Pope Francis has appointed Father Chad W. Zielinski, a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, to be bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The appointment was announced Nov. 8 in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
Bishop-designate Zielinski, 50, is currently serving in the Archdiocese for the Military Services and is on active duty as an Air Force chaplain stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. The base is about 25 miles southeast of Fairbanks.
He will succeed Bishop Donald J. Kettler, who was named bishop of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in September 2013.
Bishop-designate Zielinski’s episcopal ordination and installation Mass will be Dec. 15 at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. Vespers will take place the evening before at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
His home diocese plans to celebrate Masses of thanksgiving in the Diocese of Gaylord in January, but the details have not been finalized.
“I was completely shocked,” the newly named bishop was quoted in a news release on the Gaylord diocese’s website. “I just couldn’t believe it. It is nothing I have ever even thought about.”
The Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, reported that Bishop-designate Zielinski wrote to his parishioners at Eielson telling them he spent a long time praying in the chapel after he finally comprehended the pope’s request.
“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,” he told his parishioners.
According to the Catholic Anchor, he has chosen as his episcopal motto, “Illum Opertet Crescere” (“He must increase”). It is from the Chapter 3 of St. John’s Gospel. In the passage St. John the Baptist expresses his joy at the arrival of Jesus and he tells the disciples, “He must increase; I must decrease.”
Born in Detroit Sept. 8, 1964, to Donald and Linda Zielinski, Chad Zielinski is the oldest in a family of five children. He grew up in Alpena, Michigan, in the Diocese of Gaylord.
After high school, he entered the Air Force in 1982. While stationed in Idaho, he applied for admission to the seminary in the Diocese of Boise. He completed his studies at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
In 1994, he returned to the Gaylord Diocese and completed his master of divinity degree at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He was ordained a priest of Gaylord June 8, 1996.
After his parish assignments, service on the presbyteral council and an appointment as pastor for administrative affairs of the diocesan mission to Hispanics, then-Father Zielinski received permission in 2002 to serve as an Air Force chaplain.
Since then he has been on active duty. His deployments have included serving troops in war zones in the Middle East, the corps of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and as vocation recruiter for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services called Bishop-designate Zielinski “an exemplary priest.”
“His service as a recruiter of Air Force chaplains brought us into frequent contact,” the archbishop told the Catholic Anchor. “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.”
Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, apostolic administrator of Fairbanks since Bishop Kettler was named to St. Cloud, said Bishop-designate Zielinski has the qualities needed to serve the people 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,” the archbishop said.
Gaylord Bishop Steven J. Raica, himself ordained to head the Michigan diocese just three months ago, said he is inspired by the bishop-designate’s faithfulness, humility and devotion.
“Father Chad is an avid fisherman,” Bishop Raica said. “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 Father Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the bishop of Fairbanks. Father Chad has responded with his resounding “Yes.”
The Diocese of Fairbanks is the geographically largest diocese in the United States, covering close to 410,000 square miles in northern Alaska. Out of a total population of about 164,000, about 7 percent are Catholic, or 11,000.