Habitual Mercy

By Fr. John Hotze

On December 8, 2015, Pope Francis called for the opening of a Holy Year, the Year of Mercy.  The celebration of the Year of Father Kapaun coincides perfectly with the celebration of the Year of Mercy.  When you study the life of Father Kapaun, you see God’s mercy being put into action.  Father Kapaun not only makes visible God’s mercy but also demonstrates that mercy in a way that we can follow.  Hopefully in following his example we too will become saints.  

While investigating the life of Father Kapaun, I was fortunate to speak to a man, Philip O’Brien.  Mr. O’Brien worked for the Department of Defense.  It was his job to try to identify the 1,600 men that died in Prison Camp No. 5 during the Korean War.  In his efforts, he interviewed as many men that were in the Prison Camp that he could find.  In these interviews, the former POW’s told their stories of being in the Prison Camp.  It was during these interviews that he not only came to know of Father Kapaun but also how he came to believe that Father Kapaun was a saint.  

It should be noted that Mr. O’ Brien is not a Catholic, so his belief in Father Kapaun as a saint is all the more of an endorsement of Father Kapaun’s virtuous life.  He commented to me that he believed that on the day that Father Kapaun was captured, November 2, 1950, that Father Kapaun had a revelation that he was not going to live to see the end of the war- that if captured he would eventually die.  Faced with this revelation, Father Kapaun did not run away, but made the decision that he was going to live the rest of his life helping as many people as he possibly could help.  Mr. O’Brien is convinced that it was this decision that allowed Father Kapaun to live the heroic life in the Prison Camp that the other POWs shared.

Upon considering Mr. O’Brien’s thoughts, I would say that I have to agree with him.  Rather than worry about his death, the revelation that his life and death were in God’s hands allowed Father Kapaun to put his thoughts and efforts into helping others- into living God’s Mercy.  However, unlike Mr. O’Brien, I do not believe that that was a decision that Father Kapaun made on the battlefield of North Korea on November 2, 1950.  Rather, I believe it was a revelation and decision that Father Kapaun first made when he was a child on the farm in Pilsen, Kansas.  Aware of God’s mercy from a young age, Kapaun decided to be merciful as God is merciful.  It was this early decision that eventually developed into a habit that never left him throughout the entirety of his life.  We might wonder at the ease with which it seemed like Father Kapaun served others, but it was this habit of mercy that allowed him to carry out these heroic acts without giving them a second thought because for years before he had continually chosen to live this mercy in his daily life.

Some examples: Emil Kapaun was born in 1916 and grew up during the depression when all Kansas farmers struggled to make a living.  Emil took it upon himself to do what he was able to do to help the family.  He helped his mother with the vegetable gardens around the house.  He built a chicken coop to house chickens so there would be eggs for the family and the neighbors and chicken for the table.  When he started school, he would ride his bicycle the three miles into town.  He would leave an hour early so he could serve mass for Father Sklenar, his pastor.  When he was older, he would help his father in the fields.  His began to form that habit of sharing God’s mercy as a child growing up in very difficult times.  It started to become his nature.  

This habit of mercy, of sharing God’s love soon became a part of his life outside the home also.  He was a good student at school but he did not lord it over his classmates and friends.  Rather he would use his skills in their service.  His classmates told me that Emil was always there to help them if they were struggling with their studies.  Emil would notice if someone was struggling even before the teachers did and would offer his assistance.  He proved to be a good friend who was always willing to help those who needed the extra help.  

During his time in high school, Emil’s thoughts turned to the priesthood as a way to continue to spread God’s mercy.  At that time, tuition at the seminary had to be paid for by the family.  He knew that his family would not be able to afford the tuition for the seminary, so he would have to find another way to become a priest.  While growing up his family had received magazines from the Columban Missionaries.  He knew that the Columban Fathers would train him to be a priest at their seminary if he agreed to become a missionary.  He spoke with Father Sklenar and asked if he would write a letter of recommendation for Emil to join the Columban Fathers.  Father Sklenar convinced him to study for the Diocese of Wichita and arranged funding to pay for tuition.  While away at Conception Seminary and Kenrick Seminary in Missouri, Emil continued to perform acts of charity and mercy for those at home and at school.  He continued to help his fellow students in their studies.  He would offer his own notes to use as a study guide before the exams.  He went so far as to type up his notes and mimeograph copies for his classmates.  During the summers, if he did not stay at the seminary and help with apostolic work there, he would come home and help with the harvest on the farm.  Emil and his father Enos joined their neighbors, the Meysings, in forming a threshing crew.  Once the harvest was completed on their own farms they would travel the region and assist other farmers with their harvests.    

Father Emil Kapaun was ordained by Bishop Winkelman in St. John’s Chapel at Sacred Heart Academy, now Newman University, on June 9, 1940.  His first assignment was back at his home parish in Pilsen.  He also began a ministry to those in the service by going to celebrate Mass at the Herington Air Base about 10 miles from Pilsen.  Here is where he received his call to the chaplaincy.  After the United States was brought into the Second World War, Father Kapaun asked to join the Army and serve the men in the military.  He served in the India and Burma Theater during World War II, where he earned the distinction of being known as a soldier’s chaplain.  Chaplains did not have to place themselves in danger by going to the front lines, but Father Kapaun knew that the men on the front lines needed him the most.  He was there to serve the men, so naturally he would be with them on the front lines.  Serving others was entrenched in Father Kapaun’s nature, and even though he might be in peril, he wanted to be where he could administer God’s mercy.  He became known for disregarding his own safety so that he could assist the soldiers under fire.  

