Throughout history, men of extraordinary character were noticed by others, and their stories have been told and retold. How much would we know about Jesus today, had his disciples kept silent about their heaven-sent Teacher’s life on earth and how he died on the cross?
No one heard of Fr. Emil Kapaun, an American Catholic priest from the farming village of Pilsen, Kansas, who died in a lice-infested, icy-cold North Korean prison, Camp No. 5, along the Yalu River on May 23, 1951, until September 1953, when his prison inmates were repatriated to the South after the war ended with the truce. They told the reporters about their chaplain who cared for his American Brothers more than himself by washing foul smelling, blood and puss soaked bandages of the wounded inmates, by picking lice from the sick and helpless, and by encouraging everyone to hang on and to have faith in God when dying was an easy alternative for them and much more.
One of the survivors, Colonel Gerald Fink, a Jew, who had never met Fr. Kapaun but heard so much about him from his inmates that he carved a 4-foot-tall wooden crucifix with scrap metals and carried with him to his freedom and delivered it to Fr. Kapaun’s parents, Enos and Bess Kapaun in Pilsen.
Fr. Kapaun was honored in 1957 when Kapaun Memorial High School was constructed by the Wichita Diocese, which merged into Kapaun-Mt. Carmel High school in 1973. In front of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilson, where Kapaun served four years–3 years as associate pastor and one year as pastor– stands the statue of Fr. Kapaun aiding an injured soldier, and many visitors come there to pray and pay homage to the selfless servant of God.
In April 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him with the Medal of Honor, the highest US military decoration granted to a soldier for gallantry and bravery in combat.
Locally, during the Veterans Day 2013 ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial (Lowell & 119th in Overland Park) more than 800 attendees–the veterans, their supporters, and guest speakers including Brig. Gen. Victor Braden, Lt. Col. Kwangsoo Kim, the South Korean liaison officer to the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth–witnessed the unveiling and dedication of Fr. Kapaun’s new panel, during which Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey, blessed the crowd and the panel.
And August 1st, Fr. Kapaun will be honored again, this time, by the representatives of Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, including a local neurosurgeon at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Dr. Paul Camarata.
Dr. Camarata had known about Fr. Kapaun for years, watched on TV the ceremony in the East Room of the White House when President Obama awarded the Chaplain with Medal of Honor, which his nephew received on behalf of his priest uncle, he even visited the priest’s boyhood home in Pilsen, Kansas. “I was particularly intrigued about the Vatican investigation into a recent miracle in Wichita after the families prayed for Fr. Kapaun’s intercession,” the surgeon said.
While in Korea, from July 10 and before his capture on November 2nd, 1950, Chaplain Kapaun often celebrated Mass on the hood of his own military Jeep in the battlefields, while bullets whizzed by and bombs exploded near him. His acts of courage and faith in God so inspired his admirers that more than six decades later, on May 9th, 2013, a Korean-American priest, Fr. Paul Lee, the pastor at St. Jude in Rockville, Maryland, celebrated “Jeep Mass” at St. Jude parochial high school for the first time in the U.S..
But here in Kansas, at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, Kansas, on August 1st, former army chaplain and Iraq War veteran, Father Peter Jaramillo, who now serves as the pastor at Holy Family Church in Kansas City, Kansas, will say the Mass on the hood of a jeep. And this event will be held in conjunction with a youth summer camp for both middle and high school students, their families and religious leaders, and everyone is invited. [Expected guests include local Korean War Veterans, Korean-Americans, and representatives of Father Kapaun’s cause for Sainthood from Pilsen, Kansas.]
It’s no mere coincidence that the bishop of Wichita Diocese, Most Reverend Carl A. Kemme, declared from June 7, 2015, to June 9, 2016, “A Year of Father Kapaun,” considering that June 9, 2015, marks the 75th anniversary of Fr. Kapaun’s ordination to priesthood, April 20, 2016, his 100th birthday, and May 23rd, 2016, his 65th anniversary of his death in North Korea. And Jeep Mass will give attendants a chance to reflect on the Korean battlefront some six decades ago, that consumed 3 million lives, including 54,000 Americans.
Though Father Kapaun is on the path to sainthood today, I can’t envision him in a majestic saintly robe exuding golden light; rather, I see him in a worn army fatigue and boots and foraging heavenly food for ill-nourished, troubled souls, who might fall through the gate of hell.
I have no doubt that Fr. Kapaun himself will be present at the “Jeep Mass” on Prairie Star on August 1st and make himself known to those who will gather there.