WICHITA, Kan. — There’s good news in Kansas: Former Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun has taken a step closer to possible beatification and sainthood.
But for Scott Carter, coordinator for the Father Kapaun Guild, the story of the priest himself is the real news.
“If someone who grew up so close to us, in circumstances fairly similar to us, is able to achieve sainthood, it’s inspiring,” he told CNA June 30.
“It really makes the faith hit home. It really brings it to life and makes us realize that everything we talk about, the Gospel, Jesus’ promises, all of this is real and it is possible to achieve.”
Carter reflected on the impact that Father Kapaun’s life still has on the Catholic faithful and other admirers.
“It’s a great mixture of God’s grace and human effort. I think that’s probably what attracts most people,” he said. “You hear amazing stories — you realize he’s only able to do what he does because of God.”
Carter spoke of the number of times the Korean War-era priest survived battles and his runs onto the battlefield to rescue the wounded. The priest’s pipe was shot out of his mouth several times.
Father Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kan., to a farming family. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in June 1940. He served as a U.S. Army chaplain from 1944 through 1946, then rejoined the military chaplaincy in 1948. He was sent to Korea in July 1950, where he became known for his service with the U.S. Army’s Eighth Cavalry regiment.
The priest would stay up at night to write letters home on behalf of wounded soldiers.
He was captured by Chinese soldiers at Unsan in North Korea. As a prisoner, the priest carried a fellow prisoner 60 miles, even though the man weighed 20 pounds more than he did. He would share food and wash the clothes of prisoners, as well as pick lice off of the clothes.
After he was placed in a prisoner-of-war camp, Father Kapaun helped his fellow prisoners solve problems and keep up morale. His efforts helped them to survive in a harsh winter. For those who did not survive, he helped bury their corpses.
Father Kapaun celebrated the sacraments for his fellow prisoners, heard their confessions and said Mass.
The priest eventually developed a blood clot in his leg and fell ill with dysentery and pneumonia.
He died on May 23, 1951, and was buried in a mass grave on the Yalu River.
In April 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor.
Now the Catholic Church is considering whether he should be beatified.
Six historical consultants of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints have evaluated the documents in his case for completeness and accuracy. They approved them at a June 21 meeting in Rome.
“This news cannot be perceived as anything but a great sign,” Father John Hotze said June 23. The priest of the Wichita Diocese is the episcopal delegate of the Office of Canonization of Father Emil Kapaun.
“This is a great step forward and recognition of the work we’ve done and of the life of Father Kapaun, and has happened much more quickly than I had anticipated.”
Father Hotze said that canonizing a saint has never been taken lightly.
The vote sends Father Kapaun’s cause to the theological consultants who will review the priest’s writings and teachings for conformity with Catholic doctrine and teaching. Their approval would send the case to a panel of the congregation’s cardinals and bishops, which could vote to send the case to Pope Francis for final approval.
Separately, medical consultants are examining evidence of alleged miracles attributed to the priest’s intervention. One miracle must be approved for Father Kapaun’s beatification and a second for his canonization.