Bishop Chad Zielinski: From Active Duty to Alaskan Shepherd
Serving the Church on the peripheries, from Air Force chaplain to remote parishes
From Northern Michigan to the Middle East, to the remote reaches of North America, and now back in the rural Midwest, Bishop Chad Zielinski, 57, has served the Church’s peripheries, bringing the life of Christ to members of the armed forces, native Alaskans and small-town parishioners alike. On Sept. 27, he was installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, an appointment that follows decades of physically demanding ministry.
Serving God and Country
Born and raised in Michigan, Zielinski enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from high school, attracted by service to the greater good of society, a sense of patriotism, a desire for travel, and the educational opportunities available. In the Air Force, he became involved in the military base’s close-knit parish community and helped teach religious education.
“I was close friends with the Catholic chaplain, and I got to see what he did on a day-to-day basis. God was stirring within me the desire for ministry, and people would say, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’ God works through all that,” he told the Register Oct. 3.
A priest encouraged Zielinski to enter seminary to discern if God was calling him to the priesthood. After four years of active duty, Zielinski entered Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in philosophy in 1989. He continued his formation as a seminarian for the Diocese of Gaylord and received his Master of Divinity degree in 1996 from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 8, 1996.
A Return to Active Duty
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the military increased its recruitment of chaplains, and Father Zielinski received a letter asking him to consider serving in the military once more. He told the recruiter that he was considering service as a chaplain but that he hadn’t spoken to his bishop yet.
“The recruiter picked up the phone when he saw my email and called me within 10 minutes. He said, ‘We need you tomorrow,’” Bishop Zielinski recalled. He prayed about the decision before approaching Bishop Patrick Cooney of Gaylord, Michigan, and explaining the great need for chaplains. Bishop Cooney approved his return to military service.
“I kept in touch with Bishop Cooney. Within a year, I was deployed to Baghdad, shortly after the war kicked off, and I kept him updated on what life was like as a chaplain. He was a bit older than my father, and he would always tell me that he felt like he had a son in the military who had gone off to war,” Bishop Zielinski said.
Father Zielinski served in three combat deployments. Because of the need for Catholic chaplains, he would often celebrate seven or eight Masses on a weekend, serving not only the Air Force, but also the Navy, Army, Marines and international forces.
As a chaplain, Father Zielinski celebrated Mass anywhere he could, sometimes in a chapel tent, other times in the field. In Afghanistan, he flew by helicopter to 19 different combat outposts to provide Mass and ministry presence. Once, he celebrated Mass with a priest from the Czech army on top of a mountain. They had climbed up the mountainside to visit a sniper team and had to construct a makeshift altar out of MREs for Mass.
In the military, the chaplain has privileged communication, so people of all faiths came to speak with Father Zielinski because their conversations could be fully confidential.
“We had this expression: that I was a priest to the Catholics and a chaplain to all,” he said.
Life as an Alaskan Shepherd
After returning from his combat deployments, Zielinski served at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as vocation recruiter for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and as chaplain of Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. He received numerous military awards and decorations for his service and was promoted to major in July 2013.
In November 2014, while Father Zielinski was at Eielson Air Force Base, Pope Francis named him the bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska. Within two weeks of his installation, Bishop Zielinski flew by bush plane for his first visit to several remote villages. In one of the villages, the church was a small cabin, with a small neighboring cabin that served as a rectory. With no running water, Bishop Zielinski melted snow and drew water from a community well.
“As I was there, I thought, ‘This is just like a deployment.’ And as I stood at the airstrip waiting for the bush plane to come, I was looking at the same backpack and duffel bag I had carried in Afghanistan. And I had a flashback to standing on a mountaintop waiting for a helicopter. I realized that God would take the difficulties and challenges of war and use them for a greater good,” he said.
Bishop Zielinski saw the providential connections between his deployments and his assignment to Fairbanks. Familiar with serving among different cultures in the Middle East, he felt equipped to encounter the Yup’ik Eskimo and Athabaskan Indian cultures.
“You go in there with an open heart and mind, and you’re going to learn from the people. You’re going to experience the beauty of their culture. As I’ve left that diocese now, I’ve left a blessed man,” he said. “They have a culture that lives with dependence on God for food, a subsistence way of life, and they very much have an attitude of thankfulness like I’ve never seen before in my whole life.”
The Diocese of Fairbanks is 410,000 square miles, which is 2.5 times the size of California and 1.7 times the size of Texas. There are 46 parishes, but only nine are accessible by road, as 37 parishes are located in remote villages only accessible by bush plane. Often, one priest will serve three or four villages, flying between them, or traveling by snow machine in the winter and boat in the summer. Typically, a priest will celebrate Mass once every two months when he visits the village.
The pandemic complicated travel, severely limiting priests’ ability to serve remote Catholic communities. Bishop Zielinski visited a village at the end of the pandemic lockdowns where Mass had not been celebrated for 17 months. He was struck by their uncomplaining endurance of such restriction of the sacraments.
“The people never complained,” he said. “When I celebrated Mass, all they said to me in Yup’ik was ‘Quyana’ — thank you.”
Even without a pandemic, ministry in the Diocese of Fairbanks has its complications. High prices for food, gas and building materials in Alaska make traveling from village to village expensive, and inflation has increased the costs associated with ministry.
“Three weeks ago, I dedicated a church up near the Bering Sea coast, and it cost about $1,200 in aviation fuel to fly out there,” Bishop Zielinski said.
The diocese receives generous support from mission appeals and from readers of the Alaskan Shepherd, the diocesan newsletter that reaches about 45,000 readers. “Without them, we couldn’t continue our mission work,” Bishop Zielinski. “I’m thankful to my brother bishops and to the good people of God in the Lower 48 who continue to be so generous in supporting the mission.”
Following a recent spinal-fusion surgery, Bishop Zielinski’s doctor urged him to avoid extreme physical exertion. “The surgeon suggested that I can’t keep driving snow machines, pounding down the Yukon River, driving four wheelers through the tundra,” he said.
“It tears at your heart to leave a diocese where I established many friendships and grew to love people of a completely different culture, but I take those blessings with me,” he said. “I’m excited to be in New Ulm. For me, it’s a lot like coming home to Northern Michigan.”
In his closing remarks to the Register, Bishop Zielinski emphasized the importance of faith in the family, which can help young men and women discern their vocations.
“Knowledge of the faith is important, but you need to have a relationship with Jesus Christ to hear the call — just like the disciples when they heard, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ You have to know who Jesus Christ is to hear the call, and then you have to trust in him, that he will make you a priest, that he will form you to be a priest.”
Mary Frances Myler is a post-graduate fellow with the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government at the University of Notre Dame.