Father Emil Kapaun Comes Home

COMMENTARY: The cause for canonization for the Servant of God, who died in a Korean prison camp 70 years ago, continues.

Department of Defense investigators have identified the remains of U.S. Army chaplain and Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun among the unknown Korean War soldiers buried in a Hawaiian cemetery.
Department of Defense investigators have identified the remains of U.S. Army chaplain and Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun among the unknown Korean War soldiers buried in a Hawaiian cemetery. (photo: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA))

When the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced this month that the remains of Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain serving during the Korean War who died in a North Korean prison camp almost 70 years ago have been identified, it provided a culmination to the earthly life of this heroic Army chaplain.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio for the Military Services USA said, “I rejoice with the relatives of this Servant of God and with the Diocese of Wichita from whose presbyterate Father Kapaun became a military chaplain, giving his all to serve the spiritual and physical needs of his fellow prisoners of war.”

In the direst circumstances, when he was called upon to be another alter Christus, Father Kapaun responded to the fullest. On the battlefield, he went under fire to rescue the wounded and minister to the dying. In the prison camp, enduring utterly brutal conditions, he encouraged men with a prayer, tended to the sick, shared his meager rations and gave away articles of his clothing to the most needy. When the future seemed nonexistent, he instilled hope in the men and gave them a reason to live. 

While hundreds of prisoners died in that prison camp, his fellow POWs have attested that because of Father Kapaun’s faith and steadfast service to others hundreds more survived.

In the years since his death on May 23, 1951, the deeds of this heroic, soldier-priest have been chronicled and recognized. President Barack Obama in 2013 awarded him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military tribute for valor “above and beyond the call of duty”; Pope St.  John Paul II declared him a Servant of God in 1993; and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints is investigating his life for possible advancement toward sainthood.

The remains of Father Kapaun soon will be sent from the national military cemetery in Hawaii, where they have rested among the unknowns since 1954 when they were returned with thousands of others under the Korean Armistice Agreement, to Arlington National Cemetery, where they will be kept until his family is ready to take possession of them. Amazingly, they are about 95% complete.

The knowledge that Father Kapaun’s remains have been identified has brought a sense of peace and gratitude to his family and those in the Diocese of Wichita, where prayers have been offered for and to him for many decades. 

Upon first hearing the news, his nephew, Ray Kapaun, described his feeling as “awesome,” although the report was totally, totally unexpected. While Father Kapaun’s parents never gave up hope as long as they lived that the remains would be found, with the passing decades, the thought became so remote that no one in the family was emotionally prepared for the announcement.

While some people have commented that the identification brings a sense of closure to a long-awaited event, Ray Kapaun said, “It is not closure, but the beginning of a new stage in the legacy of Father Kapaun.” From his early boyhood until the day he died, the priest’s life was one of helping others. 

The return of his remains will heighten interest in his life and devotion to his charism. Father Kapaun can continue, said his nephew, to help others in need, and some of those whose requests are granted may in turn help the canonization effort.

Father John Hotze, the postulator for the Diocese of Wichita who is guiding and overseeing Father Kapaun’s cause of canonization, said there already is a widespread and growing number of people who have been praying for the priest. 

For some 30 years, the Diocese of Wichita has been distributing cards with a prayer for the priest’s canonization and a prayer line exists so people can submit requests for Father Kapaun’s intercession. The announcement occurred just a few weeks ago, but Father Hotze said he has already received many requests for relics, although it is too soon for such a consideration. The postulator stated that plans are being developed for a funeral service, after the family has possession of the remains.

The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints was scheduled to meet in March 2020 to consider giving Father Kapaun the title of “Venerable.” Unfortunately, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy and the subsequent national lockdown forced the session to be canceled. The rescheduled meeting is expected to be held soon, but the current resurgence of the virus and a second lockdown for much of Italy, including Rome, casts uncertainty on its timing. If the congregation votes to recognize the heroic virtues of Servant of God Kapaun and bestow the title, its recommendation will be sent to the Pope. His approval will allow public veneration of Father Kapaun’s remains.

As the cause for his canonization develops, Father Hotze said he is aware of several cases that are worthy of investigating as possible miracles.

One such case the priest mentioned is that of Chase Kear.

In October 2008, Kear, a student-athlete at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, was practicing the pole vault when the pole flexed and hurled him beyond the mat. As he landed, he suffered a severe injury to his skull. No sooner was he medevaced to a regional medical center when his aunt contacted a priest to give him the last rites and had him added to the Father Kapaun prayer line. The doctors told Kear’s parents that his brain was swelling and that either the surgery or an infection that might follow would probably kill him. Further, if he survived, he likely would be a permanent invalid. 

Kear was in a coma for nine days, while prayers to Father Kapaun continued. Then, to the astonishment of his doctors, in another month and 10 days, he was able to speak, walk and function without assistance and was discharged from the hospital. Chase Kear returned to college to complete a degree in communications and today works for an aircraft company in Wichita. He is engaged to be married on Oct. 2 — the anniversary of his accident.

Kear described his feelings upon learning that Father Kapaun’s remains were identified as a combination of joy and relief. Father Kapaun will be returning home, he said. There will be closure. There will be increased interest in the life and charism of the soldier-priest. Kear has no doubt about Father Kapaun’s role in his inexplicable recovery. In gratitude, he prays every day for the chaplain. He also participates in the annual Father Kapaun pilgrimage, a 60-mile walk from Wichita to Pilsen, ending at St. John Nepomucene Church, Father Kapaun’s home parish.

Father Kapaun’s nephew Ray believes that his uncle is already a saint, whether he has been designated so by the Church or not. Many others feel the same way. Father Hotze became spiritually acquainted with Father Kapaun as a seminarian when he prayed to the chaplain for help with his vocation. He knows that others would benefit by following Father Kapaun’s example of sacrifice and service to others.

As Father Kapaun’s cause for canonization proceeds, the family will work with Church authorities to assure that the chaplain’s remains are treated with the honor and dignity befitting a priest, Medal of Honor recipient and Servant of God. 

Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the school of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.