Friday, June 26, 2009

A farewell with honor: Father Tim Vakoc (Major)

Military veterans held flags and the Knights of Columbus stood at attention along the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul as priests of the archdiocese sang “Salve Regina” while Father Timothy Vakoc’s body was escorted to a waiting hearse following his June 26 funeral Mass.

Military personnel carry the body of Father Timothy Vakoc out of the Cathedral of St. Paul following his funeral Mass June 26. The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop John Nienstedt and attended by members of the military, some of whom served with Father Vakoc. Father Vakoc, who died on June 20, served in Iraq as a chaplain before being severely injured. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit
Father Vakoc, a Minnesota Army chaplain who was seriously injured in Iraq in 2004, died June 20. No cause of death has been released.

Seated in the front of the cathedral, the Vakoc family was surrounded by members of the military, archdiocesan priests, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, who often visited and prayed with Father Vakoc, and about 1,200 mourners at the funeral.

During the homily, Father Stan Mader shared some lighthearted memories and serious thoughts about his friend and fellow seminarian — both were ordained in 1992.

He described Father Vakoc as a “collector of gadgets and electronics,” who stored his stuff at Father Mader’s rectory for a while.

“He was the most unmilitary and unpriestlike man I met in the seminary,” he said. But Father Vakoc was drawn to adventure and travel and service to the soldiers.

“Tim went to Iraq, not for war, but to provide the possibility of peace” to those he served, Father Mader said.

When Father Vakoc was injured, Father Mader said the priest died to many things, but rose to a new life and a ministry of prayer, of intercession, of listening for caregivers.

But now, Father Mader said, it was “time to let Tim go” from the bed that had been described as his altar of sacrifice.

“The greatest place for him to be is at the center of God’s will, and that is where he is now,” Father Mader said.

Father Vakoc’s older brother, Jeff Vakoc, hopes his brother is remembered as a priest who gave his life serving Christians and the troops.

“He firmly believed in what he was doing as an active duty chaplain in the army,” he said.

Father Vakoc, 49, had been living at the St. Therese of New Hope nursing facility in New Hope. He lost an eye and sustained brain damage when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee on May 29, 2004, as he was returning to his barracks after celebrating Mass for U.S. soldiers.

In recent years, Father Vakoc (pronounced VAH-kitch) had been showing signs of physical and cognitive improvement.

A June 11 entry on Father Vakoc’s CaringBridge Web site noted that he participated with family and friends in a special Mass June 10 celebrating the 17th anniversary of his ordination, five years of post-accident life and appreciation for all those who were contributing to his care.

Family and friends were with him when he died, according to his CaringBridge site.

“All of us in this Catholic archdiocese are grieving with the family of Father Vakoc,” Archbishop John Nienstedt said in a statement. “We are joined in that grieving, to be sure, by the men and woman whom he served as chaplain in Iraq and those who witnessed his extraordinary courage and faith at Walter Reed Hospital and here at our Veterans’ Hospital.”

Calling Father Vakoc “a man of peace,” Archbishop Nienstedt said “he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America’s fighting men and women. He has been an inspiration to us all and we will miss him.

“We ask everyone to remember him in prayer,” he added.

Praying with soldiers

Father Vakoc was born Henry Timothy Vakoc Jan. 8, 1960, and attended Our Lady of the Lake in Mound. He graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park in 1978 and then attended St. Cloud State University.

He was an avid traveler. Prior to entering seminary, he worked with college students and university officials as the regional president of the Tau Kappa Epsilon international fraternity.

After his ordination in 1992, he served as an associate pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony and then at St. John Neumann in Eagan from 1993 to 1996 before joining the Army.

His military service took him to Germany, Bosnia and Korea. He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., when he was called up for active duty in Iraq in 2003. He was the first Army chaplain to be seriously injured in Iraq.

According to a National Catholic Register story printed just a month before he was injured, Father Vakoc flew to a combat surgical hospital to be with two soldiers who were injured in a roadside bombing in which two others had been killed. One died before he reached the hospital.

