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God put the desire to be a priest in Father Emil J. Kapaun’s heart at an early age, Bishop Carl A. Kemme of Wichita, Kansas, said during a homily Sept. 26 in Pilsen, the hometown of the war-hero priest and sainthood candidate.
“That thought was no doubt supported and encouraged by his parents, his pastor and the religious sisters responsible for his education,” Bishop Kemme said. “It seems no one was surprised by this desire.”
Fr. Kapaun was ordained June 9, 1940 — “a happy day for the Kapaun family and for his parish in Pilsen,” Bishop Kemme said.
Speaking to a packed St. John Nepomucene Church on a beautiful fall day, Bishop Kemme described Fr. Kapaun’s life as being like the many facets of a brilliant diamond.
“One could rightly recall, especially here, Emil’s early years, his relationship with his parents, his dedication to hard work, even his simple way of life,” he said. “Here young Emil Kapaun grew into the man God needed him to be, a man of virtue and values, hard work and determination.”
Reminding the faithful that the day also was Priesthood Sunday, the bishop said that on ordination day no priest knows how God will use him for his divine purposes.
“Young Fr. Kapaun was no different. But like all of us, he laid down his life and surrendered his will to the will of the Church, as best expressed in the office of his bishop,” Bishop Kemme said.
After beginning his priestly service at St. John Nepomucene, he said, Fr. Kapaun soon felt the call to serve Christ’s sheep in the armed forces.
“From there, of course, we know the rest so very well. But it was his Priesthood that was the foundation of his service to the soldiers he supported,” the bishop said. “He was Chaplain Fr. Kapaun and as a priest, he became a spiritual father to those men in a way that changed their lives.”
Servant of God
Fr. Kapaun was a U.S. Army chaplain in World War II and the Korean War and held the rank of captain. He is remembered for his selfless and courageous service attending to soldiers on the front lines of battle and, after he was captured in 1950, caring for and bolstering the morale of his fellow prisoners of war in a North Korean prison.
He, too, endured a brutal captivity and died in the POW camp May 23, 1951.
His sainthood cause was formally opened in 1993, giving him the title “Servant of God.” His case is being reviewed by the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes in Rome.
Seventy years after his death, a U.S. government forensics team in Hawaii — the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — announced March 4 that it had identified his remains among those of unidentified soldiers long interred in Hawaii at the Punchbowl’s National Cemetery of the Pacific.
On Sept. 23, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva celebrated an evening Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace honoring Fr. Kapaun. The occasion was the transfer of the priest’s remains from Hawaii to his home Diocese of Wichita, where a tomb has been prepared for him in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Bishop Kemme was among those who were in Hawaii for the Mass and to accompany the remains back to Kansas Sept. 24. He was joined by Scott Carter, coordinator of the Fr. Kapaun Guild; Father David Lies, vicar general of the diocese; Ray Kapaun, Fr. Kapaun’s nephew; and the priest’s niece, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristina Roberts.
Bishop McKnight attends
In Kansas, a Sept. 28 vigil was planned for Fr. Kapaun at Hartman Arena in Wichita. His funeral Mass was to be celebrated at the arena Sept. 29.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, a native of the Wichita diocese who served as a priest of that diocese from his ordination in 1994 until his installation in Jefferson City in 2018, was among the concelebrants.
“As a student of Catholic schools in Wichita, I learned about the heroic deeds of Fr. Kapaun that were done in service to his country and Catholic faith,” Bishop McKnight stated.
While in formation as a seminarian, Bishop McKnight learned more about the spirituality of a man who, as a priest, literally gave his life for others.
“Fr. Kapaun is a role model for all of us who profess the Christian faith, not just priests,” Bishop McKnight stated. “I am honored to participate in the historic Funeral rites for Fr. Kapaun and pray that his example will inspire all priests throughout the world.”
Also attending was Father Derek Hooper, a Kansas native and associate pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Parish in Boonville, and St. Joseph Parish in Pilot Grove.
Fr. Hooper has held a strong devotion to Fr. Kapaun since his own time of serving in the Army.
“The life of Fr. Emil Kapaun is one that we can all look to for comfort and encouragement,” said Fr. Hooper. “I know his intercessory prayer has gotten me to where I am. I pray that I can be a fraction of the shepherd that he was.”
Father Daniel Vacca, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Camdenton, is a priest of the Wichita diocese. A framed picture of Fr. Kapaun in his military uniform hangs on his office wall.
“Many servicemen who knew Fr. Kapaun have given testimony for his cause to sainthood,” Fr. Vacca noted. “Several miracles attributed to his intercession are being investigated as part of the process of seeking his beatification. His example is one of selfless service to our military during the conflict in Korea and in the difficult circumstances in the prison camp.”
More ties to this diocese
The late Bishop Christian Winkelmann of Wichita, who ordained Fr. Kaupan to the Holy Priesthood in 1940, previously served as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Rich Fountain in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese.
Fr. Kapaun graduated from the largest ordination class in the history of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
Among Fr. Kaupan’s classmates at Kenrick were the late Father Joseph B. Boland, who served for many years as a priest of this diocese, and Monsignor Jerome Sommer PA, a fellow military chaplain and priest of this diocese who until his death in 2012 was Fr. Kaupan’s last living classmate.
Msgr. Sommer, who also became an Army chaplain about a year after Fr. Kapaun entered the service, did not find out about Fr. Kapaun’s death until shortly after the fighting ceased in 1953.
“Some of his fellow prisoners wrote about him and how heroic he was over there,” said Msgr. Sommer in an interview in July 2008. “They attributed their very lives to his influence, that he kept up the morale of them. A higher percentage of the POWs in that particular camp survived than in other places where our American soldiers were held captive. And those survivors attribute their survival in great part to him.”
Sometime around 1954, Msgr. Sommer read an article about Fr. Kapaun in the Saturday Evening Post. It included testimony by men who credited him with helping to keep them alive.
“I thought, ‘This is my classmate! He’s a hero!’” said Msgr. Sommer.
“A worthy model”
After the Sept. 29 Funeral Mass in Wichita, Fr. Kapaun’s remains were to be driven to a site near the Veterans’ Memorial Park and his casket placed on a horse-drawn military caisson to process to the cathedral.
Members of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, planned to carry his casket into the cathedral following a 21-gun salute and “Taps.”
In Pilsen, Bishop Kemme said in his homily that more priests like Fr. Kapaun are needed.
“Priests who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work diligently for the needs of the people entrusted to their care,” he said. “We need priests to live moral and virtuous lives that are clearly evident, to put the needs of the flock of Christ before their own.”
Bishop Kemme said he has been inspired by Fr. Kapaun.
“One of the emotions I felt so strongly — and still do as I was so honored to view the remains of this humble and holy priest while in Hawaii — is that I need to step up my game when it comes to my own living of the priestly life,” he said.
Bishop Kemme closed his homily by asking for Fr. Kapaun’s intercession to inspire more young men to consider a call to the Priesthood.
“May they see Fr. Kapaun as a worthy model of the Priesthood, for in my humble judgment they can find none better.”
More information about Fr. Kapaun’s life, ministry and sainthood cause can be found at frkapaun.org.
Mr. Riggs is editor of Catholic Advance, newspaper of the Diocese of Wichita.