Father Vakoc, Catholic hero

Published August 25, 2004

The Catholic Difference

Columnist Mark Steyn aptly describes film-maker Michael Moore, of “Fahrenheit 9/11” fame (or infamy), as a “crockumentarian.” Here’s an Iraq story that wasn’t in Mr. Moore’s crockumentary and hasn’t broken into the mainstream media, either.

Father Tim Vakoc was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 1992; he then joined the U.S. Army Corps of Chaplains. In an interview earlier this year with the National Catholic Register, Major Vakoc – Father Tim – described his work as a “ministry of intentional presence.” His job was to be present to the soldiers who were his ecumenical and interreligious “parish”: to share their lives, their fears, their mission. If you think that’s an easy or safe billet, think again.

Father Tim Vakoc

On May 29, Father Tim was in a Humvee in Mosul when a terrorist bomb exploded nearby. Thanks to an enemy with no sense of honor, Major Vakoc suffered brain damage and broken bones in his face; he also lost his left eye. Since then, Father Tim has been in Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, on July 14, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman presented Father Tim with the Purple Heart. The wounded chaplain, who has been slipping in and out of a coma, awoke during the brief ceremony and grasped Senator Coleman’s hand.

An intriguing, recently published book, The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (University of Notre Dame Press), explores the idea of the Christian military chaplain from the days of antiquity through the Middle Ages and down to our own time. The military chaplaincy, it turns out, is one of the most enduring institutions of our civilization, stretching back in a recognizable form for more than 1,600 years. Some pacifists argue today, as others have argued before, that the military chaplaincy is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a pernicious way of “doing ethics for Caesar.” They are mistaken. Over sixteen hundred years of Christian history support the claim that military chaplaincy is an entirely legitimate exercise of priestly ministry, however Chaplain X or Y may have defaulted in his responsibilities at points along that time-line.

If, as theologian Paul Ramsey taught, the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force can be an exercise of moral responsibility in service to one’s neighbor, then the chaplain is an essential part of a rightly-ordered military force: not because he conducts seminars in just war theory, but because he puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of others who are doing just that, going in harm’s way for others’ sake. We owe our chaplains a great debt of gratitude; it’s a shame that it takes a case like Father Tim Vakoc to remind us of that.

Father Vakoc saw American forces in Iraq from a different vantage point than a besotted ideologue like Michael Moore. Perhaps, like Chaldean Catholic Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah, Father Tim believed that “what the Americans did was truly a liberation, the liberation of Iraq…”. I expect he did. But I also expect that, like most chaplains, Father Tim’s focus was on the personal and the pastoral, not the deep-think or the Great Issues. Battalions and regiments, brigades and divisions look different to chaplains. To senior officers and strategists, a military formation is, of necessity, a unit; the chaplain sees differently. The chaplain sees individuals, men and women, each of whom has an immortal soul, an eternal destiny, and some very serious “real-world” problems, here and now. Being “present” to each of those individuals is what the chaplaincy is for.

And the cost? The risks? During a previous deployment in Bosnia, Father Tim had this to say about risk, explaining to his sister what he was up to and why: “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.”

Men like Father Tim Vakoc are most certainly not the oxymorons pacifists imagine them to be. Neither are they the on-site moral theologians some intellectuals think they ought to be – every senior officer’s personal just-war consultant, so to speak. These men are pastors. Their work honors the priesthood. We should honor them for it.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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