In light of the scandals of some clergymen in recent years, frustrated Catholics have seemed to have lost all respect for the priesthood. One can find many articles on so-called traditional websites that viciously attack clerics in the name of “journalism.” Most of what I see is prideful exhibitionism and impiety. It is our responsibility to respect the priesthood. While we should of course expect clergymen to be held accountable for their wrongdoings, we also must accept the fact that as laity, we aren’t the judge of anyone’s actions, especially those who have been graced with Holy Orders.
Something that we Catholics must be thankful for is our priests tireless work. We should be grateful not only for those with us today, but also those who preceded them. Were it not for their labor, how many of our traditions could have been lost? Were it not for those heroic missionaries, would the Faith had spread as far as it has today? Rather then maliciously attacking our priests, why don’t we try and appreciate what they’ve done for us? And that brings me to the topic of this article, a story of a priest and soldier, a man so dedicated to God and his fellow man that he is being considered for canonization, Fr. Emil Kapaun.
Emil Kapaun was born April 20th, 1916 to a small family on a rural farm in Marion, Kansas. He grew up doing typical farmwork, such as maintaining equipment. He graduated from Pilson highschool in May of 1930. In his childhood he received such a strong formation that he began considering giving his life to Christ as a priest. He attended and graduated from Conception Abbey Seminary College in 1936. He also attended Kenrick Theological Seminary, graduated, and was soon after ordained a priest on June 9th, 1940.
Feeling called to minister to the often neglected soldiers fighting overseas, Fr. Kapaun entered the U.S. Army Chaplain school at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, after which, he was sent to India, where he served from April 1945 to May 1946. So much did he travel to distribute the sacraments, that he would often cover almost 2000 miles a month by jeep or airplane! After the War had ended, he was released from active duty. Using the G.I. Bill, he earned a Master of Arts degree at the Catholic University of America in February 1948. But, again feeling the call to minister to his fellow servicemen, Kapaun joined the Army once more. Having spent a short while in Fort Bliss, Texas, Kapaun received orders to go to Japan. Having said goodbye to his parents back home, he went off on his new mission. He would never see them again.
In January 1950, Fr. Kapaun was assigned to 8th Calvary regiment of the 1st Calvary Division in Japan. His regiment was practicing drill near Mount Fuji in preparation for the war. Soon after, they were sent by boat and made the first amphibious landing of the Korean War on July 18th. The Division was involved in several skirmishes in which the enemy consistently pushed the American forces back. During one such retreat, Fr. Kapaun and his assistant learned of a stranded fellow soldier, wounded and trapped by hostile machine gun fire. At the risk of both their lives, the two brave men braved enemy fire and saved the soldiers life. For his actions, Kapaun was awarded the Bronze star medal with a “V” device for valor.
Kapaun made his rounds amid the 8th regiment, ministering to them and encouraging them to pray. Finally in mid-September the US forces pushed back out of the perimeter, and they started to bring the fight back to the 38th parallel, which the Division crossed on October 9th, capturing the capital city, Pyongyang. During this offensive, Kapaun won the respect of his fellow soldiers for his devotion and service. The chaplain heard confessions and celebrated Mass for the men almost incessantly. To ensure that all their spiritual needs were met, Kapaun constantly counseled his men and encouraged them to keep pressing on.
The US forces traveled north into enemy territory, fighting all the way, hoping to end the war. However, the Communist Chinese intervened, and the 1st Calvary Division engaged with this new enemy at the Battle of Unsan. A force of 20,000 fresh Chinese soldiers attacked the already weary 8th Regiment. As his overwhelmed Regiment started to retreat, Fr. Kapaun stayed with the remainder of the 3rd Battalion. It was during this battle that Fr. Kapaun saved the lives of over 40 men by his actions, and for this he was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013. The 800 men of the 3rd with Kapaun were soon pinned down, and it seemed to be the end. However, The Chaplain saw a wounded Chinese officer, to whom the priest pleaded that he order his soldiers to cease fire, which he did. Fr. Kapaun then negotiated the terms of surrender. Then, as he and his men were being led off for the 87 mile march to the prison camp, he spotted an American soldier about to be executed by the enemy. The courageous Chaplain walked up, pushed the Chinese soldier aside, picked up the American, and carried him with off with him. Fr. Kapaun carried the soldier for 4 miles, and when the priest finally grew tired and was forced to put him down, he continued to act as the man’s crutch for the rest of the death march.
Life in the prison camp was what one would expect, that of hardship. Frigid temperatures, starvation, lack of sleep, disease, and lice were commonplace. Two dozen men died every day due to the terrible conditions. Kapaun once again showed his bravery and selflessness by caring for his men right up until their deaths. He would dig latrines, share his food if he didn’t outright give it all away, and try and keep the morale of his fellow soldiers high.
On top of the physical exhaustion that the Chaplain was already suffering, he developed a blood clot in his leg and he caught dysentery. Eventually, he grew too weak to even walk. The cruel guards took him to what they called the “Hospital”, which was more like a building where you go to die, and was known as such by the POWs. It was here that, having carried his cross long enough, Kapaun died of malnutrition and pneumonia. His body was buried in a mass grave near the Yalu river. Father Emil Kapaun was the epitome of what it means to be a Catholic priest. He gave his life to God’s service, imitating Christ unto the very end. He understood that as a priest, as an alter christi, he was the sacrifice, he was the victim. Every day, he offered himself and his hardships to God, and when it came time for his Calvary, his Crucifixion, he willingly submitted to his Father’s holy will. I think this quote from the good Chaplain will do well in explaining how he grew so close to God,
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls.”
Well done, good and faithful servant.
Below is Father Kapaun’s Medal of honor citation, delivered April 11, 2013 by then President Barack Obama.
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the MEDAL OF HONOR to CHAPLAIN (CAPTAIN) EMIL. J, KAPAUN
UNITED STATES ARMY
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1–2, 1950. On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land. Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun’s noticed an injured Chinese officer among the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces. Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic, to remain and fight the enemy until captured. Chaplain Kapaun’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.”
I think it would be safe to assume he is enjoying his eternal reward.
May God love you all.
This article was re-published by Oremus Press (March 2021) with the permission of the author.