NEW HOPE, Minnesota, JUNE 22, 2009 ( Father Timothy Vakoc, an Army chaplain who was injured in Iraq in 2004, passed away Saturday at the age of 49.

The priest's personalized CaringBridge Web site reported that he was "surrounded by family and friends who prayed him into heaven" at St. Therese nursing home in New Hope

He was wounded on May 29, the 12th anniversary of his priestly ordination, when his humvee was struck by roadside bomb while returning from celebrating Mass for the soldiers in Mosul.

The chaplain was transported through Germany back to Washington D.C., having lost an eye and sustained a severe brain injury. He was later awarded a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Award.

Father Vakoc once said to 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's where I'll be."

The priest traveled a long journey over the five years from the explosion to his death. He was initially categorized by doctors as being in a "vegetative state," but was later upgraded to a "minimally responsive state."

It took almost two and a half years from his return to the United States before he began to speak again.

Two weeks ago, in a Mass celebrating the 17th anniversary of his ordination, a journal entry on the retired chaplain's Web site reported that he was able to sing and follow along with the prayers.

It noted that he was participating in Bible studies at the nursing home, and giving blessings with a partially impaired right arm.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, who was archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis when the chaplain returned to the states, celebrated a Mass for the priest one year after his injury.

The prelate said of Father Vakoc: "The Eucharist has entered into his flesh in a significant way, and the suffering Jesus Christ is here before us. Today we pray that Eucharist, which is right here, Tim Vakoc in this wheelchair, will be a sign of Jesus Christ for us and that it will deepen our faith."

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