Aiming higher, Father Vaverek serves God and country

Father Hayden J. Vaverek, chaplain, U.S. Air Force Reserves, lieutenant colonel, pilot

Father Hayden J. Vaverek, chaplain, U.S. Air Force Reserves, lieutenant colonel, pilotANDERSON—Father Hayden J. Vaverek always had an idea that he would become a priest, even though he explored other careers.

“When I was in fifth grade, it’s all I ever talked about being,” he said.

“When I was in high school, I helped run a catering business. I went from that to working at a travel agency while I was in college. I was a good caterer. I was a good travel agent. But the thing I always came back to was the idea that ‘you have to become a priest.’”

Father Vaverek is now pastor at St. Joseph Church and School in Anderson. In a telephone interview with The Miscellany, he said his vocation was nurtured by his parents, Sheila and Milton Vaverek, and the spiritual upbringing they provided their seven children while raising them in Michigan and Texas.

“The profound faith of my parents was not only taught to us in words, but was shown to us through their lives,” he said. “They always made sure we had really good examples of holy people around us, including priests and religious sisters.”

It turned out that the Vaverek family was rich with vocations. Three of his brothers became priests and serve parishes in Texas.

Father Vaverek received a degree in criminal justice from Texas State University-San Marcos and attended seminary at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md. He was ordained in 1994.

His assignments have included parochial vicar at St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach, and pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood, St. Michael in Garden City, St. Philip Benizi in Moncks Corner, Holy Family on Hilton Head Island and St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville. He is also diocesan spiritual director for the Cursillo movement.

The busy priest has another title: Lieutenant colonel. Father Vaverek has served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for 21 years, and is the staff chaplain for the 22nd Air Force.

One weekend a month, he travels to different air bases, helping to oversee the spiritual care of more than 26,000 airmen assigned at 13 bases. He serves in the military by permission of the bishop.

“I help the Chaplain Corps personnel at those bases, mentoring them in their ministry and helping them to overcome obstacles,” he said. “By being a reservist, that gives the Air Force the availability of a Catholic priest in case of necessity, and also the diocese has me as a priest in the parish.”

He had a desire to serve in the armed forces since childhood, he said, because of the many military retirees he knew in Texas.

“I’ve always had a great love for my country, and the military fit in with a prevailing theme of service that was part of my vocation,” he said.

As a reservist, Father Vaverek has traveled to Saudi Arabia, Germany, Afghanistan and Iraq to visit military personnel who didn’t have a resident Catholic chaplain. He also helped in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The experience has taught me that God’s people need to have the word proclaimed and the benefit of the sacraments, even if it’s in a place that’s not really convenient,” he said. “I’ve said Mass in some pretty unconventional places. There’s a picture somewhere of me saying Mass on a stack of boxes.”

Military service helps him to be a better parish priest, he said.

“When you serve in the military, you realize how good life really is, how valuable life is, and you get a greater appreciation of some of the comforts we have,” he said. “I’ve slept on the floor of a lot of aircraft and been with people who are doing things that aren’t any fun, who are doing them out of a sense of service. That inspires me to realize how important service is back home in the parish, the importance of the continuing message of God’s love and forgiveness.”

Father Vaverek said the Air Force has trained him in conflict resolution, problem-solving and leadership development. Lessons he can bring to St. Joseph.

Currently, he’s teaching a Lenten series, “A Catholic Study of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He said the book has been used for decades to train leaders in the secular world, but it also has important lessons for Catholics.

“Covey’s seven habits don’t promote any particular faith, but when you study them from a Catholic perspective, and put the Holy Spirit into it, they really become a powerful teaching tool,” he said. “We learn about how to respond to things in daily life from the perspective of faith, how faith can influence the daily choices we make. We have to keep learning, because our faith doesn’t change, but our understanding and our place in life changes.”

During his free time, Father Vaverek enjoys building things, helping to fix things around the rectory or church, and doing woodwork.

The priest has a pilot’s license and has flown single-engine aircraft with friends. However, most of his life is spent in service, and that’s fine with him.

“I really love being a father to the people I serve,” he said. “As a priest, I act as a father to some people who are older, some who are younger and some of my own age. There’s a fatherly role in building a community. That’s the heart of who we are, a eucharistic people, a community of believers.”