During times of war, the worst of humanity can surface but so can its goodness. One such example of goodness was Father Emil Kapaun who brought faith and hope to his comrades in a Korean War prison camp and to whom President Obama awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor on April 11.
Father Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kan., on April 20, 1916, ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in 1940 and entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944. He served in World War II and in July 1950 he was sent to Korea to serve in that conflict. Just four months later he was one of many captured by the North Korean and Chinese armies. He had escaped capture once but went back to care for the wounded so was caught again.
It is said that the Chinese soldiers wanted to shoot all of those they captured but Father Kapaun negotiated with one of them to spare their lives. While they were being led away, he saw another wounded soldier and picked him up and carried him all the way to the prison camp, saving yet another life. Rescuing the wounded wasn’t new to Father Kapaun. He received the Bronze Star for heroism in action on August 2, 1950, when he rescued a wounded soldier despite intense enemy fire, according to the website www.frkapaun.org.
Despite the horrendous conditions of the prison camp where there was not enough food or clean water, the priest continued to serve the soldiers – ministering to them, caring for the wounded and dying and building up morale. He is said to regularly have stolen out of the camp and foraged for food for his fellow prisoners in nearby fields. Dysentery was rampant so he pounded a piece of metal into the shape of a pot so they could boil water. It was a skill Father Kapaun learned growing up on his family’s farm.
During the seven months he spent in the POW camp, Father Kapaun kept his faith and brought hope and kindness to his fellow prisoners. He led services and prayed with them, especially the rosary, and even led them in prayers for their captors. His ministry was not only to Catholic soldiers. He also held separate services for Protestants soldiers.
A blood clot in his leg eventually forced Father Kapaun to bed. As he laid dying his captors moved him to an area away from the other soldiers, denying him any sort of food or care. It is said he told his fellow prisoners that he was happy to go on to the Lord and that was where he wanted to be. He said he would pray for them. While the captors carried him away, it is reported that Father Kapaun prayed that the Lord would forgive them “for they know not what they do.” He died on May 23, 1951. The cause for his canonization has been opened and the Vatican has named him a servant of God.
Father Kapaun lived out the Gospel in the face of extreme suffering and hardship. So have other chaplains serving our armed forces. The Archdiocese of Chicago has 12 priests presently serving as military chaplains. It’s an important ministry, especially with the war in Afghanistan waging on. We can remember them in prayer and ask the Father Kapaun to intercede for them and those they serve.
For more information about Father Kapaun visit www.frkapaun.org.