Emil Kapaun’s canonization as a Roman Catholic saint, if it happens, will come with an unusual religious twist:
Most of the crucial testimony about his Korean War heroics has been supplied by an impassioned remnant of Kapaun’s former prisoner-of-war friends, nearly all of whom are Protestants. Another, Robert McGreevy, is a lapsed Catholic who left the church in disgust years ago because of its sexual abuse scandals.
Having non-Catholics testify in a sainthood investigation is a good thing, said the Rev. John Hotze, the Wichita Diocese priest who has collected evidence about Kapaun’s heroics for the Vatican investigation.
“It adds to the authenticity, in that Catholics are familiar with saints and with the canonization process,” he said. “Generally with Protestants, all that is foreign to them.”
The Vatican is sending one of its top sainthood investigators, Andrea Ambrosi, to Wichita again this weekend to examine more evidence the church says could solidify Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood. Most of the evidence Ambrosi will look at this time involves “alleged miracles,” where young Wichitans survived medical crises a few years ago because their families prayed to Kapaun, asking his help in heaven to save them.
Both of those events took place decades after Kapaun, a native of Pilsen in Marion County, died in a North Korean prison camp in 1951.
The non-Catholics who have given Kapaun’s sainthood a boost not only gave factual accounts of his heroics to Hotze, but spent decades making impassioned requests – to the U.S. Army to give him the Medal of Honor and to the Catholic Church to make him a saint. President Obama awarded Kapaun’s family the medal in April.
“He was an inspiration to everyone in a desperate group reduced to living dog-eat-dog,” said former POW Robert Wood this week. “He reminded us by his example that we all have a duty to each other and to our God. He was a light in a very dark room.”
Most of the eyewitnesses to Kapaun’s heroics in the North Korean POW camps are dead. But the few living survivors who have been instrumental in moving Kapaun toward sainthood are Protestant, including Wood, Mike Dowe, William Funchess and Herbert Miller.
Hearing these men talk about Kapaun, Hotze said, has always left him awed.
“I’ve often thought about what it must have been like to hear him talk,” Hotze said.
Their accounts have become crucial not only to making Kapaun a candidate for sainthood but in speeding up the canonization by years. Hotze said that if the Vatican decides that Kapaun was “martyred” for defending his faith, it would allow the church to proceed faster toward canonization.
At least three surviving POWs who witnessed Kapaun’s final hours – Dowe, Wood and Funchess – have said they saw Kapaun killed by the camp guards. They said the guards ordered the sick and starving Kapaun isolated from all help in the camp’s “death house.”
They say he was killed not only for rallying them to resist communist brainwashing but for defying camp guards who banned all religious activities in the camp. That is the Catholic textbook definition of a martyr, Hotze said.
“It is their testimony, if you go ask them, that he was killed because of his faith,” Hotze said. “Every one of them will say that.”
In deciding whether he was a martyr, Hotze said, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican will have to decide whether Kapaun was killed while serving as a soldier opposing enemy abuse, or whether he died standing up for his faith. Based on the POW testimony, Hotze said, “He was doing both.”
Having Protestants like himself testify to Kapaun’s greatness as a Catholic might seen like an odd twist, Wood said. But though Kapaun devoted his life to the Catholic Church, Wood and the others saw him risk his life in hundreds of ways to save the lives of non-Catholics, whether by dragging wounded soldiers to safety on battlefields, or by giving his own food away in the prison camp.
“In that first winter, we lost 40 percent of our number,” Wood said. “Many of us felt like we’d been abandoned by our own nation, and we were hanging on to life by a thread. But he convinced us to hang on.”
“His caring personality radiated out to all of us,” Funchess said. “Everyone around him could feel it.”
Moved by God
Wood, Funchess and Miller all said Kapaun deepened their Christian faith considerably, though they never considered joining the Catholic faith.
Miller said that if he could put a few thoughts into the ears at the Vatican, he would tell them he is sure that God deliberately moved Kapaun to do many acts of heroism. One of those acts saved Miller from a battlefield execution.
In early November 1950, Miller was lying wounded in a ditch, about to be executed by an enemy soldier. Kapaun, who had just saved the lives of 40 other wounded American soldiers by begging the Chinese soldiers to spare their lives, suddenly walked away from his own captors. He went over to Miller and pushed the enemy soldier away, carrying Miller to safety.
There was no good military reason for Kapaun to abandon 40 wounded soldiers for a few moments in the middle of an ongoing battle and put a stop to a battlefield execution, Miller said. Kapaun was smart and experienced on battlefields, Miller said, and he knew that technically, this was a terrible idea.
“If anybody else would have done what he did in that moment, they would have shot us both,” Miller said. “So I think that act alone was a miracle. I think he did it deliberately because the Lord told him to do it.”
In the horrific battle where they were both captured, McGreevy said, Kapaun rounded up a group of soldiers before their battalion was overrun and gave them the Catholic Last Rites. While the bullets flew, he carefully explained the Catholic sacrament to the Protestants. He also told them that most of them were not going to survive the battle.
“Everybody listened, including the Protestants,” McGreevy said. “No one walked away.”
Decades later, disappointed about the church’s sex abuse scandals, McGreevy created a small Kapaun shrine in a corner of his house in Cumberland, Md., with a small statue of Kapaun and a Catholic rosary draped over it.
“I pray the Catholic prayers and I pray to Father Kapaun every night there,” he said. “I thank him for all he did for us.
“And when I do that, I think I’m just as good a Catholic as I ever was.”