“Perfection is acquired through our efforts, and if we try to become saints, someday we will be saints.” — Father Emil Kapaun
Chase Kear does not seem at first glance to be the poster boy for a Vatican investigation involving sainthood. He chews a little dip, hits targets at turkey shoots, listens to country music when he rolls. In his Facebook profile photo he dresses the part of a halfnaked bandito in a sombrero. He’s a self-described redneck; also foolish and drunk and stupid at times in the past, he says, though less so since his accident.
He takes comfort in knowing that Jesus reached out to sinners, and a sinner Chase Kear sometimes is. Jesus loves him anyway.
His life changed when it should have ended on Oct. 2, 2008. A pole vaulter on the Hutchinson Community College track team, he felt something go slack in the flex of his vault pole as he turned upside down in midair. He overshot the mat.
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The impact on the ground caved in the right side of his skull. He stopped breathing; paramedics stuck a tube down his throat. His eyeballs stared sightless in different directions. His limp arms and legs would not move when paramedics jabbed them.
“He was dead,” family doctor Joe Davison said later.
Surgeons sawed off the right side of his skull to relieve the brain’s swelling.
Family and friends began chanting Hail Marys, Our Fathers and a prayer to Father Emil Kapaun.
The Kears barely knew who Kapaun was. But reciting the Kapaun prayer before daily Mass is what Catholics do in Colwich. It’s a wisp of a town northwest of Wichita, surrounded by wheat fields. The diocese has handed out Kapaun prayer cards for the sick for decades. Davison, when he learned how bad Kear’s injury was, steeled himself to comfort a grieving family, and secondarily planned for permanent care. If Chase survived, he would surely be an invalid needing diapers. Other doctors made the same predictions to Chase’s parents, Paul and Paula. Paula said they should pray. They and their friends said thousands of prayers to Kapaun. After that something crazy happened. Doctors called it impossible.
Kapaun’s comrades revere him to this day. Some of them pray to him.
Mike Dowe, living in Houston now, has prayed to the soul of his friend every night since Kapaun died.
Bob McGreevy, who revived in the prison camp Death House while praying to Kapaun, went home to Cumberland, Md., after the war and married Marian, the prettiest girl in town. He worked for the Postal Service, raised children and regained enough health to run marathons, including in Boston and New York.
Marian died five years ago; McGreevy still cries. He never cried in the prison camps.
At POW reunions, he and Al Brooks grin sometimes, and tell POWs at the dinner tables that “whatever you do, keep eating.” It is a wry salute to Kapaun, who had demanded that they eat Chinese birdseed to stay alive.
McGreevy has prayed to Kapaun every night since he heard in the Death House that Kapaun died alone there.
“I will say an Our Father and a Hail Mary,” he said. “Then I pray to him: ‘Father Kapaun, thank you so much for giving us the courage to keep going.’ ’’
Doctors told Chase’s parents that he’d probably die either because of the brain damage or because they’d been forced to breach the blood-brain barrier that prevents infection.
When he had hit the ground, his brain had rattled inside his skull in the same way the clapper bangs inside a ringing bell.
When he awakened, doctors were mystified. Science could not explain this. They still predicted death, or life as an invalid. But then the impossible happened. Chase started talking. He started recognizing people. The doctors could barely believe what they saw. After less than a month in the hospital, Chase went home wearing a T-shirt that said “Miracle Man."
Herbert Miller, when he learned a few years ago that there was an annual Father Kapaun Day in Kapaun’s hometown, drove halfway across the United States with his wife, Joyce.
They reached Pilsen, a town so small he could walk the length of it in minutes, bad ankle and all.
In the decades since Kapaun had shoved aside his executioner, Miller had worked, fished and raised two adopted children. In the big garden in back of his house he raised watermelon, cantaloupe, collard greens, sweet corn, string beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and peas. Sometimes, looking at all those good things to eat, he remembered how they had all starved.
He has lived a good life.
Lake Ontario lies only five miles away; he likes to go there, look out over the water.
Sometimes when he mows the lawn his mind wanders. He got to do all those things because Kapaun saved him.
He cries sometimes when he thinks of Kapaun. When he pulls off his sock at night, he looks at a lower leg forever reddish, black and blue, the ankle twisted, the skin pitted from grenade fragments.
In Pilsen that day, Miller, not knowing anybody in town, asked around about Father Kapaun. Pilseners looked at him warily.
