bishop-Elect Zielinski has been serving as a Chaplain in the United States Air Force, most recently stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. It is the first time a priest ordained for the Diocese of Gaylord has been named a bishop, though the late Bishop Kenneth Povish, who led the Dioceses of Crookston, Minnesota, and Lansing, Michigan, was born and raised in Alpena, Michigan. Bishop-Elect Zielinski's appointment also marks the first time an active military chaplain serving in the Archdiocese for Military Services has been made the Ordinary, or spiritual head, of a diocese.
Bishop Elect Zielinski’s ordination and installation is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on December 15, 2014 at the Carlson Center, Fairbanks, Alaska. A vesper prayer service will take place on the eve of the ordination at 6:00 p.m. at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks. Plans are being made to celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving in the Diocese of Gaylord in January. Those plans are yet to be finalized.
“I was completely shocked,” Bishop-Elect Zielinski exclaimed this week in a phone call. “I just couldn’t believe it. It is nothing I have ever even thought about.”
Bishop-Elect Zielinski, 50, was born in Detroit and is the oldest in a family of five children. His parents, Donald and Linda Zielinski, moved to Alpena in the mid 1960’s where the Bishop-Elect grew up on a 120-acre farm and joined St. Bernard Parish. He received the Sacrament of Confirmation there in 1979 and was ordained a Transitional Deacon there in November of 1995. That one of their own young men has been named a bishop on the very day the parish is celebrating its 150th anniversary is a unique and special blessing.
After graduating from Alpena High School in 1982, Bishop-Elect Zielinski enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and while stationed in Idaho, attended Boise State and Park College. Having completed his tour of duty in 1986, he entered Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy in 1989. He was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Gaylord and entered Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit to complete his spiritual formation and theological studies, receiving his Master of Divinity in 1996. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Patrick R. Cooney at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord on June 8, 1996.
“I feel humbled to be called to the priesthood by Christ and have learned it is not mine alone. I am called to be a servant to the people of God, and pray for God’s grace for love and accept people as they are,” the now Bishop-Elect said at the time of his priestly ordination. That humility and openness to the call of the Lord has echoed throughout his ministry over these past 18 years -- and in a special way these past two weeks.
“When Archbishop Viganò called, I just kept saying, ‘you must have me confused with somebody else as I am not qualified to be a bishop. I am the least likely person. I have no doctorate degrees…I am a simple priest. Who would even think I could be a bishop,” Bishop-Elect Zielinski wrote in a letter to his parishioners at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Community at Eielson Air Force Base.
Bishop-Elect Zielinski’s first priestly assignment was as Associate Pastor of Immaculate Conception in Traverse City. In 1998, he was appointed Pastor of St. Philip Neri in Empire and St. Rita-St. Joseph in Maple City and was elected to the Presbyteral Council in 1999. In 2000, he was also named Pastor for Administrative Affairs of the Diocesan Mission to Hispanics.
Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, Bishop-Elect Zielinski felt a special tug on his heart and a passion to serve God by ministering to the men and women who protect our country. Aware of the great need for Catholic military chaplains, Bishop Cooney released him to serve in the Archdiocese for the Military Services and in 2002, Bishop-Elect Zielinski began his chaplaincy at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. From 2003 to 2005 he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England, before returning to the U.S. and being assigned to HQ Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph Air Force Base in Schertz, Texas. Bishop-Elect Zielinski was appointed Roman Catholic Cadet Chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2009 and in 2012 was called to head north to Alaska to serve as Chaplain to the 354 Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, where he was asleep in his bed when the phone rang informing him of the Holy Father’s decision.
Bishop-Elect Zielinski served three tours of duties in war zones, including Baghdad, Iraq and in Afghanistan, providing compassion and spiritual support amidst the chaos of war. “I guess the Church has prepared me for the military and the military has prepared me for the Church. We receive orders and we go whether coming from a general or the pope,” he wrote. He has received numerous military awards and decorations for his service, and was promoted to the rank of Major in July of 2013.
The Most Reverend Steven J. Raica, himself ordained as Bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord just three months ago, said the news of the appointment of Bishop-Elect Zielinski was received with great joy.
