Pedaling to the Peripheries: bicycling bishop takes his ministry on the road

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Bishop Thomas Zinkula pedaled up and down the hills of southwest Iowa on Sunday, July 22, the first day of the weeklong Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. He saw himself as just another one of the thousands of cyclists completing the first leg of a 428-mile journey better known as RAGBRAI.

Barb Arland-Fye
Bishop Thomas Zinkula, right, and his brother Jerry prepare to leave from Jefferson, Iowa, on day 3 of RAGBRAI July 24.

Just hours after finishing the 43.5-mile segment from Onawa to Denison, Bishop Zinkula presided at Mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Denison. “We’re taking some time to hang out with God and with one another, in a spiritual way,” he said to the 150 people — some wearing jerseys and biker shorts — gathered for Mass. He will celebrate Mass at 6 p.m. at all of the overnight stops on RAGBRAI, and reminded the congregation of that fact as the final announcement.

The bishop serves as spiritual leader of a RAGBRAI team representing the Diocese of Davenport that calls itself “Pedaling to the Peripheries.” “People have been asking, ‘Why am I, a bishop, on RAGBRAI? It’s not a hidden agenda. Pope Francis talked about going out to the peripheries, so I’m going out the peripheries.” The Holy Father wants his bishops to be in the midst of their sheep, to have the smell of the sheep, meaning to be in touch with the world outside the church walls. “Think of the sweating sheep of RAGBRAI,” Bishop Zinkula said in his homily.

But as a bicyclist doing RAGBRAI, “I’m just another sheep,” he said. “We all share the goal of making our way across Iowa in a week’s time. Our hearts should be moved with pity for those along the way who are sheep without a shepherd.” These could be people who feel alone, people who have left the church or who are hungry for the love of God.

“Our task as baptized Catholics, as disciples of Christ, is to share the joy of the Gospel with these people,” the bishop said, “… even on RAGBRAI and maybe especially on RAGBRAI.”

“It’s so wonderful to see a bishop who’s so down to earth,” said Tom Gudenkauf, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville who attended Sunday’s RAGBRAI Mass. He is participating in his third RAGBRAI because “I love talking with people and meeting people.”

RAGBRAI rider Jim Hussey of Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond also attended the Mass, after reading in The Catholic Messenger about the bishop’s plan to celebrate Mass during RAGBRAI. Hussey especially appreciated the bishop’s reference to the pope’s desire that bishops go out among the sheep, to smell like the sheep. “He (the bishop) did that, in the context of RAGBRAI,” Hussey said.

Although the bishop has participated in RAGBRAI previously, this was his first ride as a bishop. Reflecting on day 1, he said three things came to mind:

• The Mile of Silence. Riders were asked to observe a moment of silence as they rode between Turin and Soldier on Highway 37 to honor cyclists who have died. “That was peaceful,” Bishop Zinkula said. He appreciated the listing of names of Iowans who had died. He viewed it as intercessory prayer, an opportunity to pray for those people by name and to pray for everyone to be more careful so that this doesn’t happen again. “That was prayer for me, whether they called it prayer or not.”

• Free bacon. Bishop Zinkula rode alongside his brother, Jerry, and the two talked about the interesting things they saw along the way, one of which was Farmland’s “free bacon” stop. Their dad, a farmer, had served as producer representative on Farmland’s Board of Directors. “Jerry said, ‘Let’s do this in Dad’s memory.” So they took a break to eat bacon. “It was a poignant personal thing … getting bacon in memory of Dad. And the bacon tasted very good, the bishop said.

• Pedaling to the Peripheries. “There are so many people, especially from our diocese, who I’m running into, especially at meals and after Mass,” the bishop said. Other people from outside the diocese would overhear people talking to the bishop and pull up a chair to visit. He also has seen people he knows from his hometown in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “It’s an opportunity to talk with people, to help people feel better about their faith. It kind of humanizes the church. ‘Someone will say, ‘I’ve never met a bishop before!’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve never met you before, so that’s great for both of us.”

Realistically, Bishop Zinkula knows it isn’t possible to connect with the thousands of other cyclists on RAGBRAI. He’s just one in the crowd, dressed in T-shirt and biker shorts and wearing a helmet. His evangelizing mission for RAGBRAI is being present to people, making time to visit with them and encouraging them in their faith. So, for instance, he did an impromptu interview with KCRG TV of Cedar Reporter Scott Saville and photographer Kyle Sleichter. They thought it was a cool story that an athletic bishop was doing RAGBRAI and celebrating Mass along the route. “He could have just gone on the ride, but that’s not the important thing,” Saville said, adding that the interview would help get the word out about Mass each evening.

“There’s probably never been a bishop who’s done RAGBRAI. That’s an intriguing thing for people,” Bishop Zinkula said. “What I’m doing is evangelizing. I’m one poor beggar telling another poor beggar where to find food.”

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