Naval Warfare Officer Under Training Nick Zanko traded the possibility of a Roman collar for a Royal Canadian Navy uniform and says the military life has much in common with a religious vocation. Photo by Nicholas Elbers

From seminary to sailor: it’s all about the routine

  • May 21, 2022

VANCOUVER -- When it comes to vocational discernment some people don’t need to search, while others find a call to military service amongst the patchworked fruits of a short stint in seminary.

For Nick Zanko it’s the latter. Unable to see himself as a priest, Zanko traded the possibility of a Roman collar for a Royal Canadian Navy uniform. 

Currently a Naval Warfare Officer Under Training, Zanko still values his faith, and he now runs a regular prayer evening for his fellow sailors aboard the HMCS Brandon, the 55.3-metre Kingston-class coastal defence vessel on which he serves.

Zanko was aboard the Brandon while it was in North Vancouver for Vancouver’s first Fleet Weekend April 29 to May 1. The event featured events and public ship tours to teach civilians about the Navy’s role in Canadian society. 

Originally from Toronto, Zanko found himself drawn to the priesthood while he was considering his future. Specifically, he was attracted to prospect of communal religious life mixed with academics, which he found in the Congregation of St. Basil, the teaching order that runs, among others, Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School.

After spending two months at the Basilian University of St. Thomas in Houston, Tex., he decided to leave when it became clear that an academic career wasn’t for him.

He still speaks fondly of the rigours of religious life, and it was his experience in seminary that convinced him he didn’t simply want a job, he wanted a vocation, he told The B.C. Catholic.

Zanko’s search led him to consider military service as a vocational alternative to the all-consuming work of a priest, and he enlisted in the Canadian Navy.

Making the transition from seminary to Navy was relatively painless for Zanko, who suggests a military career is worth considering for young Catholics who might have discerned that they’re not called to religious life. The daily structure and 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 can be drawbacks for a practising Catholic serving in the Navy. When he is deployed at sea, Zanko is unable to attend Mass at his home in Victoria. It’s those times away from the sacraments that have given him a deeper perspective on the nature of his faith.

“The wonderful thing about Catholicism in my life in the Navy is that it lets me be the type of Catholic I want to be,” said Zanko.

“We should not despair when we don’t have the Mass because there is more; the created world is out there — the needy are still out there.”

His travels have had a lasting impact on his appreciation for the faith.

“When you are out and see this world you are in, it makes you feel the universality our faith has,” he said.

Channelling his experience as a seminarian, Zanko leads a small Sunday prayer gathering aboard the Brandon (which has no assigned 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 crew of 45, a handful will gather to pray, read and discuss passages from the Gospels.

The gatherings are intended as a non-denominational “safe space for engagement with the (Navy lifestyle),” Zanko said. “Regardless of faith, people just want to be in community.”

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