For most of the past 14 years, as the Rev. John Hotze investigated Emil Kapaun’s qualifications for sainthood, he thought it important to prove Kapaun was martyred – killed for his faith.
He no longer thinks that as much. So when his boss, Bishop Carl Kemme, got an invitation to speak Monday at the Vatican about Kapaun’s achievements, the strategy Hotze suggested to Kemme didn’t touch much on martyrdom.
Kapaun was a priest, a Korean War hero and a U.S. Army chaplain from Marion County. Proving he was a martyr might move him up the long ladder to canonization more quickly, Hotze said.
And there were plenty of times over the past 14 years, when Hotze visited at least 10 states to interview Kapaun’s friends, that Hotze fretted over proving Kapaun was a martyr.
But the fact is, Hotze said, the evidence of Kapaun’s heroism and holiness has now become so well documented and so overwhelming that Hotze thinks a Vatican decision on full canonization might take place within the next five years or so.
Kemme on Monday will talk for about an hour with cardinals leading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The group reports directly to the pope and makes recommendations on sainthood.
Andrea Ambrosi, the Vatican investigator who has spent years helping the Wichita Diocese compile evidence about Kapaun’s life, will likely attend the meeting, Kemme said.
Kemme said he has thought hard about what to say, and with Hotze’s advice, he’s not going to say much about martyrdom.
It’s not only Kapaun’s devotion to Christian principles the Vatican should consider, Kemme said. It’s not only that the former Kansas farmboy was awarded the Medal of Honor two years ago.
“It is how people throughout the diocese and beyond are coming to see his life as a worthy life to imitate,” Kemme said.
People in Kansas and elsewhere pray to Kapaun frequently, Kemme said. An annual walk from Wichita to Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen, requiring people to walk more than 60 miles in the summer heat, has attracted hundreds every year. There is a Kapaun men’s group teaching about Kapaun’s life in southeast Kansas.
Kemme barely knew about Kapaun before becoming the Wichita bishop last year, but Kapaun’s example has now infused his own belief.
Kapaun saved lives both on battlefields and in the prison camp where he and hundreds of soldiers died of starvation and disease. He stole food for prisoners, picked lice off the sick and weak and rallied prisoners to resist communist indoctrination.
“He is standing there continually offering this example of what a very simple, humble priest from Pilsen, Kansas, can do in a situation that is completely godless and horrific, and yet he brought God into that moment,” Kemme said.
Waiting for word about his visit to Rome and his meeting at the Vatican, Kemme knows, will be the dwindling band of Kapaun’s fellow POWs.
The Vatican’s slow process has irked Kapaun’s surviving friends, who keep asking why the church has not declared him a Catholic martyr.
Bob Wood literally helped carry Kapaun to his death in that North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1951. He says Kapaun was murdered for his faith.
“There is no doubt,” he said.
The POWS were eyewitnesses in those last days, when Kapaun broke prison camp rules repeatedly to say the rosary with prisoners and when Kapaun outraged camp commanders by leading an Easter service at a bombed-out prison camp church not long before his death.
“He was murdered because the guards couldn’t stand someone who stood up so much for his God,” said Mike Dowe, another former POW.
Dowe, along with other ill and starving prisoners, risked their lives by fighting the camp guards who came to take Kapaun to the “death house.” Eyewitnesses like Dowe said the camp commanders decided to starve Kapaun to death.
To Dowe and other POWs, Hotze said, “What happened to Father Kapaun is an open wound, very raw to them, and to them the question about his martyrdom is understandably cut and dried, with no gray area.”
But here’s the rub, Hotze said: Vatican investigators have pondered whether Kapaun’s breathtaking heroism as a U.S. Army soldier – not as a chaplain – might have been the primary reason the Chinese guards decided to get rid of him. Hotze says they may have a point.
Hotze’s record-gathering from Kapaun friends took him to California, Minnesota, South Carolina, Maryland, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Arkansas, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and rural Kansas. The POWs he met described Kapaun’s faith but also his fierce and sometimes recklessly brave leadership as a soldier.
Kapaun openly challenged camp commanders trying to indoctrinate prisoners. He publicly rallied prisoners against communist brainwashing, refuted communist indoctrinators to their faces and told them their anti-American speeches were lies.
Wood himself in 2009 said the camp commandant one day threatened the lives of all the prisoners for resisting communist indoctrination. Kapaun defiantly called the commander “a dumb son of a bitch” in front of guards and prisoners, Wood said.
Kapaun’s defiance inspired courage in the starving soldiers, who resisted fiercely after he urged them on.
Kapaun no doubt regarded himself principally as a witness for Christian principles, Hotze said. But the atheist communist guards possibly feared Kapaun more as a great soldier and rabble rouser than as a religious figure, Hotze said.
Hotze doesn’t worry as much about proving martyrdom now.
“The evidence for his greatness has become so overwhelming now – and it’s overwhelming about his life, and not only his death,” Hotze said. “I honestly don’t think the martyrdom part will make a difference, because how long does it take you or anyone to look at his life and say, ‘Yes, he did act like a saint’? There is so much about how he lived that is so compelling.
“I have always thought that the story of Father Kapaun is being told according to God’s time and not ours,” Hotze said.
“His story is bigger than all of us. It is part of God’s plan for our salvation. It is still unfolding before our eyes.”
Coverage from Rome
Eagle reporter Roy Wenzl and photographer Travis Heying are in Rome, covering Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme as he speaks about Father Emil Kapaun to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. They also will be reporting on other pilgrims from the Wichita area who are on the trip. Look for stories, photos and video from Rome on Kansas.com. Follow Roy and Travis on Twitter at @RoyWenzl and @travisheying.