Serving the men in combat wasn’t his only distinction at this time.  As he traveled through India and Burma he came across many missionaries.  He was quick to offer assistance to them as he was able.  Of particular interest were the times when he encountered the Columban Missionaries out in the field.  Father Kapaun may very well have been working alongside these missionaries if his priesthood had taken the path that he originally set out on.  In his travels, Father Kapaun learned that when the Japanese conquered these lands, they would destroy churches and confiscate or destroy any religious articles that were found.  Upon entering one village some missionary Sisters explained that they had taken all of the religious articles from the church and hidden them in a caved outside of town.  The cave was underground.  Father Kapaun and the Sisters recovered the religious artifacts from the cave and Father Kapaun celebrated Mass for them in the restored church building.  The Sisters and local population had not been able to attend Mas since before the Japanese had invaded.  Father Kapaun continued to demonstrate God’s mercy as he ministered to the military and the people of India and Burma.  He continued living this habitual mercy that had its beginnings in the small farm house on the plains of Kansas.  His connection with the missions continued upon his return home.  For years he was in correspondence with and would offer financial and material assistance to the missionaries that he met when he served in India and Burma.  

Upon his return from WWII, Father Kapaun attended the Catholic University of America and served in several capacities in several small towns in southern Kansas.  While he was serving in Timken, Kansas, he asked Bishop Mark Carroll, then Bishop of Wichita, if he might return to serve in the Army once again.  The Army was in dire need of chaplains as they realized that the United States would need to take an active role in protecting the freedom of so many in the world.  Bishop Carroll gave approval and Father Kapaun left for Fort Bliss, Texas.  From there he went to Washington State where he boarded a boat headed to Japan.  Soon after, war broke out in Korea and Father Kapaun found himself in the midst of combat once again.  Father Kapaun was still distinguished by his actions on the battlefield.  Without regard for his own safety he brought comfort and encouragement to the men that were under fire.  Time and time again Father Kapaun put himself in harm’s way to bring the wounded back to safety or to offer encouragement to those in battle.  Father Kapaun, seemingly fearless again, still the bearer of God’s mercy to the troops regardless of their faith.

At first the United Nations forces made great headway in fighting back the rush of the North Koreans.  But then the unexpected happened and China began to offer military aid and troops to the North Koreans.  Many of the United States and United Nations forces found themselves in dire straits as they were surrounded by the enemy near Unsan, North Korea.  After a lengthy battle, a retreat was called, but Father Kapaun and the unit’s medic, Captain Anderson, volunteered to remain behind with the wounded, knowing full well that they would be captured.  

Father Kapaun had been attempting to protect the wounded by dragging them to a foxhole so they would be out of harm’s way.  Once the enemy found out what Father Kapaun was doing, they started to lob grenades into the foxhole.  Knowing that they were facing death if the situation did not change, Father Kapaun orchestrated a surrender so he and the wounded might have a chance for survival.  Those that witnessed his heroic acts believe that he saved countless men as he ignored the guns and threats of the enemy and went about his business of saving the wounded.  After his capture, Father Kapaun continued to do what he was in a habit of doing: he continued to share God’s love and mercy by helping others.  He laid down his life so that others might live.    

Those captured were soon gathered together and were forced to march to the prison camps.  Those that could not walk were executed.  Furthering exemplifying a man of unequaled valor, Father Kaqaun ignored the demands of his captors so that his men might live.  Though ordered to cease and to fall into line with the other men, Father Kapaun refused.  He marched up and down the lines of men to make sure all were able to walk.  If they struggled or fell by the wayside he encouraged others to assist them so they would not be killed.  The soldiers, now prisoners, could not refuse Father Kapaun’s appeals for their assistance for their fellow captives.  How could they refuse when Father Kapaun was doing what he was asking them to do?  Unbeknownst to them, Father Kapaun was inspiring them to be bearers of God’s mercy too.  They could not refuse as Father Kapaun himself was carrying the wounded.  Through these efforts, Father Kapaun did what he was able to make sure everyone, even those who were too weak to continue, had help so that they would not fall and freeze to death during the frigid night marches that they had to endure.  

In the Prison Camp Father Kapaun again ignored his captor’s orders.  He would visit the sick, start small fires to melt snow and provide fresh water for the men to drink, bathe their wounded and lice-infested bodies, wash their soiled clothes in the frozen waters of the Yalu River.  More than anything, Father Kapaun would pray with the men and instill in them hope and the knowledge that they could survive this ordeal.  Father Kapaun convinced the men that they could rely on the love of their families and their country.  They would not be forgotten, and every effort would be made to ensure their return home.  But, more important than the love of family and country, they had the love of God with them in the Prison Camp.  Father Kapaun assured them that God would provide them with the means of survival.  The depth of His mercy as shown by Christ’s passion, death and resurrection gave them the assurance of this hope.  For so many of the prisoners, the means of survival would be Father Kapaun himself, bearer of God’s love and mercy.    

The habit of mercy Emil Kapaun developed as a child remained a habit until his dying day.  In the end, as Father Kapaun was being carried to the death house, he asked those bearing his stretcher to stop when they encountered their captors along the way.  Father Kapaun asked that they forgive him if he had caused them any harm.  He then called down God’s blessing on those that were putting him to death.  “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”  This was his ultimate act of mercy here on earth, as he died in the Prison Death House a few days later.

Father Kapaun’s life of mercy is a model that we can follow as well.  He demonstrated how a simple man from the heartlands of Kansas can be an example of Christ and the bearer of God’s mercy.  It was his habit- his nature- to be merciful as the Father is merciful.  Pray that we too develop such a habit.  Father Kapaun, pray for us.  Inspire us to develop the habit of bearing God’s mercy to everyone we encounter.

Year of Father Kapaun, Year of Mercy  2015-2016


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