He prayed for the soldiers who died and with the injured soldier, and then prayed with the other soldiers in the convoy who were not injured, but “in the state of shock.”

Father Vakoc’s ministry — which earned him the rank of major — also included presiding at a memorial service for a young man killed in a roadside explosion who just days before had talked about faith with Father Vakoc and read at Mass.

“The bottom line in helping these soldiers through the grieving process is to be present to them and walk with them,” Father Vakoc told the Register in an e-mail. “I prayed with the soldiers who died. I brought the sacraments of the church and the light and love of Christ into the darkness of the situations.”

Father Vakoc called his ministry one of “intentional presence.”

On the day he was injured in Mosul, Iraq, the two soldiers traveling with him were not harmed and administered first aid to him, Jeff Vakoc told The Catholic Spirit in June 2004.

“They couldn’t wait for the medics or they would have lost him, so they drove him back on two flat tires to the base, and he was flown to Baghdad from there.” Father Vakoc underwent surgery to relieve brain swelling at a U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before being flown to Washington, D.C. He eventually went into the care of the Veterans’ Hospital and St. Therese of New Hope nursing facility.

‘A reason to be alive’

The date of his injuries was also the 12th anniversary of his priesthood. Just days after Father Vakoc was injured, Jeff told The Catholic Spirit that he felt God put his brother in Iraq, and he was doing what he was supposed to do there.

“There’s got to be a reason he’s alive,” he said. “I’ve got to believe there’s a purpose.”

He still believes that, he told The Catholic Spirit June 22.

“He just plain old inspired a lot of people towards the Lord,” he said. “There are a lot of people who were very needy spiritually, and just his example and fortitude and strength really played on that for a lot of people and helped them along.”

Jeff’s own faith grew during the five years after his brother’s injury, he said. “I think it has brought me closer to the Lord. I’ve seen things that are miracles — little things, but I think that’s how miracles come. It’s changed the entire family.”

Jeff visited his brother every week as his guardian and conservator, he said. Members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace also visited and prayed regularly with Father Vakoc, who followed along in a prayer book and mouthed the words.

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace were friends with Father Vakoc’s sister, Anita Brand, at the time of his injury, said Brother Paul O’Donnell. Because of his pro-life work, Brother Paul consulted on Father Vakoc’s medical care shortly after the accident. After his condition stabilized, the brothers continued to visit him regularly to pray and help with exercises.

Those who knew Father Vakoc before his accident described him as having a sense of humor and an inclination to reach out to others. Those qualities were still evident after his injuries, Brother Paul said, describing how he would joke with the brothers.

Along with his family, the brothers advocated on Father Vakoc’s behalf to continue to receive physical therapy, Brother Paul said.

“His greatest gift is that he accepted the cross that God gave him, and for any one of us, it would be a tremendous hardship, but he accepted it,” he said. “He obviously had a strong, strong will to live.”

Father Vakoc taught others about the value and sacredness of life, Brother Paul added.

“We can learn from Father Tim to embrace the crosses that come our way,” he said. “They may not be the end of our life — they may be a new beginning.”

Members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace spent time with Father Vakoc just a few days before his death, and three of them were present at his bedside when he died.

A changed ministry

The brothers feel as if they have lost a very close friend, Brother Paul said. He recalled Father Vakoc placing his hand on the brothers’ heads and blessing them. They asked him to pray for them, too.

“When people saw him, they became grateful for their own lives, no matter what they were experiencing,” he said. “His ministry didn’t end at the time of his injury; it just changed.”

Father Vakoc received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He also received the 2007 Distinguished Alumnus Award from St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and the Combat Action Badge in 2007, which is awarded to soldiers actively engaged in a hostile action by the enemy in a combat zone or imminent danger area.

Jeff is very proud of his brother, he said. “We all wished he had been around more, but he was doing what he considered his calling,” he said.

While stationed in Bosnia, Father Vakoc told his sister, “The safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be.” Catholic Spirit

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