So he told them that one day in North Korea, he had lain in a ditch. And a guy had pointed the muzzle of a rifle at his head.
“And then this guy came walking across the road . . .”
At that point, people threw their arms around Miller’s neck. There were still people who remembered Kapaun, still baked kolaches, still spoke the Czech that Kapaun spoke in sermons.
A local caretaker of the Kapaun legacy, Rose Mary Neuwirth, showed the Millers around.
When Miller stepped onto the grounds of the church, he caught his breath.
He stood on his wounded leg and stared at a bronze statue of Kapaun with his left arm around a limping soldier who has a bandage wrapped around his wounded leg.
Chase Kear believes Christ and Kapaun saved him. He knows critics of the church will ridicule this.
After news stories appeared in June about the Vatican investigating him as a Kapaun “miracle,” cybercritics ridiculed his family, his faith.
“I don’t care what they think,” he said.
His neurosurgeon, Raymond Grundmeyer, has said to newspapers and the Vatican that Kear’s survival is miraculous.
Kear says he’s trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do now. Was he spared for a reason? If so, for what? Not many things scare him, he says. That question scares him. In church on Sundays, he no longer mumbles his way through the Catholic prayers. He says them for real. Women hug him. People shake his hand. But what now? “I was given my life back,” Kear says. “There must be a reason. “What is it?”
As early as 1990, Kansas Rep. Dan Glickman asked the military to review whether Kapaun deserved the Medal of Honor. Before the war ended, Kapaun was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his battle deeds, the military’s second-highest award. For that reason, and because so many years had passed, the military rejected Glickman’s request. Glickman’s successor, Todd Tiahrt, took up the cause in 2001. He also got a no. But Kapaun’s friends would not give up; Dowe and the others kept writing letters, telling stories.
Tiahrt, learning that Kapaun’s Distinguished Service Cross had been awarded for his battlefield courage, asked for a review of Kapaun’s deeds in the prison camp.
By coincidence, an instructor at West Point had begun researching a book about Korean War POWs. Lt. Col. William Latham, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, interviewed Dowe, William Funchess, Miller and many other men, and they all told him about Kapaun.
Latham collected a thick file of eyewitness accounts of Kapaun’s heroism. He turned copies of it over to Kapaun’s brother and sister-in-law, Eugene and Helen Kapaun.
They turned it over to Tiahrt, who gave it all to the Army.
Those papers helped spur what happened next.
By this past summer, a large number of Kapaun stories had been collected by the Rev. John Hotze, the judicial vicar of the Wichita Diocese now in charge of the sainthood investigation.
His assignment had taken years. To meet Vatican rules on sainthood, he had needed to find a provable “alleged miracle” to persuade the Vatican to beatify Kapaun as a potential saint. That done, he — and Kapaun — would then need heavenly intervention: a second provable miracle, occurring after beatification.
Had anyone ever miraculously survived a scientifically unexplainable injury or illness after people prayed to Kapaun?
Hotze found the Kears. Then he found a second family in Wichita who decided not to talk publicly; that family’s situation involved a teenage daughter who survived a catastrophic autoimmune disorder.
Last summer, at Hotze’s request, Vatican investigator Andrea Ambrosi visited Wichita and interviewed both families and their doctors. He was surprised at what he learned.
In all his experience at vetting sainthood cases, he’d never seen such promising testimonials from witnesses; several doctors involved with both Wichita families were Protestant, not schooled in the Catholic teachings of sainthood, and they were emphatic that these cases were real miracles.
He told Hotze both cases looked promising and that he would return in 2010.
Hotze had talked to many POWs by then.
The stories he heard enriched the cause, enriched his own life. POW William Hansen, shortly before he died, described to Hotze how he and Kapaun used to sneak into the “hospital” and watch which medicines were passed out by Chinese doctors for dysentery or pneumonia. Then they’d sneak in later, steal the drugs and smuggle them to American doctors.
Tibor Rubin, who won the Medal of Honor for his Korean War exploits, told Hotze how he huddled terrified at the bottom of a foxhole one day, bullets flying. Kapaun jumped in beside him and casually reached inside his jacket.
“Hey,” Kapaun said. “You want an apple? I got an apple.”
