May 25, 2007

A sense of peace and joy: Deacon Kovatch believes ordination is testimony to God’s will

Deacon Thomas Kovatch gives his nephew Thomas Szarkowicz first Communion on May 5 at St. Francis Church in Lake Zurich, Ill. (Submitted photo)

Deacon Thomas Kovatch gives his nephew Thomas Szarkowicz first Communion on May 5 at St. Francis Church in Lake Zurich, Ill. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the three transitional deacons who will be ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein at 10 a.m. on June 2 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.)

By John Shaughnessy

As a basketball player with a shooter’s touch, Deacon Thomas Kovatch has often known the feeling of being in the zone—the feeling that comes when everything in the game flows so easily and every shot is true.

There have even been moments in Deacon Kovatch’s life when he’s come close to that feeling, like the time he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps right after high school, served his country for four years and was invited to military flight school to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

There were also the later years when he owned a nice home with an in-ground pool—a successful businessman who had relationships with a few women at different times that he thought might lead to marriage.

Yet, in both those flights of glory and romance, the feeling just wasn’t completely right. Now, Deacon Kovatch finally has that feeling as he nears his ordination as a priest who will serve the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. On June 2, he will be ordained with deacons Eric Nagel and Randall Summers.

“I’m at a sense of peace and joy I’ve never know before,” Deacon Kovatch says. “Once you find God’s will, that’s where the true happiness resides.”

At 49, Deacon Kovatch believes his ordination is a testimony to God’s will and his own personal fear of some day being asked a certain question by Jesus Christ.

“When I talk to young guys about vocations, I tell them, ‘You have to answer this question: Do I want to be a priest?’ If they say yes, I tell them it’s a high possibility you do not have a call to the priesthood. Then I quickly say the second part: ‘If God wants you to be a priest, you can’t turn around and walk away. You have to pursue it even if it’s tough.’

“Eventually, you have to face Jesus and he could ask, ‘Why did you turn around and walk away?’ I didn’t want to be asked that question.”

Reaching that answer took a long time for Deacon Kovatch, even though he secretly practiced celebrating parts of the Mass in his bedroom when he was in the fifth grade. But the wonder of his faith faded after he

graduated in 1976 from Riley High School in South Bend, Ind., and he enlisted in the Marines.

“When I left home and went in the Marine Corps, I just didn’t go to Church anymore,” he says, recalling a period that lasted into his 30s. “I was falling away a little bit. It was nothing the Church did or taught. It was laziness on my part.”

The former high school basketball player was stationed in Hawaii as a Marine, working on the navigation and communication systems of fighter planes.

“I loved it,” he says. “I loved being around the planes. I was within an eyelash of staying in and learning to fly. They would have sent me to college, and I would have been guaranteed flight school. I told them I would sign immediately if they could guarantee I could get into fighter planes. There were also transport planes and helicopters. They said they could guarantee me flight school, but not fighter planes.”

So he left the Marines. A year later, he enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, earning a bachelor’s degree in business in 1985. He soon found a job as a supervisor with Yellow Freight trucking company, and was assigned to Richmond. He stayed with the firm until 1999. By then, he was back in the Church, attending Mass on Sundays and

holy days at Holy Family Parish in Richmond.

“There were some relationships I thought could turn into marriage, but none did,” he says. “The thought of the priesthood kept entering my mind, but my thought was, ‘I’m too old. God will send me a wife. I’ll have six kids and he can have all the priests he wants.’ But that was not in God’s plan.”

When he left Yellow Freight, he planned to spend a year discerning his call to the priesthood. Yet he also became involved in establishing his own trucking-related company.

“I looked at a Web site for vocations,” he says. “One of the things they suggested was to attend daily Mass and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Daily Mass was the big one for me in discerning the call. One Lent, instead of giving things up, I decided to go to Mass every day and I never stopped.”

His mother remembers when he shared the news about his decision to become a priest.

“It was here at our house,” Mary Lou Kovatch recalls. “He was lying on the couch and he said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ My husband [Ernie] said, ‘Are you going to get married?’ I said, ‘Are you going to be a priest?’ He said, ‘That’s what I’m going to be.’ I was stunned. I think he had the calling for years. He finally answered it.”

He left the trucking business he started. He put his house up for sale, and it sold at full asking price in one day. He enrolled in the seminary at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., near Chicago. All that was left to do was say goodbye to his golden retriever, Ginger, the dog that had been part of his life for more than 10 years. They had traveled together and visited nursing homes residents together. Their bond was strong, and it grew deeper during the cancer treatments his pet endured for nearly two years.

“She died in my arms four days before classes began at Mundelein,” he recalls. “The pain of her death was deep, but I recalled that I had asked God to let her die in my arms and not someone else’s. God knew that I couldn’t leave her behind. It was then that I knew that God wanted me to be a priest.

“I think God gave me a glimpse of what it means to lose someone so important. It was God’s way of helping me give compassion to people who have suffered a deep loss.”

That’s just one of the qualities that will make Deacon Kovatch an outstanding priest, according to Father Dennis Lyle, the rector at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

“I’d love to have 200 guys with his attitude,” says Father Lyle, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “He’s been a great role model for the younger guys. He’s generous with his time. He’s coached and participated with our basketball program here. He lends a good spirit to it, a real sense of camaraderie and fraternity to the men.

“He has a good sense of compassion and empathy. He makes everybody feel welcome. He’ll be good at being able to unite a parish. People will follow him as a leader.”

Entering the priesthood will also be a homecoming for Deacon Kovatch. He will return to Holy Family Church in Richmond to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at 2 p.m. on June 3. Starting on July 3, he will become the associate

pastor of the parishes of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary in Richmond. He will also serve as the chaplain of Seton Catholic High School in Richmond.

“It’s rare to come back to your home parish, but it also feels right,” he says. “I’m excited to go to Richmond. It’s a good place. I truly like to be with people so I’m hoping I will be viewed as a holy priest who leads by example. I think visibility is important. I plan on being visible at school functions and just being available to walk the road of faith.”

He also hopes his choice will lead others to a vocation and a deeper faith.

“I’m convinced there’s not a shortage of vocations,” he says. “There’s just a shortage of people who hear. It’s hard in this society. There’s so much noise going on—‘Go, go, go.’ ‘Achieve, achieve.’ Success seems to revolve around money and job status. We idolize sports stars, CEOs and entertainers. I’m hoping some of the youth will be interested in hearing God’s call. I’m hoping people will want to deepen their faith.

“I feel blessed. I know God wants me to be a priest.”

(A profile of Deacon Eric Nagel will be published in the June 1 issue of The Criterion. A profile of Deacon Randall Summers appeared in the May 18 issue.) †

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