Heroic Army Chaplain Takes a Major Step Toward Canonization

Just in time for Veterans Day, Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita, Kan., delivered a positio on Father Emil Kapaun’s life to Rome on Nov. 9.

Bishop Carl Demme of Wichita, Kan., presents Father Emil Kapaun's positio to Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of Congregation for the Cause of Saints, on Dec. 9 at the Vatican.
Bishop Carl Demme of Wichita, Kan., presents Father Emil Kapaun's positio to Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of Congregation for the Cause of Saints, on Dec. 9 at the Vatican. (photo: Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

WICHITA, Kan. — In time for Veterans Day, the cause for canonization of Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain who died in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War, has taken a major step forward.

On Nov. 9, Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita, Kan., delivered a report on the life of Father Kapaun to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. More than 90 pilgrims accompanied him to Rome.

Bishop Kemme and priests from the diocese personally delivered the nearly 1,100-page report on Father Kapaun’s life, officially called a positio, to Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the congregation. This step had been in the making since 1993, when the Vatican named Father Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PON), who was a priest of the Wichita Diocese, a “Servant of God.”

Once the Vatican studies and approves the positio, the heroic Army chaplain, who gave his life for the soldiers in his charge, can either be named “Venerable” or beatified as “Blessed.”

In a letter Bishop Kemme presented to Cardinal Amato, he wrote, “Since the day his fellow prisoners of war in the Korean conflict were liberated after their long and cruel incarceration, during which Father Kapaun was instrumental in providing to his fellow soldiers unparalleled pastoral care, word of his saintly virtue has been spreading and continues to our day.”

The presentation at the Congregation for Saints’ Causes had some extra significance because of the significant anniversary commemorated only days earlier: Nov. 2 marked 65 years since Father Kapaun, along with soldiers of the 8th Calvary Regiment, was captured by Chinese troops near Unsan, North Korea, in 1950. Three months earlier, on Aug. 2, 1950, he had already been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in action.

Less than seven months after his capture, after exceptionally courageous efforts working for the soldiers’ spiritual and physical needs in their prison in Pyoktong, North Korea, he died on May 23, 1951.

Three months later in 1951, for his actions at Unsan, Father Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

And on April 23, 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House by President Barack Obama.

Being named “Blessed” and then “Saint” would trump all the other awards, though. Once the Vatican historians examine and approve the position, which presents the life of Father Kapaun and testimony from those who knew him, including prisoners with him in the camp, the next step towards possible beatification and canonization would be for Vatican theologians to examine the evidence.

Andrea Ambrosi, the postulator or promoter of the cause from Rome, seemed confident about the final outcome of the process four years ago. During the ceremonies marking the diocese’s formal closing of Father Kapaun’s cause for beatification, including a Mass at Wichita’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on July 1, 2011, Ambrosi — a major postulator for many saints’ causes — told The Wichita Eagle that Father Kapaun’s story involves many deeds of heroism and sacrifice. He concluded, “I’m not worried.”


Those Who Knew Him

Certainly those who knew Father Kapaun aren’t worried about the process. Mike Dowe was a young Army lieutenant imprisoned with Father Kapaun. Before attending the White House Medal of Honor ceremony, former POW Dowe, who worked for many years to get this recognition for the chaplain, told the Register how he fully remembers every detail of the priest’s unrelenting heroism in the face of the most brutal treatment and conditions that began right after their regiment was captured during the Battle of Unsan.

Father Kapaun not only disregarded heavy gunfire on the battlefield to tend to the injured and save the wounded, but he volunteered to stay with the men when their capture by the Chinese Communists was about to happen.

“This guy did nothing but look out for other people,” Dowe said. “He would go around with total disregard for himself.”

That remains emblazoned in the memory of those who knew him during his service as a chaplain, both before and during his time at the infamous POW camp where he died.


Today’s Reactions

On Veterans Day, 400 people gathered — as hundreds do every year — at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kan., where Father Kapaun grew up. It’s the second of the two annual celebrations focused on Father Kapaun in Pilsen. The other is “Father Kapaun Day,” held on the first Sunday of June (the closest weekend to the date of his death, excluding Memorial Day).

“It’s good news,” said Father John Hotze, the episcopal delegate for the office of Father Kapaun’s beatification and canonization, in response to the latest step in Rome. “It’s a big step for us. Finally, we have the positio in the congregation so that they can work on it. I think it’s on its way.”

While some people were a bit disappointed that possible canonization is still down the road, that was expected, said Father Hotze. “We knew the congregation is certainly busy with many causes. I think everybody was very pleased we made it to this step, and we related to them what Cardinal Amato said: ‘This is the time for us to be praying and time for us to let other people and the world know about the gift of Father Kapaun to our diocese.’”

While the positio can lead to Father Kapaun being named a “Venerable,” it can also mean he can be beatified and declared “Blessed.” The reason is that the diocese is investigating some alleged miracles.

“We have two cases,” Father Hotze noted. Both came to light in previous years. One involved a 12-year-old girl who was near death; the other was a severely injured college track athlete — doctors expected him to die. Both recovered rapidly after prayers seeking the intercession of Father Kapaun. Doctors said both recoveries were medically unexplainable.

“If they’re able to get the miracle accepted and approved along with it [the positio’s approval], that will also mean being beatified,” explained Father Hotze. Both processes are going to proceed simultaneously.


Ever-Growing Interest

There are many miracles reported to the people connected with the Father Kapaun Guild — and to tour guides at his museum at St. John Nepomucene’s, like Harriet Bina.

Bina hears of favors answered from those who come to tour the museum and hear a talk on Father Kapaun. Busloads of schoolchildren come regularly.

“You can’t believe the number of people coming here and telling us how Father Kapaun is helping them in their lives,” she said. “When they prayed to Father Kapaun, they got help from him.”

On an interesting side note, Bina said the beautiful church was built seven months before Father Kapaun was born. “He was around it and touched everything. He was baptized in the church, made his first confession and holy Communion, was confirmed here and had his first Mass here. And he was our parish priest.”

Now that Father Kapaun’s cause has taken this new advancement, Bina would “love to see him declared a martyr, but I don’t think that will happen,” she said. His fellow prisoners, including the Protestants, told her they wrote to St. John Paul II telling the Holy Father that their chaplain died for his faith.

Bina had yet another important firsthand account from the soldiers with him in that camp. She affirmed: “The men said — the last few months of his life — with longer hair and beard, he looked like the pictures of Jesus Christ, he always acted like Jesus Christ, he spoke like Jesus Christ, and he died like Jesus Christ. What better tribute could you give him?”


Perfect Timing

The positio’s delivery to the Vatican comes at a time when Bishop Kemme has announced that the Wichita Diocese will be celebrating the “Year of Father Kapaun,” beginning April 20, 2016, which will be the 100th anniversary of Father Kapaun’s birth. Another recent milestone: June 9, 2015, was the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

“So there are a lot of significant dates this year,” said Father Hotze. He also pointed out that the diocesan celebration coincides with the Church-wide Year of Mercy, which starts Dec. 8.

As well, Veterans Day concluded a novena for the beatification of Father Kapaun that began on Nov. 2, the 65th anniversary of his capture. Naturally, those in and outside the diocese praying for Father Kapaun’s beatification already see lights for victory and celebration down the road on a Veterans Day to come.

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.


Read further information about Father Emil Kapaun here, on the Wichita Diocese’s website on Father Kapaun, and in the “Year of Father Kapaun” booklet.