Rubin told officials who gave him the Medal of Honor that he won it because his anti-Semitic sergeant tried to murder him by making him defend a hill alone against a mass charge by North Koreans. A survivor of Mauthausen death camp in World War II, Rubin was sometimes a target of anti-Semitism in the Army. Kapaun behaved differently.
“He was nice to everybody. I was a Jewish person, but he always treated me like I was a Catholic person,’’ he said. “It didn’t matter to him who or what I was.”
In one battle, he was knocked out by an explosion, and awakened to see Kapaun giving him the last rites of the Catholic church.
“I was glad to see him.”
Rubin said he wrote a letter to “that Polish pope” years ago, recommending sainthood for Kapaun. He said he’s puzzled why the church never followed his advice.
In the prison camps, Rubin did as Kapaun did: stole food for the hungry. And when he did so, he thought of his mother, who taught him a Yiddish word, “mitzvah” — a “good deed.”
“When you give out mitzvahs, mitzvahs come back to you,” his mother taught him. She had told him: “When you save somebody’s life, you might save an entire nation, you never know.”
Rubin said Kapaun gave out a lot of mitzvahs.
Hotze knows proving miracles won’t be easy. The Catholic Church ruthlessly discounts most alleged miracles.
Since 1858, thousands of sick and desperate people seek miraculous cures every year at the Catholic shrine called Lourdes, in France. Only a few dozen have ever been deemed miracles.
But Kapaun’s candidacy has gone a long way down the sainthood road.
Hotze made helpful discoveries. He and other priests were intrigued, for example, when they read Kapaun’s sermons delivered in Pilsen when he was still a new priest. Kapaun, the son of Czech parents, leading a Czech-speaking congregation, had written some sermons longhand in Czech and typed all of them neatly in English.
The thinker that the priests encountered in these writings surprised them with the rhythmic cadences of his sentences and the originality of his thought.
“The sorrows which we are to encounter on our journey thru life are covered with a veil,” he said one Sunday. “The forgiving of wrongs is the exercising of mercy,” he said on another.
“We must be on our guard that our temptations will not shake us like the wind does the reeds.”
What surprised them most were passages in which Kapaun seemed to predict that he would be severely tested — and seemed to decide how he would act, how he would lead: He would emulate Jesus, who led people by becoming their servant.
In his Palm Sunday sermon on April 6, 1941, Kapaun, only 25 years old, laid out this strategy in simple, vigorous sentences. There was this one:
“Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them.”
“A man finds it a pleasure to serve one who has saved his life.”
“A great leader exerts a most powerful influence over the hearts and minds of his followers. Though the task of following such a leader is most arduous in itself, yet it becomes sweet and honorable, and comparatively easy in practice when the followers consider the dignity of the leader, the relation of the leader to his followers, the motives which prompt the leader, and the rewards which he offers.”
Those thoughts, Hotze said, were a blueprint not only for sainthood but for how Kapaun steeled himself, nine years after he wrote them, to become the one man whom desperate men would obey when all hope seemed lost.
No one needed to tell the POWs about sainthood.
“We knew in the camp that he was a saint, while he was still alive,” Funchess said. “It was obvious.”
But canonization by the Vatican is a matter that baffles some soldiers. They saw him do heroic things that didn’t seem to fit what the church asks about.
The Vatican asked whether Kapaun lived a life “above reproach.” Soldiers grinned at this, recalling Kapaun swearing at Comrade Sun.
The Vatican wanted to know whether the sick he saved ever recovered “immediately.”
No, they said. It took time.
The church seemed to be looking for upper-case, biblicalsized miracles, like raising Lazarus from the dead.
The POWs never saw that happen in Pyoktong.
What they did see, Funchess said, were the sorts of lowercase miracles that all of us could do if only we had Kapaun’s character and grit.
By that definition, Miller said, “That man’s entire life was a miracle.”
Was it a miracle, Miller asked, when Kapaun shoved his executioner away?
“I was sure that guy was going to shoot both of us,” Miller said. “We were in the middle of a battle. It was a miracle that he did not shoot us. Isn’t that a miracle?”
The POWs say Kapaun saved hundreds of lives — dozens on battlefields, hundreds in the camps by stealing food, making pots to boil water, picking lice out of armpits. The lice were so thick, Funchess said, that they’d bleed a man to death in three days if he let them feast.
By any standard, Funchess said, saving hundreds of lives in those conditions is incredible. The Pentagon estimates that 1,200 to 1,600 of the 3,000 to 4,000 POWs who passed through Pyoktong died that first winter.
