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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Christmas time seems a fitting season to revisit the progress towards the canonization of the first potential saint to emerge from the bloody carnage of the Korean War.
Korea, of course, has had other saints. These, most notably, include the Korean Martyrs who first brought Catholicism to Korea via the writings of the Jesuits at the imperial court in Beijing in the 18th century.
Christianity has a long history in North Korea. As noted by the late journalist Don Oberdorfer, in his classic work “The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, Kim Il Sung himself had Christian roots: “His parents were both Christians. His mother was the devout, churchgoing daughter of a Presbyterian elder, and his father had attended a missionary school.”
But there is no saint from the Korean War. That could soon change.
GOING TO WAR
U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil J. Kapaun, a Czech immigrant’s son from rural Kansas, was only thirty-five when he died a martyr’s death. A veteran of the Burma Theater of the Second World War, Emil Kapaun was serving as an army chaplain in post-war Japan when war broke out in Korea.
He arrived in Korea less than a month later, serving in the Pusan Perimeter before heading north across the 38th parallel with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, in October 1950, coming within 50 miles of the Chinese border.
He ministered to the dead and dying, famously celebrating Mass on an improvised altar on the front end of a jeep. On November 2, 1950, during the Battle of Unsan, he was taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers. He reportedly stayed behind when the U.S. Army retreated in the battle in order to administer to the wounded, allowing his own capture.
Emil J. Kapaun, a Czech immigrant’s son from rural Kansas, was only thirty-five when he died a martyr’s death
Father Kapaun’s Medal of Honor Citation from April 11, 2013 notes these details about his capture: “Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no man’s land.”
PRISONER OF WAR
The Citation statement further states that “Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller.” That same Korean War POW survivor Herbert Miller was present at a White House ceremony posthumously honoring his rescuer from six decades ago.
With his capture by Chinese forces, Father Kapaun’s long, silent night in a North Korean POW camp began. He was known to give his meager food rations to those in worse shape and to even occasionally risk stealing coffee and tea from the camp guards. He reportedly kept up his fellow POWs’ morale in their darkest hour. He also managed to organize and lead an Easter sunrise service on March 25, 1951.
Father Kapaun then, however, grew so weak from a blood clot in one leg that he was taken away by prison guards to the so-called “the hospital,” which was actually a place where the weak and seriously ill were abandoned to die. There he succumbed from malnutrition and pneumonia on May 23, 1951. His remains were tossed in a mass grave near the Yalu River border with China.
With his capture by Chinese forces, Father Kapaun’s long, silent night in a North Korean POW camp began
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN?
Father Kapaun gained fame in the first years following his death. His fellow POWs from Pyoktong POW Camp (Prison Camp 5) in the Yalu River Valley were determined not to see him forgotten. In November 1955, Hollywood actor James Whitmore portrayed him in a television drama titled the “Good Thief.” However, as the decades passed, Father Kapaun became one more forgotten figure from what was dubbed “the Forgotten War.”
Still, the POWs and his devoted followers from his home diocese in Wichita, Kansas, continued their efforts over the years to win recognition for their “Korean War saint.” In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared Father Kapaun a “Servant of God,” a first step on the complex road to canonization in the Roman Catholic Church. A mass for the canonization of Father Kapaun is reportedly conducted every month in Wichita and there is an annual pilgrimage in Kansas in his honor.
Things began to move more rapidly after the 2013 White House awards ceremony, held in the 60th anniversary year of the Korean War armistice. The Wichita Eagle reported on April 10, 2013 that the White House ceremony “shows that Father Kapaun is more than somebody being honored by the Catholic Church.”
It quoted Reverend John Hotze, who for more than 15 years has led the Wichita Diocese’s investigation of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood, stating “He transcends matters of faith.” President Obama went even further at the White House ceremony, declaring Emil Kapaun to be “a shepherd in combat boots.”
Father Kapaun gained fame in the first years following his death
Father Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, has praised the efforts of his uncle’s fellow POWs to secure recognition for his uncle. Immediately after the Medal of Honor ceremony, Ray noted that: “I didn’t know him. We never met. But the resilient and amazing prisoners of war who knew him would not let him die in our hearts.”
The New York Times noted, in reporting on the White House ceremony, that: “At the war’s end, the surviving POWs walked out of the camp with a four-foot crucifix they had made in his honor.”
So where do things stand in Emil J. Kapaun’s long road to sainthood?
Catholic News Service reported on November 9, 2015 that “a week after the 65th anniversary of Father Emil J. Kapaun’s capture in North Korea, the bishop of Wichita, Kansas, formally presented a report on the Army chaplain’s life, virtues and fame of holiness to the Congregation of Saints’ Causes.”
“Bishop Carl A, Kemme of Wichita and a small delegation from the diocese met Nov. 9 with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the congregation, and other officials to hand over the 1,066-page report known as a ‘positio.’”
The news report added that, because Father Kapaun is the first sainthood candidate from the Wichita diocese, his case would be given precedence.
Church regulations, of course, require the documentation of miracles, one for beatification and a second for sainthood.
But the faithful Kansas followers of Father Kapaun are working on that as well. Chase Kear, a member of the Hutchinson Community College track team, fell and received a severe head injury during pole vaulting practice in October 2008.
He reports that he and his family interceded with Father Kapaun and he was miraculously healed although he was near death. A second reported miracle occurred on May 7, 2011, when Nick Dellasega collapsed during a 5K race in Pittsburg, Kansas. Although he was reportedly dead on the scene, Dellasega revived and survived, reportedly due to the intercession of Father Kapaun.
Although it will literally take a miracle – or two – to have Father Kapaun canonized, his old fellow POWs and the people in the diocese of Wichita are not giving up.
In the not-too-distant future, congregations of believers as far separated as Korea and Kansas may have their own Korean War saint to honor in the season of “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons