Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Kapaun was named a “Servant of God” in 1993, which is the official beginning of the opening of a cause for canonization, for sainthood in the Catholic Church. Of course, the saints are the blessed in Heaven who dwell with God in Paradise. There are countless unnamed saints, but some are held up as an example of Martyrdom or Heroic Virtue. In 2017, Pope Francis also added another path to official canonization known as “offering of life,” which is a special case of self-sacrifice in love which led to premature death or disease.
In each of the three pathways to sainthood, the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican (formerly called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) looks carefully at the life and writings of the person being scrutinized. In the case of Fr. Emil Kapaun, the pathway of Oblatio vitae (offering of life) is being pursued. In imitation of Christ, as we will see, Fr. Kapaun gave up his life for the life of others through many intentional acts of charity and virtue.
The next steps in the process are, God willing, for Fr. Kapaun to be declared a Venerable, then a Blessed (Beatification), and then a Saint (Canonization).
Who is Emil Kapaun?
Emil Joseph Kapaun was born on April 20, 1916, Holy Thursday, in a farmhouse sitting on 160 acres near the small town of Pilsen, Kansas. He was baptized by the local priest, Fr. John Sklenar, on May 9. Emil lived and worked alongside a sizable group of German-Bohemian (ethnic Czech) settlers in the area. As a boy, he walked in the fields, went hunting and fishing, and worked with his family on their farm.
At the age of fourteen, Emil entered a high school seminary in Missouri and then began theological studies in 1936. He was ordained a priest at the age of twenty four in Wichita, Kansas and celebrated his first Mass at his home Parish in Pilsen. His home Parish would also be his first priestly appointment. In 1944, Emil’s bishop allowed him to enter the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps on July 12.
Chaplain Kapaun was sent to Burma and India in March of 1945, where he served at the end of World War Two. On January 3, 1946, Fr. Kapaun was promoted to the rank of Captain for his faithful and committed service.
After leaving India, Chaplain Captain Kapaun used the G.I. Bill to attain a Master of Arts in Education from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He finished this degree in 1948 and then asked his new bishop if he could return to be an active-duty chaplain. His bishop requested that he serve as pastor in Timken, Kansas. Half a year later, he asked once more to re-enlist in the Army chaplaincy and his request, this time, was granted.
Kapaun was sent to Japan in January 1950 on a peacekeeping mission. Then, on June 25, 1950, the communist forces of North Korea attacked the democratic South Korea. Fr. Kapaun’s unit was deployed to assist the South Koreans a couple weeks later. Fr. Kapaun wrote to his bishop back home:
“Tomorrow we are going into combat. I have everything in order, all Mass stipends, my will, etc. The way the Catholic soldiers are rallying around the priest is edifying (Fr. Kapaun.org).”
Over the next four months, hundreds of soldiers were dead or wounded. Many soldiers, still weary from fighting in World War Two, were exhausted and could barely function after withstanding so many explosions, gunshots, and being on edge. The summer was brutal and the bugs were out in full force. The heat and humidity were sweltering.
Using the hood of his Jeep as an altar, Fr. Kapaun would pray the Mass on the battlefield, risking his own life to pray with the men, administer the sacraments, bury the dead (including the enemy), and find and bring back wounded soldiers. Fr. Kapaun was fearless and singularly focused on his mission to serve the men under his care. On one occasion, a sniper bullet shot his pipe out of his mouth. At one point he lost his Jeep and his Mass kit. Nonetheless, he had the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Vessels for Mass, his violet stole for confession, and the holy oils with him on his person at all times.
There is no shortage of amazing stories of the heroics of Fr. Kapaun. He was dedicated, loyal, fearless, and calm. In the midst of a literal war, Fr. Kapaun brought a real sense of peace. He even wrote many letters to family members of soldiers who died in battle to console them with the fact that they died in his presence and had received the last rites.
On November 1, 1950, in the middle of the night, Kapaun’s regiment was attacked by a combined force of North Korean and Chinese forces. As usual, Fr. Kapaun went around anointing the dying soldiers and trying to get the wounded to safety. He was captured, but was able to escape. The next day, Fr. Kapaun and an Army Medic stayed behind to tend to the wounded. They were all captured by the Communist forces.
In a dramatic turn of events, Fr. Kapaun saw a North Korean soldier about to execute a wounded US soldier. He rushed over and literally pushed the Korean’s gun aside and picked up the wounded soldier, much to the shock of the Communists. They let both men live.
A few days later, Fr. Kapaun and the men were marched some several dozen miles to a prison camp in Pyoktong in the northern part of North Korea. Due to lack of good shoes, the bitter cold, and battle wounds, many men did not make the journey. Many soldiers lived who would have died because Fr. Kapaun tried to keep morale high and even took turns carrying men who could not walk on their own.
In the Prison
In the prison camp, Father Kapaun continued to provide spiritual and corporal care to his men, as well as the other men in the camp. He would wake up before everyone else in below zero temperatures to gather wood to make a fire, make clean drinking water out of melted snow, and clean clothes.
While in the camps, the men were subjected to twice daily Communist re-education sessions. Fr. Kapaun refuted their claims calmly. He was instrumental in helping to keep spirits up in a very bleak situation. He would lead prayer, tell jokes, and care for the needs of the men.
Because of his unflaggable spirit, the Communists saw him as a threat. They tried to humiliate him, make him afraid, and threaten his life or wellbeing. None of these plans worked. Fr. Kapaun was sustained by God’s grace, what did he have to fear? During Easter 1951, Fr. Kapaun led a prayer service in which he preached on enduring suffering like Christ but ordered towards the new life brought by Jesus’ Resurrection.
A few weeks into the Easter Season, Fr. Kapaun got pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg. The American doctors stabilized his leg, but it left him unable to get up and move around. Once the Chinese realized that he was sick and in pain, they came to take him to the camp “hospital.” Really, it was a place of death where men were left to die. As they were taking him away, he said to the men:
“Don’t worry about me. I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you (Fr. Kapaun).”
The American men insisted that they be allowed to carry Fr. Kapaun to the “hospital.” This was granted, and, on the way, Fr. Kapaun asked the forgiveness of the guards for anything he might have inadvertently done to harm them. Then, he gave them a blessing. On May 23, 1951, at the age of 35, Fr. Kapaun passed on to his eternal reward.
After His Death
While many men were able to make it home to tell the tale of Fr. Kapaun, the saintly man’s body was not recovered. Posthumously, Fr. Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 11, 2013 by President Obama. And in July 2021, he was inducted into the South Korean Order of Military Merit, receiving the highest military award available from that country.
Against all odds, Fr. Kapaun’s body was found amongst the buried bodies of the “unknowns” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. Because of new technology, the POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Korean War Disinterment Project, Fr. Kapaun’s body was able to be identified.
Prayer for Canonization
As a Servant of God, it is appropriate to ask for the intercession of this heroic and saintly man. More information on Fr. Kapaun can be found at https://frkapaun.org/ and the official Prayer for Canonization of Fr. Emil Kapaun is below:
“Lord Jesus, in the midst of the folly of war,
your servant, Chaplain Emil Kapaun,
spent himself in total service to you
on the battlefields and in the prison camps of Korea,
until his death at the hands of his captors.
We now ask you, Lord Jesus, if it be your will,
to make known to all the world the holiness of
Chaplain Kapaun and the glory of his complete
sacrifice for you by signs of miracles and peace.
In your name, Lord, we ask, for you are the source
of peace, the strength of our service to others,
and our final hope. Amen.
Servant of God, Father Emil Kapaun, pray for us!”