“Since my own appointment to Gaylord, I have had the pleasure of meeting Fr. Chad and we have spoken several times recently. I am inspired by his faithfulness, his humility and his devotion,” Bishop Raica shared in a written statement.
“Fr. Chad is an avid fisherman. 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 Fr. Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the Bishop of Fairbanks. Fr. Chad has responded with his resounding "YES!"
The Diocese of Fairbanks is nearly 40 times larger in territory than his home diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, yet is home to only a third as many people. Most of the region is extremely remote, accessible only by plane. With his military experience, Bishop-Elect Zielinski should be well prepared for travelling from place to place in the Cessna aircraft nicknamed “Yellow Bird” recently donated to the diocese.
Reflecting on a scripture he chose at the time of his diaconal ordination, Bishop-Elect Zielinski has selected as his episcopal motto, ILLUM OPORTET CRESCERE, “He must increase…” (John 3:30).
Contemplating the future, Bishop-Elect Zielinski wrote, “No human person could ever script something like this, and I certainly would never have thought in a thousand years this would ever happen to me as I have never wanted something like this… 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. I say this fully knowing I need God’s grace and their talents and abilities to climb a very steep learning curve. We will walk together as sisters and brothers/disciples of Christ showing his kindness, mercy and compassion as we share the joy of the Gospel.”
Statement by Bishop Steven J. Raica
It is with great joy that the Diocese of Gaylord welcomes the news of the appointment by Pope Francis of Fr. Chad Zielinski, a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, as the sixth Bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska. In so doing, the entire Diocese of Gaylord has been greatly honored! In fact, Fr. Chad Zielinski is the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Gaylord to be named a bishop! (The late Bishop Kenneth Povish who served the Dioceses of Crookston and Lansing, was born and raised in Alpena, but was ordained for the Diocese of Saginaw.)
Fr. Chad heard the call of our Lord to serve Him as a priest and was ordained by Bishop Cooney in 1996. He has been faithful to his vocation, diligently serving the people of God both here in our diocese and as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force through the Archdiocese for Military Services. He has ministered to the men and women who protect our nation through his assignments at the Air Force Academy and through deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fr. Zielinski has always served with distinction, receiving many awards for meritorious service.
Since my own appointment to Gaylord, I have had the pleasure of meeting Fr. Chad and we have spoken several times recently. I am inspired by his faithfulness, his humility and his devotion.
Fr. Chad is an avid fisherman. 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 Fr. Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the Bishop of Fairbanks. Fr. Chad has responded with his resounding "YES!"
Fairbanks, Alaska, is probably the largest territorial diocese in the United States – one and a half times as large as the state of Texas, yet with only a third of the population of the Diocese of Gaylord. Many places are extremely remote. There will be many challenges. But the call of the Lord is the same ... "Follow me ... I will make you fishers of men." In other words, our Lord, through Pope Francis has invited Fr. Chad on an adventure: "Let's go fishing together." What an invitation! What a challenge! Throughout his ministry, Bishop Chad will hear the Lord tell him, "Put out into the deep for a catch!" Like the Gospel, there will be wonder and amazement at what the Lord is accomplishing!
As he did both in the Diocese of Gaylord and as chaplain in the Air Force, Bishop Zielinski will joyfully bring the Good News of Christ through God's Word and the Sacraments to the people of Fairbanks, announcing that we are not abandoned; indeed, we have been found and loved by Christ.
While the presence of Fr. Chad will be greatly missed here, Bishop Chad will be welcomed with great joy by the faithful of the Diocese of Fairbanks. The prayers and best wishes of the people of Gaylord accompany him on his new ministerial adventure as Bishop of Fairbanks.
