As the world witnessed a historic peace summit between the United States and North Korea this past week, it’s easy to allow politics to dominate and for the human dimension to be overlooked. In such a scenario, the life and witness of one person can shine out as a reminder to us of the suffering, sorrow, and other authentically human aspects of the full narrative.
In these days, therefore, the Servant of God Father Emil Joseph Kapaun has been on my mind.
Kapaun was a priest and army chaplain. He grew up on a Kansas farm and knew the importance of faith and hard work. As a boy, he discerned a call to priestly service and was generous in his response to it.
This same generosity led him as a diocesan priest to feel a divine nudge that eventually flourished into a clear summons to serve the spiritual needs of the service members of the Armed Forces as a military chaplain. With this push, therefore, he accepted a “call within the call” and asked his bishop to serve as an army chaplain.
As a chaplain, he traveled thousands of miles to serve troops in Burma and India in the 1940s. After returning home, he re-entered the military and was sent to Japan in 1949.
In 1950, Kapaun was with the first troops sent to protect South Korea, which had been invaded by the North. It was in this assignment that he earned a reputation for bravery in ministering among the foxholes in the thick of battle.
Few people can imagine the chaos and imminent danger of battle, and yet – with no hesitation – Kapaun crawled and dragged himself through it all so that every soldier received pastoral care and encouragement in the heat of battle.
As Kapaun’s unit was ambushed by the Chinese Army at the Battle of Unsan, the priest-chaplain once again bounced all over the battlefield in order to rescue service members or give them Last Rites. He showed a true grasp of the “scent of his sheep” as he remained with a number of wounded service members rather than flee and abandon them in their sufferings or fear.
Captured by the enemy, Kapaun and his troops were forced to march over sixty miles in the bitter cold. Along the way, constantly reflecting the Good Shepherd, Kapaun carried his wounded comrades, offering them words of encouragement, and praying with them as they fought for life and limb.
Kapaun spent seven months in a prison camp. He emptied himself in heroic service to his fellow prisoners without regard for race, color or creed. He was a priest, chaplain, and believer to all people of all needs.
Choosing the good of others over himself, Kapaun cared for the wounded, secured food for the hungry, preached forgiveness of enemies, nursed the sick, washed soiled clothing, and was a constant witness of hope and perseverance.
This life of selfless service led Kapaun to get a blood clot in his leg, and pneumonia would eventually take his life on May 23, 1951. And yet, even in his dying, Kapaun’s faith held firm. He said to his troops, “I’m going to where I’ve always wanted to go… And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”
Two years after Kapaun’s death, when several hundred prisoners of war were released, a crucifix was revealed that was carved by a Jewish prisoner who was inspired by tales of Kapaun. This demonstrated the chaplain’s universal outreach, and his appeal among all people of good will.
Decades after his death, as a reminder of the heroism of the American soldiers in the Korean Conflict and of the bodies still left in North Korea, the valor of the “shepherd in combat boots” was recognized and on April 11, 2013, Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.
As peace initiatives move forward and hope abounds for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and a declared end of the Korean War, the witness of Father Emil Kapaun reminds us of the sufferings and sorrow of the human narrative that has been a part of this long saga.
As his own body rests in uncertainty, Kapaun intercedes for us and gives us an all-embracing approach in which to reach peace and allow for tranquility among all nations and all peoples.