Skeptics of miracles could ask: If miracles really exist, if Kapaun really was a saint in the making, why did at least 1,200 men die beside him when Kapaun himself was praying to God every day to spare their lives?
But the men who saw him there say that while he didn’t save all, he saved hundreds. How many saved lives are enough?
Some questions from the church puzzled the old soldiers, who tried to be diplomatic about it.
When Moose McClain, in a 2003 video interview, told Archbishop Philip Hannan of the New Orleans Diocese that he’d watched Kapaun virtually raise POW Chester Osborne from death by cradling him in his arms and praying in a hut one day, Hannan asked whether his recovery was “immediate.”
“No,” McClain told him.
The church also asked these men whether Kapaun won converts to Catholicism, which would be another feather in Kapaun’s sainthood cap if the church could find it.
Yes, they said. Some men converted. But the broader answer is not so simple.
Osborne, according to his granddaughter Laurie Uhlman, came home from the war and told people he’d survived imprisonment because of Kapaun. But he did not convert until 1974, more than 20 years after Kapaun revived him.
Bob Wood, who helped carry Kapaun to the Death House, studied Catholicism when he got back home, but did not convert.
“I never found anyone in the church who could match up to Father Kapaun,” he said.
Funchess stayed Methodist, Miller a Baptist.
McGreevy, born a Catholic, stopped going to Mass years ago after reading about sex scandals and cover-ups involving priests. McGreevy, still devout, could not bring himself to join any other faith.
So in his home in Maryland, he built a shrine. He acquired a small replica of the statue of Kapaun in Pilsen, set it beside his favorite chair, leaned Kapaun prayer cards against it and prayed to his old mentor every day.
The questions from the church, and the 58 years it took for the Vatican to assign an investigator, puzzled POWs like Miller.
“If I could talk to the pope, I’d tell him that if he doesn’t give sainthood to Father Kapaun, he might as well close up the whole thing and never give it to anybody else ever again.”
Should people believe in miracles? Are there really saints?
Kapaun’s friends don’t know the answers to those questions. But they say they know what they saw.
They saw death surround them; they saw little reason for hope. But Kapaun preached about hope until the day he died and made many of them believe in hope, too.
Kapaun’s greatest miracle, Dowe said, was persuading people to believe in hope.
“That kept a lot of us alive,” Dowe said. “When your life is so marginal, little things mean a lot.”
Some of the men he saved did not necessarily believe in miracles; some of them did not even believe in God. But they believed in Father Kapaun.
When they heard the news this October, former POWs felt their skin tingle. The outgoing secretary of the Army wrote Tiahrt that he recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concurred. “I’m glad they are doing that for him,” Dowe said when he heard the news. “He sure did a lot for us.” The recommendation will go to Congress, and to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates happens to be a graduate of Wichita’s East High School, located five miles from St. John’s Chapel at Newman University, where Kapaun was ordained in 1940.
If Gates and Congress concur, the recommendation will go to the president.
With other saints, there was a transforming crisis.
Saul the Persecutor became Paul the Apostle when a blinding light struck him down on the road to Damascus.
Augustine slept with women; Francis of Assisi partied until dawn; they became saints only after lives of self-loathing and crisis.
But no one who knew Kapaun ever saw a road to Damascus moment. Hotze, after a decade of study, is sure Kapaun was born whole.
“Everybody I talked to said he was the same way as a boy,” Hotze said. “In school when he finished his lessons he would look how to help other students complete their work. That was the same guy on the battlefield and in prison camps. He just felt compelled to help.”
Kapaun reached his 34th year having done nothing remarkable. He grew up milking cows near a tiny, anonymous town. Fellow soldiers like Jerome Dolan, an 8th Cavalry doctor, said he looked utterly ordinary except in battle; Kapaun had a slight build, a high-pitched voice.
The one recording of his voice is a sermon delivered on Armed Forces Radio two months before he went to Korea. It reveals a voice of high pitch, with the inflections of a rural Kansas farmer, but with a Slavic flavor, with some consonants trilled or clipped off the way some elderly Czech speakers in Pilsen still say them today.
His life until 1950 seems so quaint. The truth is that until the 8th Cavalry Regiment landed on a beach in Korea in July 1950, Kapaun lived a quaint life.
