June 15, 2020
Rev. Jordan Zajac, O.P. ’04 becomes the first Dominican priest ordained on the Providence College campus
By Vicki-Ann Downing
In a Mass viewed by hundreds via livestream, Rev. Jordan Zajac, O.P. ’04 became the first Dominican priest ever ordained on the Providence College campus.
A Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood was celebrated in St. Dominic Chapel on Saturday, May 23, by the Most Rev. Robert C. Evans, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Providence. Simultaneously, six of Father Jordan’s Dominican brothers were ordained at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and another at St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican parish in New York City.
In a normal spring, Father Jordan would have joined his Dominican classmates for ordination at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Because the pandemic limited travel and because Father Jordan has Type 1 diabetes, making him susceptible to virus complications, “ordain in place” became the preferred option.
No thought was given to postponing the ordination.
“We didn’t think about delaying because it’s not about us,” Father Jordan said. “An ordination is not like a commencement or even a wedding day. It’s about starting the work that God is calling us to do as priests. The priesthood is not something a man earns or deserves. It’s a gift. This year I’m learning to accept it on the terms of the giver, capital G.”
Father Jordan’s path to the priesthood led him away from the College, to graduate studies in Virginia and Massachusetts, before bringing him back in May 2019, after his ordination as a transitional deacon. He assisted with pastoral duties at St. Pius V Church, across from campus, and became an assistant chaplain in Campus Ministry when the academic year began in the fall. He is expected to become a member of the English faculty in August.
In his ordination homily, Bishop Evans said PC will be Father Jordan’s “vineyard.”
“This college, this school, where moral formation walks hand-in-hand with the scientific and educational disciplines, is indeed the vineyard where he will both teach and preach, as well as exercise the ministry of reconciliation and confession, and offer the sacrifice of the Mass in reparation for the world’s sins,” Bishop Evans said.
“Brother Jordan, rather than going out to the world to proclaim the gospel, the world will come to you, as evident in the students here who come from different backgrounds.”
The ordination Mass was private, but Father Jordan’s parents, Peter and Judith Zajac, were permitted to attend. Father Zajac’s PC classmate, Rev. Jeremy Rodrigues ’04, the bishop’s secretary, was master of ceremonies. Father Jordan’s Dominican brothers sang music conducted by Rev. Vincent Ferrer Bagan, O.P., visiting faculty in theology and music. Rev. Peter Gautsch, O.P., assistant chaplain, played the organ.
When it was time for Father Jordan to dress as a priest in his stole and chasuble for the first time, the honor of vesting went to his former theology professor, Rev. John J. Reid, O.P., who now has Parkinson’s disease, assisted by Rev. Michael J. Weibley, O.P., associate chaplain.
“For me, there’s a deep, personal richness to being ordained at Providence College,” Father Jordan said. “It’s me coming back home. There’s a whole symbolic and spiritual element to it.”
Growing up in New Bedford, Mass., Father Jordan was Timothy W. Zajac. He graduated from Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth and was accepted to several Catholic colleges, but was undecided about which to attend.
“People told me I would get a feeling when a school was right for me, but that wasn’t my experience,” Father Jordan said. “When I visited PC with other accepted students, the message was something as trite as walking across the quad as someone blasted Dave Matthews out their window and thinking, ‘That’s good enough,’ because it was my favorite band at the time.”
He was assigned to live in Aquinas Hall, a sophomore residence with a few rooms for first-year students on the second floor.
“I walked all the way down to the far end of the wing, to a room that overlooked St. Dominic Chapel, then in its final stages of construction,” Father Jordan said. “The workers woke me up every day at 7 that semester. It was a beautiful site to look out on. I picked the desk that allowed me to see it. Little did I know that 20 years later I’d be ordained a priest there.”
Though he attended Mass every Sunday, Father Jordan did not feel a call to the priesthood.
“The key part of my vocation story as a student at PC is that God awakened in me a deep love for the intellectual life,” Father Jordan said. “I fell in love with the life of the mind.”
Father Jordan majored in English with a minor in political science. He was deeply influenced by Dr. Stephen J. Lynch, professor of English and director of the Liberal Arts Honors Program, “whose love of Shakespeare and English literature got into my soul.” He admired and wanted to one day emulate the teaching style of Dr. Joseph P. Cammarano, associate professor of political science and of public and community service studies, and Dr. Vance G. Morgan, professor of philosophy.
He worked as a resident assistant for three years in Guzman, Aquinas, and Davis halls. Dealing with students was a kind of ministry. He remembers the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the reaction of students from New York City who lived on his floor.
Father Jordan attended Father Reid’s theology class that morning.
