Pioneer Press: Catholic leaders, relatives, friends and mourners said goodbye Friday to the Rev. Tim Vakoc — an Army chaplain who inspired faith and wonder both before and after a bomb blast in Iraq took away his speech and mobility.
In a funeral mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Vakoc was remembered as irreverent and adventuresome, but committed to his faith and to being an "intentional presence" for the soldiers with whom he served.
The Rev. Stan Mader — a seminary classmate with Vakoc — described him as the "most unmilitary and unpriestlike man I met in the seminary." He told bad puns and could be amazingly inappropriate, Mader said, but was humble and always willing to help others.
"He is not a war hero," Mader told the crowded Cathedral. "War is not what he wanted. He was a priest and he accepted the call to ministry in different and powerful ways."
Ordained in 1992, Vakoc served churches in St. Anthony and Eagan before he became a full-time Army chaplain and served tours in Bosnia and Iraq. In a quote recited by President Bush and others, Vakoc once told his sister, "the safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will. If that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be."
Archbishop John Nienstedt noted the paradox that a roadside bomb injured Vakoc in May 2004 — on the eve of the 12th anniversary of his ordination — when he was driving back from a Mass on some "makeshift altar" in Iraq. Vakoc suffered a traumatic brain injury and other wounds that left him unable to walk or breath on his own, and with limited use of his arms.
But that wasn't the end of his ministry. When Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, the archbishop for military services, visited Vakoc at his hospital bed in Washington D.C., he reminded him that he was still a priest.
"This bed is now your altar," the archbishop told him. The statement was repeated on the bulletin for Friday's Mass.
Vakoc spent nearly two years in rehabilitation and
Despite his disabilities, Vakoc continued to inspire visitors with his presence and his ability to comfort them. With help, Vakoc often reached out with his left arm and blessed visitors by touching their foreheads. He could conduct the rosary in perfect cadence.
Vakoc's impact was readily apparent from the messages left this week on his Caring Bridge web site.
From a grateful mother: "My two older boys ... did their first communion at Fort Carson in front of Father Tim. My boys loved the way he said his Homily and walked around the front of the church."
From a former gunner on his convoys: "You were always very supportive of us. You always made us smile and made everyday a better day ... I have told your story of Faith and strength to everyone that I meet and I will continue to do so."
Numerous visitors — including his mother Phyllis, brother Jeff, and sister Anita Brand — conducted physical therapy with him, even after VA doctors believed he had reached his physical limitations.
During a February 2007 honor ceremony at his alma mater, Benilde-St. Margaret's, he was able to speak a single sentence and to bless the crowd. Another milestone came in June that year when despite his inability to breath or swallow food he was able to take communion — to receive what in Catholicism is the very body of Christ.
Nienstedt commended Vakoc's family and friends for showing so much compassion over the past five years and for helping him through the physical therapy and the many infections he suffered.
"Tim knew that," he told them, "and he responded to your love and to your affection."
Following the archbishop's words, an honor guard took Vakoc's casket outside the Cathedral, where a white cover with an embroidered cross was replaced by an American flag. The casket was carried down the Cathedral steps between two long lines of priests in white robes.
Vakoc was buried with honors at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Recalling Vakoc's own quote, Mader said he remains in the center of God's will.
"That is our hope and our belief," Mader said, "of where he is now."