WICHITA, Kansas — When serving troops in the U.S. Army, Father Ned Blick asked himself a simple question, “What would Father Kapaun do?”
A Catholic chaplain from 2008 to 2012, Blick spent a year deployed in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan.
“Once I was celebrating a Mass, and rockets came and machine gun fire came in,” said Blick, who like the late Father Emil J. Kapaun is a priest of the Wichita Diocese.
He remembered a story about Kapaun presiding over Mass amid bombs and rocket fire.
“I thought of Chaplain Kapaun, and how he finished the Mass. I continued celebrating the Mass, gave each soldier holy Communion, and they would run out the door after they received,” Blick told Catholic News Service. “They would go grab their weapon and go to the fight.”
Kapaun was born in rural Kansas and ordained a priest in 1940 for the Diocese of Wichita. He served in several parishes, as well as a chaplain for nearby military bases. In 1944, he was granted permission to enter the U.S. Army Catholic Chaplain Corps, where he served for two years.
He rejoined in 1948, and in 1949 was sent to Japan, then to South Korea with the troops. In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and the U.S. entered the war.
Kapaun was captured and sent to a prison camp in North Korea, where he continued to serve the men. He died May 23, 1951, and in 2013 was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on the battlefield. It is the United States’ highest military honor.
In March of this year, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii announced it had positively identified his skeletal remains.
His remains arrived at Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport Sept. 25. They were then taken as part of a procession to his hometown church in Pilsen for public and private services.
A vespers with the clergy of the diocese was held Sept. 27 in the cathedral in Wichita. A funeral vigil was held Sept. 28 in Hartman Arena, with a funeral Mass celebrated the following morning.
His casket was taken from the arena to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita, where he was interred in a tomb prepared for him.
A sainthood candidate, Kapaun has the title “Servant of God” and his cause is under consideration by the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
During the funeral vigil, a portion of a letter Kapaun wrote to his cousin was read: “I have a feeling that I am far, far from being a saint worthy to receive the Priesthood. Think what it means!! To offer up the Living Body and Blood of Our Savior every day in Holy Mass — to absolve souls from sin in Holy Confession and snatch them from the gates of hell.”
Those words resounded deeply with Blick.
“To hear a guy who was that heroic felt unworthy to perform the sacraments was incredible,” Blick said. “As priests, we all get that sense of unworthiness. It was encouraging to hear he felt that, too. Kneeling there, it felt like he was passing the baton on to us, unworthy as we are.”
Blick was ordained on May 23, 1992 — the same date Father Kapaun died in 1951 — so he said he always felt a kinship with the deceased priest.
During the Sept. 29 funeral Mass, Blick said the enormity of the impact of a boy from rural Kansas hit him.
“Kneeling there, I felt the enormity of what he had done and proud to be a chaplain in this diocese of Kansas, following his footsteps,” he told CNS.
Blick carried a prayer card bearing Kapaun’s image and prayer during his deployments, and heard of others throughout the military who prayed for the priest’s intercession.
“You used to hear stories of Father Kapaun being invoked by different units and him looking after them,” Blick said. “One guy was in the shower trailer, and it was hit by a rocket and exploded. All of the shards of glass shattered and hit the wall surrounding him, but he was protected.”
Blick entered the chaplaincy when his bishop at the time, Bishop Michael O. Jackals, sought volunteers to serve.
“After 9/11, there was a big push, and I had a lot of the same inspiration as a lot of guys who served,” Blick said. “I wanted to have the patriotic response to what was happening to us.”
There also is a family legacy of military service. His father was a Marine, and all of his uncles served, including Father Daniel Sullentrop, who as a military chaplain held the rank of lieutenant colonel.
“He was in the Vietnam War, I knew him as a kid growing up, so (becoming a chaplain) was something I was interested in,” Blick said.
He received his uncle’s Mass kit, and utilized it throughout his service.
And as Blick served, he continued to look to the example of Father Kapaun when things got rough.
“The morale was tough because there were multiple deployments, people had been there a year or more,” Blick said. “I wondered, ‘What would Father Kapan do?’ because he was in the prison camp. He would give them a pat on the back, a bit of tobacco — he was an inspiration to me.”
Bonar is a freelance writer and photographer based in Salina, Kansas.