When it comes to vocational discernment, some people need not search, while others find a call to military service among the disparate fruits of a short stint in seminary.
For Nick Zanko, it’s the latter. Unable to consider himself a priest, Zanko traded the possibility of a Roman collar for a Royal Canadian Navy uniform.
Currently a naval warfare officer-in-training, Zanko still holds fast to his faith, and he now hosts a regular evening of prayer for his fellow sailors aboard HMCS Brandon, the 55.3-meter Kingston-class coastal defense vessel on which he serves.
Zanko was aboard the Brandon while in North Vancouver for the first Vancouver Fleet Weekend which ran from April 29 to May 1. The event included events and public tours of ships to teach civilians about the Navy’s role in Canadian society.
Originally from Toronto, Zanko found himself drawn to the priesthood as he pondered his future. Specifically, he was drawn to the prospect of communal religious life mixed with academics, which he found in the Congregation of St. Basil – a teaching order.
After spending two months at Basilian University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, he decided to leave when it became clear that a college career was not for him.
He still speaks fondly of the rigors of religious life, and it was his seminary experience that convinced him that he didn’t just want a job, he wanted a vocation.
Zanko’s research led him to consider military service as a professional alternative to the consuming work of a priest, and he enlisted in the Canadian Navy.
Making the transition from seminary to navy was relatively easy for Zanko, who suggests a military career is worth considering for young Catholics who might have discerned that they are not called to religious life. The structure and daily routines of the military, as well as the tight-knit nature of its community, have much in common with the life of a religious vocation.
There may be disadvantages for a practicing Catholic serving in the Navy. When deployed at sea, Zanko cannot attend mass at his home in Victoria. It was these times away from the sacraments that gave her a deeper perspective on the nature of her faith.
“The wonderful thing about Catholicism in my life in the Navy is that it allows me to be the type of Catholic that I want to be,” Zanko told BC Catholic.
“We mustn’t despair when we don’t have mass because there isn’t any; the created world is there – the needy are still there.
His travels had a lasting impact on his appreciation of faith. “When you go out and see this world you’re in, it makes you feel the universality of our faith,” he said.
Channeling his experience as a seminarian, Zanko leads a small Sunday prayer meeting aboard the Brandon (which has no appointed chaplain). Called “Hands to Church” – a play on the navel phrase “all hands to stations” – the informal prayer sessions allow crew members to share their worries and concerns. Of the ship’s 45 crew, a handful will gather to pray, read and discuss passages from the Gospels.
The gatherings are designed as a “non-denominational safe space to engage with the [Navy lifestyle]”, Zanko said. “Whatever their religion, people just want to be in community.