We have sadly been hearing a lot about war in the news in the past month or so. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that war is not a thing of the past. In reality, much of our world was still at war even before Russia’s recent invasion. However, we as Americans are more tuned in to European news than news from other parts of the world. For example, a civil war has been going on in Syria for the past ten years or so, claiming around half a million lives. I admit that most days, I don’t think twice about people who are fleeing their homeland because their towns have been destroyed by war.
Jesus taught us in the seventh Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” War is never a good thing, and while self-defense is a legitimate reason to have a standing army, physical violence should only be used as a last resort. It is sobering to consider how often wars have been fought between Christians, especially between Catholics. While it can be helpful to build bridges between nations through diplomatic and economic ties, the best way to unite nations is by a common faith. One of the basic beliefs of our faith is that when we are baptized, we become sons and daughters of God. Knowing that we are children of the same heavenly Father should be reason enough to lay aside our weapons!
All of this is a long introduction to the person I wanted to write my article about this week: Fr. Emil Kapaun. Usually, I leave the saint stories to Fr. Rankin, because he does such an excellent job with his article each week! Fr. Kapaun is a fairly well-known priest who died in the Pyoktong prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea. His name was back in the news in March of 2021, as his body had been identified in a cemetery in Hawaii, and it was transported back to his hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
Fr. Kapaun was a member of the United States Armed Forces, but in a role that only a priest can fulfill – he was a Catholic priest Chaplain in the Army. After serving in various duties in Kansas, he was deployed to Burma and India at the end of World War II. However, he is better known for his actions as a chaplain during the Korean War. He was known to be fearless as he ministered to men on the front lines, offering the Anointing of the Sick, hearing Confessions, burying the dead, and carrying the wounded to safety. One time his tobacco pipe was shot out of his mouth, but this did not deter him. While protecting the town of Unsan, Fr. Kapaun’s soldiers were overrun and many of them made a retreat. Fr. Kapaun decided to stay with the wounded while they were captured.
Fr. Kapaun heroically served his men for several months while they were in the Pyoktong POW camp. He was known to men of all faiths as a leader and one of the best at stealing food to keep his soldiers alive. (His patron saint for these excursions was St. Dismas, the good thief who died with Jesus.) Fr. Kapaun often volunteered to bury the dead so that he could say some prayers while he did so. After a while, Fr. Kapaun became too weak and sick to serve as a chaplain, and even to live. He died in 1951, and it was thought that he was buried in a mass grave.
As I mentioned earlier, Fr. Kapaun’s body was identified in 2021 in a grave in Hawaii. I do not know the story of how it ended up there, but it was relocated to Wichita, where Bishop Kemme was finally able to celebrate a funeral Mass for him. Fr. Kapaun was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in battle in 1950, and in 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor, only the fifth chaplain to receive this award since the Civil War (all Catholic priests).
Fr. Kapaun was a true peacemaker. As a priest, his job was not to fire weapons, but to bring God’s mercy to people who were in the heart of war, a place of destruction and sadness. Only God can bring about true peace, and he does so through peacemakers such as Fr. Kapaun.
For more information about Fr. Kapaun, visit frkapaun.org