Prayer, adoration fortify soon-to-be ‘Fr. Zavackis’
One snowy morning last January, Deacon Christopher Zavackis ascended the stairway to Golgotha for the Holy Hour of his life.
While engrossed in his breviary prayers and daily rosary just steps away from the site of Christ’s crucifixion, Deacon Zavackis was treated to something totally unexpected: Mass being celebrated for a random group of tourists.
“That’s what we’re supposed to see – how the Mass in the present is connected with the time Jesus was crucified,” said Deacon Zavackis of the “mind-blowing” confluence of events that unfolded inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
But something even more profound hit the pilgrim after he left Golgotha for the three-minute walk to the site of Christ’s burial and resurrection: Like Christ – and because of his supreme sacrifice – all of us can “walk” from earthly suffering to eternal life.
“Jesus was crucified, then he was buried and then he rose. It’s such a short (geographical) distance,” Deacon Zavackis said. “You might be going through a rough patch in your life, but guess what? Sooner or later you’re going to walk off of Golgotha. You might be buried, but you’re going to rise again, because we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.”
Falling in love with God
Deacon Zavackis, 46, said the 27-year journey from his initial enrollment in the seminary to his upcoming priestly ordination had its share of twists and turns.
He detected his first priestly stirrings at 15, when his home parish of St. Margaret Mary in Slidell opened a perpetual adoration chapel. Up until that time, Deacon Zavackis, an only child who attended public schools, says he was an observant but otherwise uninvolved Catholic.
“I fell in love with God. I fell in love with going (to adoration) and praying,” he said, noting that his teenage faith also was nourished by watching his pastor, the late Msgr. Richard Carroll, celebrate Mass and by studying Scripture in conjunction with an English course taught at his 1988 alma mater of Slidell High.
Left to consider marriage
Deacon Zavackis entered St. Joseph Seminary College directly out of high school, earning his degree while serving in the Army National Guard. A year into graduate studies at Notre Dame Seminary, Deacon Zavackis, then his early 20s, left the seminary to discern whether his calling was to married life.
“The right girl just never came along,” said Deacon Zavackis, referring to his 18-year detour from formal priestly studies as a period in which God was “training” him outside of the seminary.
“I thought (married life) was where my aspirations were, but God had other plans. I just wasn’t cooperating with him yet,” he said. “I think (those 18 years) were part of my journey back to the seminary – I just wasn’t finding fulfillment in employment, in dating, in owning lots of things.”
Deacon Zavackis spent a large chunk of that period of vocational discernment – 13 years – working with individuals with challenges such as mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. He worked as executive director of the West Bank ARC and the state of Louisiana, helping those with special needs live more independently in their homes through the teaching of cooking skills, money management and self-advocacy.
On a working trip to Thibodaux, Deacon Zavackis ran into Father Clyde Mahler, a priest from the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux who had sparked his earlier interest in the priesthood. Their conversations prompted Deacon Zavackis to return to Notre Dame Seminary in 2011.
“He’s been with me (during) the whole journey – from 1988 until now,” said Deacon Zavackis of Father Mahler, who will vest the newly minted priest at the June 6 ordination Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. “He didn’t do anything (big) to inspire me. We just sat down as friends and he told me how his day was going – the baptisms, the marriages, the school board meetings, preparing homilies. I fell in love with wanting to be a priest again.”
Confidence grew as a deacon
Following his ordination last year to the transitional diaconate, Deacon Zavackis completed a six-month internship at St. Pius X, where his achievements included learning how to free himself from reading his homilies verbatim from the ambo.
“I don’t think that works well for me and I don’t think it works for the congregation,” said Deacon Zavackis, who was challenged by his St. Pius supervisor, Father Patrick Williams, to switch to an outline. Deacon Zavackis ultimately scrapped his homily notes altogether.
“The results from that were awesome,” Deacon Zavackis said. “Instead of reading the bulletin or looking around during Mass, the congregants were paying attention! The comments started coming in about how much they appreciated my homilies.”
While at St. Pius, he also learned to accept the “powerful feeling” that would hit him after the consecration, as he raised the chalice alongside the celebrant.
“Holding Jesus and looking out on the whole congregation, I felt tremendously unworthy to be a deacon, unworthy to be ministering to everybody,” said Deacon Zavackis, noting that prayer has helped him “trust in the graces of ordination” and realize that God is present in him, even when he feels inadequate during visits to the sick and depressed.
“You can have that feeling that you’re unworthy to be there to minister to that person. You think, ‘Do I need to dig into my old psychology books, or look into vast areas of expertise like nursing or medicine?’” Deacon Zavackis said. “But then you realize what the person is really looking for is to encounter Jesus, and I didn’t have to worry about the finer points of psychology. (The person) just wanted to be fed with the word of God and draw closer to God. I just had to have confidence in my prayer life and my years of seminary formation and feed them.”
Bolstered by daily adoration
To highlight his reliance on prayer – especially prayer said before the Blessed Sacrament – an image of a monstrance will adorn Deacon Zavackis’ ordination prayer card, along with words from Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water. So, I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory.”
“It talks about that thirst that we have when we get (physically) parched,” Deacon Zavackis said. “Prayer is the only way that I make it through homilies and all the years of school. At the core of it, I know that I’m not worthy to be a priest, but with God’s grace I am,” he said, adding that eucharistic adoration is an especially powerful mode of prayer.
“Even if you don’t think anything’s happening, God’s still there and he’s probably doing wonders with you,” Deacon Zavackis said. “When everything is going wrong and you’re sitting there complaining, he’s right there next to you, maybe closer to you than ever.”
Introducing Deacon Christopher Zavackis
First Assignment as Parochial Vicar: Our Lady of the Lake, Mandeville, effective July 1
First Mass: June 7, noon, St. Margaret Mary, Slidell
Other Masses of Thanksgiving: June 21, 5 p.m., St. Pius X, New Orleans; June 28, 9:30 a.m., St. Katharine Drexel, New Orleans
What are you most looking forward to in your priestly ministry? “Celebrating Mass. We’ve practiced it many times, but the thought of actually having Jesus in my hands – it’s like, wow! I’m also looking forward to serving the people in a new way. It’s an honor to be a priest. People invite you into their lives – not on a surface level, but on an intimate level. They will not see me as ‘Chris Zavackis;’ they’ll see me as a reflection of Jesus.”