The Witness of Fr. Janko


Fr. Michael Dodds, O.P.

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 27:1, 4, 7-9, 13-14; John 14:1-6

FrJankoZagarI first met Fr. Janko on a visit to St. Albert’s in the spring of 1970. I was nineteen years old and thinking about a Dominican vocation. Now, the application process in those days moved a bit faster than it does now. The Vocation Director, Fr. William Dooley, sent you an application form immediately after your first letter of inquiry (however vague that letter might be), and he arranged some interviews for you as soon as you crossed the threshold at St. Albert’s.

Fr. Janko was then Regent of Studies, so one of my interviews was with him. I don’t remember much about the other interviews, but I do remember Janko’s. The Regent’s office was in what’s now the second floor senior TV room. There was a great wooden desk in the middle, a recliner chair to one side, where Fr. Janko sat with a pipe in one hand and a clip board in the other, and there was a small sofa where he invited me to sit. He took a puff on his pipe and began, “What do you think of Church?” I said something like, “Oh, I like it.” He adjusted the pipe, made a mark on the clip board, and continued, “What do you think of Vatican Council?” It was shortly after the Council then, so I said I liked that too. He went on, “What do you think of liturgical changes of Council?” Well, I perked up then and said I liked them very much and looked forward to more of them. He said, “Oh, oh,” made another mark on the clip board, and took another puff on the pipe.

So it went. I don’t remember all the questions he asked. I do remember, though, how wondrously peaceful that room felt, with the polished desk, the soft light, and the sweet smell of pipe tobacco.

Well, over the years Janko lived in a number of different rooms here at St. Albert’s, and I visited him from time to time in many of them, sometimes on house or school business, sometimes– like many friars in the province– for confession. Not all the rooms had a big desk or a sofa, but they all had the sweet smell of pipe tobacco and a feeling of calm, serenity, and peace.

Somehow Janko, the refugee from his own country of Croatia, who fled in the aftermath of horrendous war and tumult, knew how to create a place of refuge and peace wherever he dwelt.

When Janko left Croatia, he was, in one sense, homeless–forced to flee his family and homeland. Yet, in another sense, he’d already made a lasting home in the Dominican family. Within that family, he made his next home with the English Dominicans and earned a Masters in Philosophy at Oxford. Then he made his home with the French Dominicans and earned a Doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Finally, still unable to return to his own country because of the communist regime there, he (somehow) decided to make his home with us here in California, especially at St. Albert’s.

How can a person find a home or be at home in so many different places? Perhaps only if he’s first found his true home, always, in God. For Janko, I think, finding his home in God meant finding his home in the truth, in Christ, who tells us in the gospel, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” For Janko, this was the truth of the moral order that he taught for so many years, the truth of Acting on Principles.

Yet truth is not just orderly action. As the first reading reminds us: “Those who trust in God shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love.” Truth implies trust, and living in the truth means abiding, making one’s home, in love. As Aquinas teaches, the Son, the very Truth of God, is the Word who “breathes forth Love,” and who is sent to us as an “illumination that breaks forth into the affection of love” (Summa Theologica I, 43, 5, ad 2).

Having found his own home in God’s love and truth, Janko was able, in quite remarkable ways, to make a home for us.

As Regent of Studies, he helped to forge a home for us when we first joined the Graduate Theological Union in the 1960s. He could see the advantages that membership would offer, but insisted that our tradition of teaching Thomas Aquinas be preserved in the transition. He once told me that, at one point in the negotiations with other GTU leaders about the Common Library Agreement, he’d quietly apologized to the GTU President, John Dillenberger, for holding things up by obstinately insisting that the agreement include a codicil that the library maintain a research level collection in Thomistic philosophy and theology. He told me that Dillenberger had turned to him and said, “Don’t apologize, Fr. Janko. I’m very happy that I know where you stand, which is more than I can say for these others.” Retelling the story, Janko smiled and said, “I took it as compliment.”

Janko invited us into the home that he’d found in God’s love by sharing his friends with us. Among his Croatian friends, were the Vogrich’s, an older couple, Louis and Victoria, who, with Louis’ sister Rosa, lived just a block from St. Albert’s. For many years, the final stop, when the St. Albert’s brothers went Christmas caroling through the neighborhood, was the Vogrich’s, where they enjoyed Victoria’s homemade Croatian cakes and cookies along with Louis’ homemade wine (in which you’d find the occasional dead fruit fly floating around and which was strong enough to dissolve the paper cups he served it in). Afterwards, it was always a jolly, if somewhat unsteady, walk home to St. Albert’s (for those who made it home).

Janko also shared his canine friends with the community. His first dog was named Jaime, a fat little ball of fur who became my favorite example of animal life (or quasi animal life) in my philosophy of nature course (as it had been for Fr. Moreno who taught the course before me). When the dog died, I thought I might have to give up teaching altogether for lack of an adequate example. But luckily (after the brief but beloved life of the dog he named “Sara”), Janko got a dog he called “Chula”– who was almost a perfect clone of his first dog, Jaime. Gentle as a lamb, Chula looked something like a sheep or maybe a little pig. Occasionally Janko would complain at house meetings that the dog was getting fat because the community was giving it too many snacks, but Janko himself always made sure to save “a little treat” for Chula from his own plate each evening– something like one (or maybe just two) small pork chops. Janko also shared conviviality with us. In the days after Christmas, when most of the St. Albert’s community disappeared to visit their families, the few remaining friars enjoyed what came to be known as the “Janko days” between Christmas and New Year’s, with special treats in the recreation room each evening, including, of course, Rob Roy’s and Slivovitz.

If Janko could make a home for us brothers in the rec room and in his own room here at St. Albert’s, it was only because he’d first made a home for us in his heart. How many a troubled brother– perhaps one facing illness or surgery, or feeling alone, or depressed, or even rejected by the community– how many a brother found a home in Janko– found in him a place of gentle support, love, and unconditional acceptance?

In the gospel, Jesus promises us a dwelling place. Will we find the place he promises? The apostle Thomas complains, “We do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus explains, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Only if we find Christ, who is the way, will we find our way to the dwelling place he promises. But how can we find Christ unless we become Christ?

If Christ is the one who promises a dwelling place, perhaps it’s only when we’ve truly become a dwelling place for one another that we will find our eternal dwelling place in him. And for that, perhaps, Janko can show us the way.