“It was after the towers had been hit,” Father Jordan said. “He came in, he’s Brooklyn-born, and he was fit to be tied. I remember the prayer he gave that morning, calling upon God’s justice. It was a forceful and full-hearted prayer that left me no doubt that God exists, God is real, and yet he allows such mysterious things to happen.”
After graduating summa cum laude, Father Jordan studied for a master’s degree in English at the University of Virginia, where he considered it “a happy coincidence” that the Catholic parish on campus, St. Thomas Aquinas, was run by Dominican friars.
He then studied for a Ph.D. in English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, specializing in Shakespearean drama. His dissertation examined the social significance of recreational eating and drinking on the English Renaissance stage. He taught in the graduate program for five years. His first year, he was a finalist for a distinguished teaching award, which he said was “a testament to Dr. Lynch, Dr. Cammarano, and Dr. Morgan.”
In the secular environment of graduate school, Father Jordan often heard students mock the faith and religion in general. In an effort to be able to articulate why they were wrong, he began studying Catholicism more deeply. He found a sanctuary in the campus Newman Center and became a friend of the director, Rev. Douglas McGonagle, who had attained a doctorate in astronomy before becoming a priest.
“Everything was going great, I had everything I wanted, but I found myself deeply unhappy,” Father Jordan said. “I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I wasn’t settled, I wasn’t at peace. Finally, God got my attention with some wakeup calls that got me back to praying. By the time I was working on my comprehensive exams and my dissertation, I was going to daily Mass. It gave order and purpose to my days.”
Father McGonagle helped Father Jordan discern a vocation to the priesthood.
“He was a second-career vocation, too,” Father Jordan said. “He would tell me, ‘All the apostles were second-career vocations, so you don’t have that as an excuse.’ He became a true spiritual friend and we remain close to this day.”
Father Jordan began to consider joining a religious order. Knowing the Dominicans from his days at PC, he started reading about them.
“I read a description of the charism of the Order and I was absolutely stunned,” Father Jordan said. “It was like when a friend tells you something about yourself that you’ve never realized before. All the pieces that I wanted combined in my life — all my strengths, all my desires — were there. And I could live this life for Christ — a life of study, prayer, and contemplation, where I could go out and share the fruits of my study and prayer with other people. I thought, ‘This is what I’ve wanted the whole time. This is who I am.’”
When Father Jordan spoke with the vocations director and was told that his Ph.D. in English would qualify him to teach at PC after ordination, “I started to recognize that in all these choices I was making, when I thought I was doing things my way, God’s providential hand and care were there to guide me the whole time.”
Father Jordan reported to St. Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati, Ohio, for his novitiate year in August 2013, two weeks after defending his dissertation. He chose his religious name after Blessed Jordan of Saxony, a 13th century Dominican.
“He was a man of letters in the arts who found himself bumming around the University of Paris teaching and trying to find motivation in his life,” Father Jordan said. “He met St. Dominic and was so completely captivated by his witness and vision for the Church that he picked up, left everything, and followed him. He moved and inspired me because he was a leader who knew whom to follow. He followed St. Dominic, who tried so wholeheartedly to follow the example of those who followed Christ, the apostles. He has been a tremendous patron for me.”
Father Jordan spent the summer of 2018 at PC, teaching an Introduction to Writing course for the Friar Foundations summer bridge program.
“These students moved in and my class was the first class they had in college,” Father Jordan said. “I was their introduction to PC, to college in general, and to the Dominicans. It was a fantastic experience. I keep in touch with a lot of them. I didn’t need the confirmation, but it was the strongest confirmation that this is where God wanted me to be.”
Working in Campus Ministry helped him learn about students and how much Campus Ministry has changed since his student days.
“There are three full-time friars and a Dominican sister in Campus Ministry and six full-time lay staff,” Father Jordan said. “When I was a student there were dramatically fewer. There is something for everyone in Campus Ministry, whether it’s outreach and service to the community or a silent retreat getaway for the weekend.”
Following ordination, Dominican priests usually have a month’s vacation to visit with family and friends, “a little victory tour,” Father Jordan said. Due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, he instead will be “rejoicing in place.” He celebrated his first Mass via livestream from the rectory chapel at St. Pius V Church. He is working on an academic article he hopes to publish, about the nature of moral choice in Macbeth and imprudence as the root of the tragedy.
And as Bishop Evans instructed in his homily, Father Jordan will endeavor to live in a manner worthy of the call he has received.
“You have been called not because of any merit of your own,” Bishop Evans told him. “Indeed, as an earthen vessel, you are aware of your own frail humanity. But at the same time, you recognize that the surpassing power bestowed on you today is not for your own benefit but for that of those whom you are called to serve. If indeed you have been so called and set apart, it is because the world needs to see and love in you what you have seen and love in Christ.”
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