Emil Kapaun—priest, soldier and Korean War hero—is a rare man. He is being awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, and is also being considered by the Vatican for canonization as a saint.
As remarkable as this double honor are the non-Catholic witnesses who attest to Father Kapaun’s heroism: the Protestants, Jews and Muslims who either served with the military chaplain in the thick of battle or endured with him the unbelievably brutal conditions of a prisoner of war camp. As journalists Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying discovered, all of these Korean War veterans, no matter their religion, agree that Father Kapaun did more to save lives and maintain morale than any other man they know.
Then there are the alleged miracles-the recent healings attributed to Father Kapaun’s intercession that defy scientific explanation. Under investigation by the Vatican as a necessary step in the process of canonization, these cures witnessed by non-Catholic doctors are also covered in this book.
I’m doubly delighted that today, I have the chance to share a conversation I had with Roy Wenzl about the new book he co-authored with Travis Heying, The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero. Wenzl is an award-winning reporter for the Wichita Eagle and the primary author of Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door (Harper Collins, 2007). He’s also co-producer of the documentary film The Miracle of Father Kapaun.
Roy, what most inspired you as you were researching Fr. Kapaun?
Father Kapaun led mostly by deeds and not words. This was a deliberate, calculated decision. It’s not enough to merely say that he was “humble.” Christ was humble too, but also carried out relentlessly ambitious plans to inspire the entire human race to help each other when there are so many temptations to do the opposite — to hurt people, to lash out, to judge, to criticize, to fear. As only one modern example, picture how many Americans (including Catholics) begin to stir in their chairs when asked about “Muslims.” It is worth pointing out that by the time he died, the tough Muslim Turks imprisoned with Father Kapaun loved and respected him as much as anyone in the camp.
It’s clear from sermons he wrote more than ten years before the Korean War that that he’d decided to pattern his life and ministry on that of Christ, who preached once in a while but ministered by deeds a good deal more. On the march, in battle and later in the prison camp, Kapaun was a man of few words, but also the most active man in the 8th Cavalry regiment, helping people day and night, digging foxholes alongside privates, writing letters home for wounded soldiers, dragging wounded soldiers to safety, giving away his own meager rations in the camp to men he inspired to share with each other. It was a subtle but effective way to lead, and I wonder why more people don’t do it more.
How does Fr. Kapaun’s life apply to regular Catholics today?
One of the subtly simple (wonderful) things about how he conducted himself is that anyone can do it. And yet most people don’t. That doesn’t mean most people are bad; it’s that what he did is the difference between a merely good and a great person. He was humble but took on the whole Chinese Army, Communism and all of evil. He was quiet but calculating in that he figured out how to inspire people while saying few words. He was “devout,” but not so that he judged or lectured or hectored people.
In the parts of our lives where our spiritual life occasionally intersects with politics, social questions and civil and personal rights, I think some Christians fall into the classic trap where in trying to witness their faith they sound a bit more like Pharisees than a follower of Jesus. Kapaun never did that.
Most people could do what he did; most people don’t.
Did Fr. Kapaun have any particular devotion to the Blessed Mother? How can he help us grow closer to her and inspire us to live more like her?
I’m sure he felt devoted to her … all Catholics are steeped in the tradition of the Blessed Mother, one of the great, appealing figures in all of literature, let alone in Catholic teaching. But, though I spent a great deal of time talking with Father Kapaun’s friends and reading his written sermons, I didn’t come across many mentions of her. That doesn’t mean he ignored her. But given the problems he was trying to address in Korea (battles, death, starvation, loss of hope), he spent a great deal of time evoking Christ the leader and Christ the healer.