Letter of Bishop-Elect Zielinski to his parishioners
Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ of Our Lady of Snows Catholic Community,
I am guessing that some of you may have already heard that the Holy Father, Pope Francis has appointed me Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks. To say I am shocked is very much an understatement. Roughly 2 weeks ago, I received a phone call at 6:15am via the Command Post and I was sound to sleep. The gentleman on the line asked me if I was Fr. Chad Zielinski and I said, yes. He identified himself as Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Apostolic Nunico to the United States (the Ambassador from the Vatican to the US; and resides in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.). He stated, “Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has appointed you Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks.” Immediately I thought this was prank phone call. I asked him who he was about 3-4 times, I repeatedly said to him, “this makes no sense”, “this cannot be as I am an active duty military chaplain (which he said, “I know”),” “you have me confused with somebody else as I am not qualified to be a bishop, I am the least likely person. I have no doctorate degrees…I am a simple priest. Who would even think I could be a bishop. I have never wanted this or asked for this” I was so tired and could not think straight, and just kept saying, “this makes no sense; how can this be?” He could sense my overwhelming confusion, frustration and bewilderment. So, he said, let’s talk on Monday. I later apologized to the saintly man for his patience.
Honestly, none of it made sense and even after 3 cups of coffee I could not make sense out of it. I literally got on my knees and kept telling God, “this makes no sense, how can this be, this must be all a dream, I am least likely, very unworthy, there are others way more qualified and more worthy, this cannot be happening, I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, I am a broken vessel, I am a man who has been to combat and witnessed the worst of humanity and the wounds of war still live within, I do not have the work history for this, I am a military chaplain.” I fasted and prayed over the weekend, and spent a lot of time in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Also, I had a very good talk with my Confessor who gave me sound guidance on God’s workings in our lives. The scripture that kept coming to mind is 1 Samuel 16: 7b, The Call of David, “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.”
To this moment, I am not certain what God sees. As I think of the past few months of my life, all of these mysterious comments by various people, the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the complicated process of selecting someone (especially the least likely and least qualified) had to be nothing other than the hand of God “who knows every heart.” No human person could every script something like this, and I certainly would never have thought in a thousand years this would ever happen to me as I have never wanted something like this.
This very much reminds me of talking to the Chaplain, Colonel who told me the Chief of Chaplains has assigned you to the Air Force Academy. I sat in silence, and he was stunned that I was not overjoyed. I did not want to go there, and never saw myself as one who had the abilities to serve in such a place.
I guess the Church has prepared me for the military and the military has prepared me for the Church, “we receive orders and we go whether coming from a general or the pope.” So, this has been the story of my life, every place I have been assigned has been something completely off my “radar screen.” In the end, all the assignments have been incredible blessings as I have been challenged to grow but I was blessed by so many people filled with the love of God who had been blessed with untold talents and abilities to contribute to serving others.
So, yes, with doubt and anxiety, I approach this but have peace of mind and heart knowing that God provides when he calls. 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. I say this fully knowing I need God’s grace and their talents and abilities to climb a very steep learning curve. We will walk together as sisters and brothers/disciples of Christ showing his kindness, mercy and compassion as we share the joy of the Gospel.
When I was ordained a transitional deacon in 1995, I was asked to choose a scripture that was personally significant and reflected my heart. The one I chose was Jn 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.” I have always tried to be kind and keep the needs of others and Christ before mine. By no means have I done this perfectly but it truly is what is in my heart, and what I so desire to do. Therefore, I have chosen as my episcopal motto: ILLUM OPORTET CRESCERE, “He must increase…” I kindly ask you pray that Christ increase in me as I serve you, his brothers and sisters.
In the peace of Christ,
Fr. Chad Zielinski
Announcement from Diocese of Fairbanks
Holy Father Pope Francis has appointed a new bishop for the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks. In accord with his reputation for doing the unexpected, Pope Francis has asked Reverend Chad W. Zielinski, an active military chaplain at Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks, Alaska to lead the United States’ northernmost diocese. It is the first time in recent history an active military chaplain has been named to be the Ordinary, or spiritual head, of a diocese.
Bishop Elect Zielinski’s ordination and installation is scheduled for 3 PM 15 December 2014 at the Carlson Center, Fairbanks, Alaska. A vesper prayer service will take place the night before at 6 PM at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks.
The Fairbanks Diocese has been under the leadership of Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, OMI, Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska, since November 2013. Archbishop Schwietz took up the role of Apostolic Administrator when the Holy Father asked Fairbanks Bishop Donald J. Kettler to lead the diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota a year ago.
