Thursday in the White House, President Barack Obama bestowed on Fr. Emil Kapaun the nation’s highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor.
The priest, who died in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean war, is also being considered for canonization.
The life that won Fr. Kapaun not only such high military praise, but also possible recognition as a canonized saint, is the subject of a biography called “The Miracle of Fr. Kapaun.”
The book tells the story of how Fr. Kapaun saved the lives of so many of his comrades in many different ways — from literally carrying the wounded so they wouldn’t be shot as their guards marched them to the death camp, to hammering tin into a pot to hold and boil water to fight dysentery.
ZENIT spoke with Tom Shine, the editor of “The Miracle of Fr. Kapaun.”
ZENIT: As you began investigating this story, what was your own outlook on the Catholic understanding of saints, miracles, etc.? Did this story change anything in your perspective?
Shine: Roy Wenzl, one of the coauthors of the book, and I are Catholic. So we had a general understanding of saints and miracles. What was interesting is that most of the prisoners of war who were Kapaun’s closest friends were not Catholic; some were not even overly religious. But even they saw the great faith of Kapaun and described him as a saint, even without the context of a Catholic background. The same was true of most of the doctors interviewed by the Vatican as part of the investigation into possible miracles in Wichita, [Kansas]. They were not Catholic but told the investigator that there was no scientific explanation for what happened and that the hand of God obviously was at work.
ZENIT: Why should someone read a book on Fr. Kapaun?
Shine: A couple of reasons. First, it’s a pretty action-packed, fast-paced story. It also explores the Korean War, which often is overshadowed by the bookend wars around it: World War II and Vietnam. Second, it is a very inspirational book. You don’t have to be Catholic to be moved by Kapaun’s service to others, his efforts to help his fellow prisoners without thinking about himself or his outlook on life through his faith. His actions would have been remarkable no matter what his religious denomination. He is an example of how all people should act, regardless of their religion.
ZENIT: The book highlights not only Fr. Kapaun’s virtue, but also his “fallen humanity”. Could you share an example of this and tell us why you chose to emphasize that in the book?
Shine: One of the reasons the POWs and those who served with Kapaun in the military loved him was because he was not perfect, nor did he pretend to be. The soldiers said they disliked chaplains who pretended to be mightier-than-thou. They called them “Holy Joes.” Kapaun, on the other hand, shared in the hard work of digging latrines and carrying the wounded. He was not above any dirty job. He also had a wry sense of humor and sometimes a salty vocabulary (although he never took the Lord’s name in vain). When he told a fellow POW once that when God said we should forgive our enemies, he did not have the cruel camp commander in mind. He later told that POW he was wrong, that we must forgive our enemies lest we deny our faith. I think showing Kapaun having momentary lapses of faith makes him a more approachable person, someone readers – who undoubtedly have had their own lapses – can relate to.
ZENIT: You talked to dozens of people who knew Fr. Kapaun personally. Were their lives changed longterm by contact with him?
Shine: Almost every single person said it was. All of them still pray to Kapaun, more than 60 years after his death. They all said they have tried to become better people, to emulate the life that Kapaun led. Some of them converted to the Catholic Church after they were freed from the camp. But even those who didn’t know that their lives were touched by a very special man.
ZENIT: What do you think readers will take away from reading this book and learning about this man?
Shine: A sense of how powerful faith can be, how it can rally and sustain men, even in the horrible conditions of a POW camp. They will learn that Kapaun, as the prisoners said, never walked on water or levitated off the ground. But he performed lower-case miracles — tending to the sick and wounded, feeding those with no food, sharing his clothing with others, praying and blessing those in need — that all of us can perform if we have the faith and courage to do so.
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Video of the Medal of Honor ceremony: www.youtube.com/watch?v=30UvI8BTEDQ
“The Miracle of Father Kapaun”: www.miraclefatherkapaun.com