It was hardly the environment you’d expect to see a Catholic priest in. Freezing mud clung to his boots as he finished Mass on All Saints Day – not in his parish church in Kansas, but on a mountainside in North Korea — a mountainside that would soon be teeming with hostile Chinese soldiers.
The priest was Father Emil Kapaun, a young man from a Czech family in Kansas. He served in Burma during the Second World War, and when “his boys” were again sent to the Far East, this time to Korea, he couldn’t resist joining them.
He was just one of a long line of military chaplains who recognized that troops on the front lines need the presence of God as much (or more) than anyone else.
My name is Eddie Hoffmann – I’m a Catholic seminarian studying to serve the Church in southwestern Ohio and, for a time, the U.S. Army as a military chaplain.
I’ve been serving as an intern in Wilmington at St. Columbkille for the past year, and when I heard about the opportunity to share some words with you, I thought I couldn’t do better than introduce you to some soldiers in the army of God – of whose ranks I will soon be an all too unworthy member.
I couldn’t start with anyone other than Father Kapaun. His story is nothing short of miraculous – a testimony to the power of God working through good and holy men.
On that November morning in North Korea, he saved a man’s life at gunpoint and negotiated the surrender of “his boys” (saving all of their lives).
Later, he encouraged hundreds of American GIs along the weary miles of a death march deep into Chinese-occupied North Korea, and boosted morale through a hellish winter, starving in a freezing prison camp. Scores of soldiers say they would have given up hope and died had it not been for his encouragement.
His service radiated the life of God – a life that those war-weary soldiers couldn’t refuse.
On Easter Sunday, despite the prohibitions of their communist guards, he led a prayer service lasting hours. Everyone in the camp attended (the crucifix for his service had been carved by a Jewish woodworker – who ever afterward valued that work as his best). Hard-bitten combat veterans wept as Father Kapaun preached about the passion of our Lord and his glorious resurrection.
Running himself ragged for others and constantly at odds with their pitiless guards, Father Kapaun was eventually led away to a “hospital.” Few ever came back from that hospital. He said a few encouraging words to his fellow prisoners, forgave his guards, asked them (the guards!) to forgive him, commended his soul to God, and crossed the threshold from which he would never return.
Father Kapaun has passed on, but hundreds of soldiers attribute their survival to his example of supernatural hope and courage. Congress has posthumously awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Church is examining his life as she considers formally recognizing the reality of his sainthood.
Father Emil Kapaun’s life stands as a firm witness that God’s unshakeable love follows us, even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Want to learn more about Father Kapaun? The citation for his Medal of Honor is available online, and an excellent book describes his matchless heroism: The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero. I’d also be happy to provide you with more information: reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.