By Christopher Riggs
PILSEN, Kan. (CNS) — God put the desire to be a priest in Father Emil J. Kapaun’s heart at an early age, Bishop Carl A. Kemme of Wichita, Kansas, said during a homily Sept. 26 in Pilsen, the hometown of the war-hero priest and sainthood candidate.
“That thought was no doubt supported and encouraged by his parents, his pastor and the religious sisters responsible for his education,” Bishop Kemme said. “It seems no one was surprised by this desire.”
Father Kapaun was ordained June 9, 1940, Bishop Kemme said. “A happy day for the Kapaun family and for his parish in Pilsen.”
Speaking to a packed St. John Nepomucene Church on a beautiful fall day, Bishop Kemme described Father Kapaun’s life as being like the many facets of a brilliant diamond.
“One could rightly recall, especially here, Emil’s early years, his relationship with his parents, his dedication to hard work, even his simple way of life,” he said. “Here young Emil Kapaun grew into the man God needed him to be, a man of virtue and values, hard work and determination.”
Reminding the faithful that the day also was Priesthood Sunday, the bishop said that on ordination day no priest knows how God will use him for his divine purposes.
“Young Father Kapaun was no different. But like all of us, he laid down his life and surrendered his will to the will of the church, as best expressed in the office of his bishop,” Bishop Kemme said.
After beginning his priestly service at St. John Nepomucene, he said, Father Kapaun soon felt the call to serve Christ’s sheep in the armed forces.
“From there, of course, we know the rest so very well. But it was his priesthood that was the foundation of his service to the soldiers he supported,” the bishop said. “He was Chaplain Father Kapaun and as a priest, he became a spiritual father to those men in a way that changed their lives.”
Father Kapaun was a U.S. Army chaplain in World War II and the Korean War and held the rank of captain. He is remembered for his selfless and courageous service attending to soldiers on the front lines of battle and, after he was captured in 1950, caring for and bolstering the morale of his fellow prisoners of war in a North Korean prison.
He, too, endured a brutal captivity and died in the POW camp May 23, 1951.
His sainthood cause was formally opened in 1993, giving him the title “Servant of God.” His case is being reviewed by the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes in Rome.
Seventy years after his death, a U.S. government forensics team in Hawaii — the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — announced March 4 that it had identified his remains among those of unidentified soldiers long interred in Hawaii at the Punchbowl’s National Cemetery of the Pacific.
On Sept. 23, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva celebrated an evening Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace honoring Father Kapaun. The occasion was the transfer of the priest’s remains from Hawaii to his home Diocese of Wichita, where a tomb has been prepared for him in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Bishop Kemme was among those who were in Hawaii for the Mass and to accompany the remains back to Kansas Sept. 24. He was joined by Scott Carter, coordinator of the Father Kapaun Guild; Father David Lies, vicar general of the diocese; Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s nephew; and the priest’s niece, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristina Roberts.
The homilist for that Mass was Father Wayne Schmid, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita and a chaplain himself for more than 20 years. He said he owed his vocation to Father Kapaun.
He said he had drawn inspiration from Father Kapaun ever since he read a book about him in high school.
“Father Kapaun is a saint for our times,” he said. “He is a model to be emulated by priests, by chaplains.”
In Kansas, a Sept. 28 vigil was planned for Father Kapaun at Hartman Arena in Wichita. His funeral Mass was to be celebrated at the arena Sept. 29.
After the funeral, Father Kapaun’s remains were to be driven to a site near the Veterans’ Memorial Park and his casket placed on a horse-drawn military caisson to process to the cathedral.
Members of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, planned to carry his casket into the cathedral following a 21-gun salute and “Taps.”
In Pilsen, Bishop Kemme said in his homily that more priests like Father Kapaun are needed.
“Priests who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work diligently for the needs of the people entrusted to their care,” he said. “We need priests to live moral and virtuous lives that are clearly evident, to put the needs of the flock of Christ before their own.”
Bishop Kemme said he has been inspired by Father Kapaun.
“One of the emotions I felt so strongly — and still do as I was so honored to view the remains of this humble and holy priest while in Hawaii — is that I need to step up my game when it comes to my own living of the priestly life,” he said.
“I need to renew my own priesthood as I live it now in the office of bishop so that my actions, both seen and unseen, are steeped in the quality of self-giving and self-sacrifice that was so evident in the life and ministry of Father Kapaun.”
He added that he hopes that same grace anoints the hearts of all the priests of the Wichita Diocese.
Bishop Kemme closed his homily by asking for Father Kapaun’s intercession to inspire more young men to consider a call to the priesthood.
“May they see Father Kapaun as a worthy model of the priesthood, for in my humble judgment they can find none better.”
Editor’s Note: More information about Father Kapaun’s life, ministry and sainthood cause can be found at https://frkapaun.org.
Riggs is editor of The Catholic Advance, newspaper of the Diocese of Wichita.