Devotees of war hero Emil Kapaun hoped a meeting at the Vatican on Monday would speed Kapaun’s journey toward sainthood.
Those who love the memory of the Army chaplain and Medal of Honor winner from Kansas will have to adjust their expectations.
Before this week, Catholic diocese leaders in Wichita were saying the Vatican might make Kapaun a saint within the next couple of years. But Vatican leaders told Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme on Monday that it could take a lot longer.
Vatican investigators made it clear they don’t doubt the heroism in Kapaun’s story. “A masterpiece,” one Vatican official called it.
But a key in why this will now take possibly many years is that they question whether he was a martyr, meaning a man who was murdered for his faith.
Kemme said he now thinks it will be at least five years before Kapaun will be considered for beatification, the next step on the ladder to sainthood. Kapaun was named a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step in the sainthood process.
Full canonization after that – if Vatican cardinals decide Kapaun deserves beatification – could take years longer.
Kemme on Monday made the case for Kapaun’s sainthood to Cardinal Angelo Amato and other investigators with the group of cardinals Amato leads called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They make recommendations about sainthood to the pope.
Kemme gave Amato a 1,066-page “positio” – a book containing 14 years of research into Kapaun’s life by the Wichita diocese and Andrea Ambrosi, a Vatican investigator.
“It’s a brick!” Amato said, as he hefted it in the Congregation’s conference room.
In it are hundreds of stories documenting the Kapaun’s deeds as a parish priest in Pilsen and then as a U.S. Army chaplain who saved hundreds of lives, first in battle and then in a prison camp during the Korean War. President Obama awarded Kapaun the Medal of Honor in 2013.
Amato’s investigators and staff had read a good deal of it by the time Kemme came to ask for Kapaun’s cause to advance. Amato said he is impressed, that it is “a beautiful story.”
Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, the No. 2 leader in the Congregation, called the positio story of Kapaun’s heroism “a masterpiece.”
But then they explained to Kemme and to journalists accompanying Kemme to Rome why Kapaun’s sainthood – if it happens – might take years now.
Declaring Kapaun a “martyr” is now off the table, Kemme said afterward, which is significant.
Kapaun’s fellow prisoners of war have argued, including this past week, that Kapaun was martyred – murdered in 1951 by Chinese Army prison guards for standing up for his faith.
Kemme was hoping the stories from Kapaun’s surviving soldier friends would prompt the Vatican to declare him a martyr. Being declared a martyr would have allowed Kapaun to advance higher on the ladder to canonization.
But no one actually saw Kapaun die in that camp, Vatican officials said. There were no eyewitnesses to anyone killing Kapaun.
There are only stories of how he was carried off to a “death house” in the prison camp, and his POW friends believe the guards deliberately neglected him so he would die of starvation and disease. But Kapaun was apparently alone when he died of starvation and illness in May 1951.
And though Kapaun stood up for his faith as a Catholic chaplain, he also outraged the Communist guards by repeatedly defying their attempts to brainwash soldiers. So the church, trying to guard the credibility of all its sainthood investigations, has decided to take more time and study all other evidence of Kapaun’s life as a priest and chaplain.
Kemme told Amato and other leaders that Kapaun’s life story has inspired people in his diocese to pray to Kapaun and to emulate his generosity and selfless courage. The Kapaun story has created a good deal of “spiritual momentum,” as people have come to know how he sacrificed for others, Kemme said.
Amato nodded and said, “We have to keep talking about him and praying and hoping. It is important.”
And taking martyrdom off the table means the church will now require a new “miracle” associated with Kapaun – a miracle that has not yet occurred.
Miracles are a requirement to move any candidate for sainthood up a notch on the canonization ladder. The church thinks they have two possible miracle candidates to move Kapaun to the beatification stage: Two Wichita-area young people, Chase Kear and Avery Gerleman, both survived serious medical conditions in recent years with no medical explanation for their survival.
If those cases persuade the Vatican that their survival was miraculous, that could help advance Kapaun to beatification. And declaring him a martyr would have then made it unnecessary to find and prove still another “miracle.”
But now, even if Kapaun gets advanced to beatification, church investigators will still need to find and prove another miracle occurring after beatification.
Kemme had come to Rome to make Kapaun’s case accompanied by 95 Kansans from his diocese taking a two-week Italian pilgrimage. They all prayed for Kemme on Monday morning, minutes before he walked from their hotel to take Kapaun’s cause to Amato’s office, located just outside the circle of St. Peter’s Square.
“We’re going to say, ‘Go for it, Cardinal,’ ” Kemme told the Kansans. “We are ready.”