Archbishop Schwietz praised the Pope’s selection.
“Bishop Elect Zielinski exemplifies many of the qualities needed to serve the people of the Diocese of Fairbanks. 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.”
Rev. Zielinski wasn’t so certain of that. Writing to his parishioners at Eielson AFB, he explained he received a 6:15 AM call from the Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, telling him of the Pope’s appointment. Rev. Zielinski stated 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 could sense my overwhelming confusion, frustration and bewilderment. So, he said, let’s talk on Monday. I later apologized and thanked the saintly man for his patience.”
Rev. Zielinski was ordained a priest for the Catholic Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan in 1996. Before becoming a priest, he was an active duty Air Force serviceman for four years. Then he got a higher calling.
On learning of Rev. Zielinski’s appointment to lead Fairbanks, the Diocese of Gaylord Bishop Steven J. Raica made note of Rev. Zielinski’s ardent response to God’s call.
“Fr. Chad is an avid fisherman. 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 Fr. Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the Bishop of Fairbanks. Fr. Chad has responded with his resounding ‘YES!’”
Rev. Zielinski attended seminary at Mt. Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, Oregon, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a BA 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, Rev. Zielinski served at several parishes in Gaylord. Then in 2001 terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11. Rev. Zielinski soon 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 Rev. Zielinski found himself serving in Bagdad, Iraq.
He 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 travelling 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. Rev. Zielinski ended his day conducting a funeral service.
Archbishop for the Military Services in the United States Archbishop Timothy Broglio celebrated the Fairbanks Diocese’s gain.
“Bishop-elect Zielinski is an exemplary priest. He impressed me when I came to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. 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!”
Rev. Zielinski was assigned to Eielson AFB in 2012. Until he received the Apostolic Nuncio’s call, he served as Deputy Wing Chaplain, 354 Fighter Wing. He wrote his parishioners at Eielson he spent a long time praying in the chapel after he finally comprehended the Pope’s request. He told parishioners, “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.”
Bishop Elect Zielinski has chosen as his motto: Illum Opertet Crescere, “He Must Increase.” It is taken from the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. John the Baptist expresses his joy at the arrival of Jesus and he tells his disciples, “He must increase; I must decrease.”
For more information contact:
Robert Hannon, Chancellor
Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks
Diocese of Fairbanks Statistics
Bishop Elect Chad W. Zielinski
Bishop Elect Chad W. Zielinski will be ordained the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks on 15 December 2014. He was born in Detroit Michigan and raised in Alpena, Michigan. He was ordained a priest at St. Mary Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Cathedral, Gaylord Michigan on 8 June 1996, by Bishop Patrick R. Cooney.
Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska
- It encompasses approximately 410, 000 square miles, the northern two-thirds of the state of Alaska; this is roughly one and a half times the size of Texas.
- St. Patrick, Barrow, lies on the Arctic Ocean and is the nation’s northernmost parish; from the diocese’s western edge, Russia is less than three miles across the Bering Strait; Canada lies on its eastern flank.
- Only eight of the 46 parishes in the diocese are financially self-supporting. Most parishes are in small villages of 300 to 900 people, where inhabitants depend on fishing, hunting, and trapping animals.
- The 11,008 Catholics represent roughly 7 percent of the estimated population of the diocese. The diocese will be served by 1 bishop, 15 priests, 30 ordained deacons, and 7 religious sisters from three congregations, and 2 Franciscan brothers.
- The diocese has one Catholic elementary school and one Catholic junior/senior high school.
- Eight parishes are in communities that lack running water. Most of the Catholics in the diocese are Alaska Native, including Athabaskan Indians, Yup’ik and Inupiat Eskimos.
- Most of the ordained deacons are Alaska Native. There is also an Alaska Native Ursuline nun, but there are no Native priests in the diocese
- In deep winter, the temperature often sinks to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun peeps above the horizon for three hours each day. In the summer, the mercury can climb to 90 degrees, and the daylight is almost constant.
- Mass was first celebrated in Alaska in 1779 by a Spanish Franciscan priest. In 1847, the territory became part of the jurisdiction of the bishop of Vancouver Island. The first mission in northern Alaska was founded in 1887. The Diocese of Fairbanks was established in 1962.