But starting that day, his reckless courage in battle became legend. Joe Ramirez, who fought with the 8th Cavalry all the way up the Korean peninsula, said he and many other soldiers saw Kapaun save wounded soldiers while running through gunfire from rifles, machine guns and sub-machine guns.
“Guys used to say, ‘That man is crazy,’ ” Ramirez said.
American soldiers always tried to rescue their wounded, Ramirez said, but Kapaun would go farther out into enemy gunfire than anyone else dared.
He was kind as well as brave. Dolan said that he and other GIs in a battle one day came upon a North Korean lying in a ditch, holding what looked like a grenade. The GIs wanted to shoot him, but Kapaun stepped forward and held out a canteen.
For a long time, the Korean stared at him as Kapaun gestured with the canteen. Finally, the Korean surrendered. Kapaun had been the one man who saw he was thirsty and hungry.
Raymond Skeehan, a captain in the 8th Cavalry’s medical unit, remembers Kapaun arguing with an officer in mid-battle one day. GIs were preparing to assault a hill full of North Koreans and machine guns.
Kapaun pestered the commander: “Is this necessary? Isn’t it kind of dangerous to attack this hill?”
The officer listened, postponed the attack — then watched the enemy retreat without a fight.
Skeehan, a part-time photographer, took the iconic photo of Kapaun in vestments saying Mass on a battlefield, the blanket-covered hood of a jeep serving as an altar. Skeehan remembers the date: Oct. 7, 1950. Kapaun was captured 26 days later.
“I remember his kindness,” Skeehan said. “I saw him one day with a canvas bag of apples he’d found; he took them to an orphanage.
“None of us ever saw him nod off. We wondered when he slept.”
Dolan remembered that Kapaun, before he was captured, had preached forgiveness when forgiveness seemed impossible.
“The Pacific Stars and Stripes had published a picture of men from the 5th Cavalry Regiment who had been captured, tortured and executed,’’ Dolan said.
“After that atrocity, some of our troops were ready to retaliate in kind. I remember Father’s sermon at the time — that as Christians and as Americans we would betray our heritage if we took revenge on the wounded or on prisoners.”
On Oct. 18, Chase Kear and his family rode to Pilsen and visited the church where Kapaun grew up, where he served as altar boy, where he celebrated his first Mass.
The stone font where he was baptized stood near the altar. Morning light streamed through stained glass, shining through faces of angels.
After Mass, people talked, touched Chase’s hand.
They ate lunch in the church basement: roast beef, cake and Czech kolaches.
Edmund Steiner, 93, one of Kapaun’s boyhood chums, sat a few feet from the Kears. He said he and Emil went to schools run by nuns who whacked bad boys on outstretched palms with a wooden ruler. Not once did Kapaun get whacked. The others got hit all the time.
“He never did anything wrong.”
There was something oddly wonderful about Emil, he said.
“All of us, we would swear and say bad words, but we never swore around him.
“It wasn’t because he told us not to do it. It was because there was something about him. We couldn’t swear around Emil.”
Outside, as Steiner talked, Chase walked alone to the statue where Kapaun had his left arm around a soldier with a lower leg wound.
Kapaun’s right hand was outstretched.
In Pulaski, N.Y., the month before, Herb Miller, who still limps from his wound, told visitors that he had spent a lifetime since Unsan trying to know why Kapaun saved him.
Miller had not become a saint, after all; he had become a calibration technician in a bearings factory in Syracuse.
“I get choked up sometimes thinking about it,” he said.
“Maybe God and Father Kapaun saved me for another reason.”
After the war, he and Joyce adopted a girl and a boy. Those kids turned out real good, Miller said. He loves them; they love him.
“Maybe I was spared so that those two little kids could have a Dad. Was that it? I don’t know.
“I’ve thought about it every day since. “Why me?”
At the Kapaun statue, Chase Kear stood still, morning sun rising over nearby treetops. In the year since he came back to life, Chase has asked himself the same questions that have plagued Miller for 59 years. Why he’s alive. What he’s meant to do now. He has no idea. It bothers him. Do miracles exist? Chase believes they do. He believes in God. And like the old soldiers, he believes in Father Kapaun. At the statue, Chase looked up at the bronze face staring down at him. The face has Kapaun’s wide-set eyes, the cleft in his chin. Chase looked into his face for a moment. Then he reached out and touched the hand of Father Kapaun.