WASHINGTON, D.C. — As an adolescent, Father Zachary Sexton, O.P., considered himself the “answer guy.” With a Sherlock Holmesian-level of curiosity, he would seek answers to the Catholic questions that came up in his household. He recalls reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a sort of encyclopedia, how he would “flip through the index” for explanations on Church teaching. So, it made sense when his vocation to the Dominicans, a scholarly religious order, came to fruition on May 20 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Originally from Westerly, Rhode Island, Zachary was born to Kevin and Melanie Sexton, a product of a mixed marriage between a Catholic father and Methodist mother. As the middle child, he was sandwiched between older brother Jared and younger sister Jessica (Hannigan). Though their father sadly passed away on January 19, 2000, when Zachary was only eight, the renewal of Kevin’s Catholic faith in the last few years of his life “still left a very big impact on me, his love and devotion to the faith,” Father Sexton said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic. True to her word to raise her children Catholic, Melanie “took that very seriously,” taking her three children to weekly Mass and sacramental preparation.
In his formative years, Zachary’s search for answers frequently led him to Father Ray Suriani, former pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Westerly, a man known for fostering many priestly vocations.
Father Sexton stated that Father Suriani, now retired, “really answered the mundane and the spiritual questions of my youth. So, he was kind of like a father-figure,” as priests should be, though “I think in my case it was a little bit stronger because I was looking for father figures all the time.”
Although the calling to the priesthood presented itself around his middle school years, he did not feel drawn to the life of a diocesan priest. It wasn’t until he encountered the Dominicans at Providence College did he discover a different way to live the priestly life.
“The Dominicans have a lot of support with the brothers – the life of prayer, life of study – and that’s been very good for me. But it didn’t immediately take off for me,” he said.
After graduation, he moved to Wisconsin to teach science at a Catholic school. During this time, another priest provided a source of inspiration by his example, causing Zachary to question whether God could use him as both teacher and priest.
“And so, the thought slowly bubbled to the surface … ‘What if you are supposed to be working more directly for the salvation of these kids’ souls, not just as an adjacent kind of loving teacher, but as a minister, as a pen in the hand of God?’”
With that, he opened a dialogue with the vocations director for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph. Seven years of rigorous study later, he stood before Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, Ohio, to profess his obedience to the Dominican order and receive his priestly ordination, with his mother, sister and other relatives present. He was vested by none other than his former pastor and friend Father Suriani, who stated that: “Anytime I’ve been asked to vest a priest on the day of his ordination I’ve felt honored, appreciated — and humbled. It’s made me more fully appreciate the title we’re given as priests: ‘Father.’”
He considers Zach to be one of his “spiritual children.”
Of the glorious day of his ordination, Father Sexton commented, “I had been to ordinations six times … but I don’t think any of that compares to standing on those marble stairs and hearing them begin the entrance hymn and realizing what’s about to happen and realizing that my life is going to profoundly change in a way that I never could have merited, in a way that’s purely a gift, that I’ve coasted to it on the prayers of wonderful parishioners and wonderful friends and wonderful family.”
During the rite, he remembers wanting to focus not only on that moment but to put the day in the context of his entire life, even to the moment of his death. He recalls seeing two elderly priests processing into the basilica assisting each other in their ailments.
“I just thought it was this beautiful moment where it was like this is a fraternity of the life that I’m entering,” he said. “I’m an oblation for others and I’m an oblation for my brothers.”
Currently, Father Sexton is living out his vocation at St. Louis Bertrand Priory in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is assigned as a chaplain and teacher at Holy Angels Academy, a small K-8 school, coincidently still teaching biology as well as theology and helping at the local parish on weekends.
He considers his formation with the Dominicans, while mentally strenuous, a joy and a blessing to his ministry.
“It’s about being able to dig from a really deep well and being able to give people something — something true and something useful,” he remarked. “The depth of the intellectual formation that we have … creates this kind of natural fountain that we can go to – pull from. That’s where the grace of preaching comes from. It’s a gift of God, but it’s a life lived well in the Dominican life, gives you lots of access to things that make for good preaching.”