- Planes are integral to bush travel, but fuel costs are a limiting factor. A four-seat plane that operated for $120/hour 12 years ago now costs almost $400/hour.
July 15, 2013
By Anne Seebaldt
The Catholic Weekly
Eielson AFB, AK. — Fr. Chad Zielinski, a Diocese of Gaylord priest assigned to the Air Force Chaplain Corps, said being a military chaplain is a unique, challenging and satisfying vocation.
“A chaplain praying for group is not really a Catholic thing,” he said. “They know I’m a priest but I serve in the capacity of everyone’s chaplain.”
A choice to serve
Fr. Zielinski was led to become a military chaplain due to his past and also due to the environment in the early 2000s.
A 1982 graduate of Alpena High School, he served as an active duty enlisted Air Force member in the supply squadron and air cargo areas from 1983-86 and was in the Air Force’s Active Reserve (air cargo again) from 1986-89.
He decided to become a priest, attending college seminary at Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon, graduating in 1989 and studied theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, graduating in 1996.
Ordained in 1996 in the Diocese of Gaylord by Bishop Patrick Cooney, Fr. Zielinski served six years in that diocese.
When he rejoined the Air Force as a member of its Chaplain Corps was “following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, there was an increase in need for military members across the board. They were in desperate need of Catholic chaplains. I approached Bishop Cooney.”
Bishop Cooney as well as his successor, Bishop Bernard A. Hebda, have been supportive of his service as a chaplain. Catholic chaplains may be recalled as needed, but Bishop Hebda has told him he should be able to complete his 20 years total of military service — about five more years due to his prior active and reserve service in the Air Force.
His job, on base currently is the Deputy Wing Chaplain of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska, Fr. Zielinski said that although he recently attained the rank of Major, that rank is unimportant to his work. The Air Force members and families he serves call him either “Father” or “Chaplain.”
While he has similar responsibilities to that of a diocesan priest, he has additional responsibilities that are strictly military related.
Fr. Zielinski and his chaplain assistant, Sgt. Ana Flores, mainly traveled by helicopter to different locations. She was allowed a weapon; he wasn’t.Courtesy photos
“The way the Air Force is structured, which is very different from the Army, chaplains have offices at the base chapel,” he said. He has unit responsibilities, meaning that he needs to make unit visitation to a certain number of squadrons.
Typically, only one priest is located at an Air Force base, unless it is an extremely large base and/or serves as a major training hub, he said. During normal duty hours, he wears a uniform; that changes on Sundays, when he wears his Roman clericals.
“Twenty percent of my time is spent doing things that a priest would do in a diocesan parish,” Fr. Zielinski explained.
The rest of his time is devoted to various military events and duties, such as giving blessings or prayers for military ceremonies or specific gatherings.
For example, “sometimes a squadron commander will ask a chaplain to talk at squadron meeting on a topic (such as resiliency, family relationship issues, etc.),” he said.
Chaplains attend the weekly wing staff meeting and serve as very necessary members of the group. “Due to a unique relationship, (a chaplain) can advise commanders on ethical or moral issues, religious accommodation for holidays, etc. … Even though I’m a Catholic priest, I have to facilitate everybody’s first Amendment rights to practice their faith, though not necessarily to provide the service.”
In addition, people will come to him for pastoral counseling and personal issues. Chaplains in the military have what’s known as privileged communication (or complete confidentiality), similar to that of the confessional. In the event that someone who comes to see him needs additional help, he has a close partnership with mental health or other helping organizations — a necessity given the fact that “the remote location places unique challenges on people’s lives.”
As in any diocesan parish, he works with those coordinating various Catholic programs and ministries, such as the Director Religious Education. Another unique aspect is that the worship space is shared with the Protestant chaplains.
For this reason, he said, “When you’re walking in the chapel, it doesn’t look like a Catholic Church per se. Every chapel has a Blessed Sacrament chapel where we keep the sacraments and the daily Mass might be held there. What keeps you rooted and connected (to who you are as a priest) is offering daily Mass.
