By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Pope Francis appeared tired to Bishop Thomas Zinkula, seated with 119 other new bishops in a large hall at the Vatican last month. But the Holy Father, just back from a trip to Colombia, displayed his trademark sense of humor as he entered the hall. Greeting his brother bishops, Pope Francis quipped, “Is this the Third Vatican Council?”
“He had a big smile on his face,” recalled Bishop Zinkula, who was in Rome for the Annual Formation Course for New Bishops. They had gathered Sept. 6-14 for communal reflection on the responsibility and mission of the bishop in the church and in society and to gain deeper insights about their episcopal mission.
Bishop Zinkula said the formation program impressed on him the universality of the church and his role as a member of the College of Bishops. “It became more real to me, to be in that setting, being in Rome, and with the cardinals and other officials from the different congregations talking to us about this very thing; the bishops together with the pope being responsible for the universal church. That hit home for me.”
His instructors emphasized the bond that bishops share. This year’s class of new bishops came from more than 30 countries. Bishop Zinkula appreciated “not just meeting them, but hanging out with them, living together, sharing meals and praying together and listening to talks together — especially with bishops of the United States who I am going to be interacting with over the years. We started forming bonds; that was good.”
Days typically began with Morning Prayer, Mass at 7:30 a.m. and breakfast afterwards. Presentations followed, then lunch, a two-hour siesta, Evening Prayer, more presentations, small-group discussion, dinner at 8 p.m. and more talks. Days concluded around 10:30 p.m., which seemed a little too long, the bishop said.
Speakers gave presentations in Italian, so the bishops used headphones to listen to the translation in their own language. Question and answer sessions followed. These small-group sessions with bishops speaking the same language were helpful, Bishop Zinkula said. He thought that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, gave the best presentation, a talk about a bishop’s relationship with his priests. Another good talk focused on the gift of celibacy. Other talks addressed pastoral discernment in a media culture, the Roman Curia, and protection of minors, among other topics.
One morning the bishops celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Chair of St. Peter. Another day, they participated in an Eastern Rite Mass during a one-day retreat. The pope’s retreat leader also served as theirs. The daily siestas were also a blessing. “I’m a farm boy,” Bishop Zinkula said. “I’d go for walks; I got to know the neighborhood pretty well.” He also visited diocesan seminarian John Lamansky at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Lamansky was preparing to be ordained to the diaconate Sept. 28.
The bishop took to heart a piece of advice another new bishop reported receiving. When a priest becomes a bishop, people want to be around him and everybody wants to be his friend. “Be friendly, but not familiar,” the new bishop was advised. “There needs to be a respectful distance. You don’t want to be distant or aloof … but you can’t be buddies with everybody.”
The highlight of the formation experience occurred on the last day: a meet-and-greet with Pope Francis. As he waited in line, Bishop Zinkula thought about what to say to the Holy Father in their less than minute-long greeting. The bishop decided to take a humorous approach by comparing wounds to the head. Bishop Zinkula had bumped his head in his bedroom at the Legionaries of Christ in Rome and the Holy Father had bumped his head Sept. 10 when the popemobile braked suddenly in Colombia.
After shaking the Holy Father’s hand and introducing himself, Bishop Zinkula took off his zucchetto and bent his head toward the pope. “I pointed to my wound. At first he was confused and then I pointed to his eye and he got it. He lit up. It was really funny. He was enjoying that moment.”
Reflecting on the overall experience, Bishop Zinkula said: “It kind of humanized the episcopacy, being there with these other bishops. We’re just regular guys, regular priests; we just happen to be chosen to do this.”