Father Kapaun

Author: Viewing saints as perfect is a mistake

Author Tom Craughwell
Author Tom Craughwell Courtesy photo

As the proposed sainthood of Emil Kapaun has advanced in the Catholic Church, an expert has watched with an interest stemming from his joy of studying Kapaun.

Many Catholics have made the mistake of "pasteurizing" their saints, making them into sanitized and de-humanized cliches, said Thomas J. Craughwell, a popular author and a writer on saints for the Catholic Church.

"Cleaning up" saints is a disservice to the saints, and to the church, he said; saints are appealing in part because of their sins, their rough edges and their ordinariness.

St. Augustine was a womanizer. St. Francis of Assisi was a party animal. Dismas was a thief and a condemned sinner until he turned to Jesus and asked forgiveness when they were being nailed to crosses side by side.

Part of what made Augustine and Francis and Dismas saints were the flaws that came with their humanity, Craughwell said.

He has written a dozen popular books, including secular ones like "Stealing Lincoln's Body," and religion-themed books including "Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil-Worshipers Who Became Saints."

Craughwell thinks Kapaun has a "great chance" of becoming a saint. He said this would be good for the church for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Kapaun was heroic while also cranky at times, prone to swearing.

"I stumbled across a biography of Father Emil a few years ago," Craughwell said in a telephone interview from Connecticut. "He wasn't levitating three feet off the ground. He was an ordinary guy in a tough situation, acting in a way that was so admirable and inspiring.

"He seems like the kind of guy that if you were his neighbor, you could mow your lawn and then sit down with him on his porch and have a beer with him."

Kapaun, a Catholic priest and chaplain, deliberately allowed himself to be captured by the Chinese Army in 1950 during a disastrous U.S. Army retreat. He stayed behind with the wounded soldiers about to be executed by the roadside, then behaved heroically in prison camps until he died in May 1951.

Craughwell said from what he has read, Kapaun has a good chance of being canonized in the next few years because his heroism was so pronounced, because fellow soldiers said the Chinese camp guards murdered Kapaun because of his religious faith, and because Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, sped up the canonization process.

It will still take miracles, Craughwell said. And those miracles may already have been identified.

Andrea Ambrosi, a lawyer and investigator for the Vatican, visited family members and doctors for two Wichita-area families last week who believe the survival of their children during recent medical crises should qualify as miracles. Afterward, the investigator told a local priest that he had never seen doctors make such a compelling case for miracles occurring.

One other thing in favor of Kapaun's sainthood, Craughwell said, is that most of the soldiers who have lobbied for it were not Catholics.

Almost immediately following the release of U.S. prisoners of war, Kapaun's fellow soldiers began talking and writing about how Kapaun saved dozens of prisoners' lives, washed lice out of the underwear of the sick, stole food from camp guards and fed starving soldiers. The soldiers said Kapaun deserved the Medal of Honor as well as sainthood.

Most of these soldiers were Baptists or other Protestants; the camp doctor was Jewish.

"One of the problems with Catholics when they get involved in talking about someone's proposed sainthood is they immediately go into saint mode," Craughwell said.

"It's really hard to get a candid account from a Catholic about someone proposed for sainthood, they start talking right away about how 'all the children loved him' and how 'he was so giving.' I'm sure these things are true, but the Church knows that nobody is always like that all the time.

"Even Mother Teresa talked about doubts about her faith. She felt the absence of God in her last years, and it really hurt; she felt the pain of loss; she felt doubt. And she's going to be made a saint."

Kapaun's fellow soldiers, in his biographies, said he was never a sanctimonious "Holy Joe." He got angry with communist camp guards. He swore. In one story handed down by a fellow prisoner now deceased, Kapaun, angry with a camp commandant named Sun, said: "When the Lord said we should love our enemies, I do not believe he had Comrade Sun in mind."

The church will overlook sins like that one, Craughwell said. What the pope and the cardinals want to see when they study a proposed saint is not whether he is perfect, but whether he or she was trying to imitate Christ.

Kapaun tried while starving to death, and while about 1,200 of 3,000 prisoners died of starvation and disease around him in the Korean prison camp in the winter of 1950 and '51.

"It's almost like he's right out of Hollywood's central casting," Craughwell said. "He's not like the saintly Pat O'Brien but more like an ordinary infantryman; a guy who swears about his guards, a guy in a terrible situation who nevertheless never lost his priestly vocation, never loses his desire to be holy.

"And to be holy in a situation like that, that's almost a miracle in itself."

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