“The daily Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours have helped me to sustain my vocation as a priest. I keep up my devotions Liturgy of the Hours, etc. One of the things that I really miss is the close connection to other Catholic priests.” While stateside, however, you can have interaction with the bishops of the local dioceses near the bases where you have served. Overall, he said, “They are very welcoming.” Chaplains may attend their functions as their schedules allow.
Fr. Zielinski added that a typical chaplain staff for an Air Force base consists of four to five chaplains, one of whom is Catholic and three to four more who are of varying Protestant backgrounds, some are female. Larger training bases also might have a Jewish chaplain and a few bases have Muslim chaplains. “My boss is a Protestant chaplain,” he said. That has been the case since he was in the Chaplain Corps, but is no problem: all chaplains work together for the betterment of those they serve.
“The Air Force Chaplain Corps fosters a very healthy and respectful ecumenical working environment,” he said. “This has been a great blessing as I have formed some life long friendships with Protestant and Jewish chaplains.”
This ecumenical working environment is a healthy one, he said. “I have never been asked to compromise tenets of my faith. Other chaplains are not asked to do that, either. The Air Force Chaplain Corps won’t ask that of them.”
His rewarding experiences as a chaplain are in three categories: aiding parishioners, visiting Air Force members at their worksites and also serving in combat.
Fr. Zielinski explained, “If you were to come to Mass on Sunday at a typical Air Force base, you would see lots of families, lots of young kids. You’re always there at the beginning of people’s lives with baptisms and first communions. “What’s unique (about being an Air Force chaplain) is that you’re not just allowed, but you’re highly encouraged to visit personnel in their workplace,” he said.
In harm’s way
He has been deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, the latter being during Bishop Hebda’s tenure as diocesan bishop. About 25 percent of the Army identifies itself as being Catholic, compared with 27 percent for the Air Force, which explains the great need for Catholic chaplains, he said.
“Some of the most profound work I’ve done has been in combat,” Fr. Zielinski said. It is very different from serving in either the base environment or a diocesan setting.
He served in Bagdad from Oct. 2003 through March 2004, in southern Iraq near Nasiriyah from May through Sept. 2005 and again in Afghanistan from Jan. through July 2010. He was the Catholic chaplain for the 1073rd Army Brigade, “an Army infantry unit, in a very forward combat position; I flew in a helicopter to see soldiers.”
He covered 18 different outposts, flying out to see soldiers in combat either every other day or, at times, every second day. At times, he covered Masses at the Polish base if the regular priest was absent.
The Army had a shortage of Catholic chaplains and a “critical need of sacraments for soldiers.” In fact, while he was deployed to Afghanistan and conducting Mass, those from other units, such as Czech Catholics joined him for Mass. “It’s very multinational,” he said.
“Life-threatening situations were common,” Fr. Zielinski said. “You’d have bullets flying over your head as you said prayers.”
In general, he said, “War is a place where you stare evil in the face like you’ve never seen it before.”
Fr. Zielinski recalled a very frightening incident on his last deployment. “We were on a convoy traveling from one outpost to another,” he said. “The MRAP (a military armored vehicle) in front of us was hit by a rocket.
The driver died right before our eyes.
“How many people in Gaylord have to deal with a rocket blowing up in front of their house?”
The driver was Catholic. Fr. Zielinski conducted a memorial Mass six hours later, despite the fact he’d never met the family. He learned the man had joined the Army for the insurance because his daughter had special medical needs.
After a tragedy of this sort, he added, “then your job is to help the people in the unit to continue with the mission.”
Coping and adjustment: a constant theme
When asked how he copes with the fact that some of his “flock” won’t come home, Fr. Zielinski said, “Ultimately, it’s your faith and your belief in the resurrection (that helps).
“In the military, you live this itinerant life (called PCS or permanent change of station),” he said. “People are constantly coming and going, so you’re used to saying hello and goodbye to people. But when they go off to war, there’s that worry or concern that you’re holding on to until they get back.
“That has impacted a lot of families, especially (when there are) multiple deployments.” Those “intensify difficulties for the whole family. What creates the tension is the deployed military member goes off to deployment, the family restructures itself to manage, then has to adjust back. I think people really have to embrace an enormous amout of flexibility and Christian charity within their own family.”
