by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sometimes the seed of a vocation isn’t always apparent, and that was certainly the case for Deacon Carter Zielinski.
Although he grew up in a solidly Catholic family and had a solidly Catholic education, his parents never spoke with him about a vocation to the priesthood.
He was not an altar server. No one outside of the family told him, “I think you could be a priest.”
In fact, he didn’t have any thoughts at all about the priesthood as he grew up.
Looking back, however, a lot of things nurtured his vocation.
“In any discernment story, even if things unfold quickly in a short span of time as they did for me, any person’s entire life story will play a part in how they recognize their gifts,” said Deacon Zielinski.
Deacon Zielinski, 27, was born in Overland Park, one of two children of Ray and Jennifer Zielinski. His mother, formerly a Presbyterian, was received into the church in 1995.
“We were thoroughly practicing Catholics,” he said. “Sunday Mass was obligatory. I wouldn’t characterize us as being highly involved in the parish.
“Nonetheless, we participated in [parish] events. I’d say their witness as Catholics was evident in the way [my parents] lived their lives — their behavior and moral choices, and their charity [toward others].
“They lived out the faith as well as anyone I know.”
The family belonged to Church of the Nativity, and he went to the parish school. Later, he went to St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Overland Park, graduating in 2009. Next, he entered the University of Kansas to study civil engineering.
Things began to happen when he became heavily involved in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center during his second year.
He became involved with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, FOCUS — particularly their Bible study. He went on retreats, interacted with the Apostles of the Interior Life, and was mentored by Father Mitchel Zimmerman and Father Steve Beseau.
“They were absolutely critical to my discernment,” said Deacon Zielinski. “Clearly, they had a love for the people of God and zeal for the sacraments. They were men of prayer. They exuded a joy for the priesthood and everything the church stood for. And I was fascinated by the intellectual side of the Catholic faith as well as the spiritual side.”
They taught him how to pray more deeply, and to spend long amounts of time in prayer.
He remembered how, during a FOCUS conference in Denver, he heard a challenging talk by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput that moved him toward discernment.
Thoughts of an engineering career and marriage faded to the back and the idea of a priestly vocation came to the fore. He wondered if he should finish his degree at KU — or go into the seminary.
Father Zimmerman encouraged him to go to the seminary, assuring him he had all the qualities necessary and was ready for formation. His parents were very supportive.
Deacon Zielinski entered Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri, in August 2011. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 2014 and then entered the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University, with classmates from more than 50 countries.
There’s a lot he can say about his time in Rome, summed up in a rough translation of a popular saying there: “It’s not home, but it’s much.”
Learning Italian was a big, early challenge. Now he’s proficient in academic Italian, but confesses struggling with colloquial, everyday “street” Italian.
He also learned he has a love of languages. In addition to English and Italian, he has also acquired Greek, Hebrew and Latin to varying degrees of proficiency.
And he has also taught a language to the Italians — the language of barbecue. Deacon Zielinski is the barbecue master at the college, which has an American-style smoker.
“I had to train a butcher,” he said. “They do meat very differently. I actually had to make a PDF and translate it into Italian, explaining what kind of pork shoulder I wanted and how I wanted it cut.
“They couldn’t fathom it. They asked, ‘Why do you want to make it so big?’
“I told them I wanted to put it in a smoker for an eight-hour cook, and they said, ‘Why can’t you cut it up and fry it in a pan like everyone else?’”
He was ordained a deacon by Bishop James F. Checchio of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey (and former rector of North American College) on Sept. 28, 2017, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
He will be ordained to the priesthood for the archdiocese by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at 10:30 a.m. on June 30 at the Church of the Nativity in Leawood.
“I believe the Lord has called me to be a priest,” said Deacon Zielinski. “I have a love for the sacraments, for the church and for the people of God.
“I rejoice and have been moved when family or friends enter or come back to the Catholic Church, or deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ through the church.
“That appreciation [God] has given me has helped me realize my call to serve in this particular way.”