That lack of continuity also is one of his greatest challenges as an Air Force chaplain. Due to sequestration and being shorthanded in general, the parish has to rely greatly on volunteers, but often they have to leave suddenly.
“It’s just a constant, huge turnover (of volunteers) every year. Probably the guys in diocesan parishes have similar problems. You just make the best of it. Like anyone in a missionary situation, you accept people for who they are. It takes an enormous amount of energy.
“There’s an excitement to it too … everything’s new,” he added. “Change also means others can bring new ideas and energy. Military people see opportunity to make something new and fresh. Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back. That’s why there’s an incredible resiliency in the lives of the military. People will jump in and form friends much more quickly.”
During his service, he has kept in close contact with both Diocese of Gaylord bishops, including personal meetings and e-mails as well as with priest friends such as Fr. Charles
Donajkowski and Fr. Dennis Stillwell.
His service in the Diocese of Gaylord included the following parish assignments: Traverse City Immaculate Conception associate pastor (1996-98), pastor of Empire St. Philip Neri and Maple City St. Rita/St. Joseph (1998-2002). He also was involved in the diocese’s Hispanic ministry, offering weekly Mass as well as performing weddings and baptisms in Spanish.
His military chaplain service includes Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND (2002-03); Royal Air Force (RAF) in Mildenhall, England (2003-05), Air Force Chaplain Corps Recruiting Office-San Antonio, TX (2005-09) and Cadet Chapel, U.S.A.F. Academy in Colorado Springs, CO (2009-12) in addition to three overseas deployments.
Two of his regular assignments were a bit different from that of the average military base, Fr. Zielinski said. “Recruiting is like a diocesan vocations director job,” he said, similar to that of his friend, Fr. Don Geyman, vocations director for the Diocese of Gaylord. “The academy job is exactly like a campus ministry job.”
Once he’s completed his military service, “my intention is to return back to the Diocese of Gaylord to serve wherever the bishop asks.”†
Recent Story about Fr. Chad
Eielson chaplain assists sister service chapel
by Tech Sgt. Joseph Swafford
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
7/14/2014 - 7/6/2014 - FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska --
If you have attended Catholic Mass at the Fort Wainwright chapel during the past four weeks, you might have noticed a new face leading the service. U.S. Air Force Maj. Chad Zielinski, 354th Fighter Wing Catholic chaplain, has been assisting the Ft Wainwright Chaplain Corps during a five-week absence of a Catholic Chaplain.
Usually a Catholic priest from Fairbanks would fill in butthe local Dioceses in Fairbanks are critically short of Catholic priests and can't fill the gap. Wainwright's garrison chaplain asked if Eielson would be able to support them during their Catholic chaplain shortfall.
"Not having a priest could negatively impact the cohesiveness of the Fort Wainwright community, especially with it being an overseas assignment," said Zielinski. "Catholic community members would have to go to the churches in the local area, taking away from the close-knit community your post chapel provides."
"The biggest thing we get from Father Zielinski covering during our chaplains absence is in keeping our community together," said Joe Malen, Fort Wainwright environmental cleanup program manager. "The winters are long and the summers are short so we try to be there for one another. We're able to be a community at large because we are a community at church."
This is not the first time that Zielinski has worked with the Army; in 2010, he was deployed for six months as the chaplain for the 173rd Airborne Brigade combat team.
It didn't take Zielinski long to fit in as the Fort Wainwright Catholic chaplain.
"Chaplain Zielinski related very well to the congregation here," said Malen. "He has a fabulous personality that allows people to warm up to him quickly. He brought a lot to the parish; he is a blessed man who has a great spirit of giving and people can sense that right away."
Zielinski not only presides over Catholic mass on Sundays, he is also on-call in case there is a Soldier that needs his council.
"Whenever you can identify with a pastor of your faith group, there is a close connection," said Zielinski. "In the Catholic faith you have traditional prayers that we say with a family, which helps to bring peace and comfort in a time of sorrow."
Even though his time filling in as Fort Wainwright's Catholic chaplain has been short, Zielinski has made a lasting impact and kept their community together and strong.