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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

April 15, 2013

The Shepherd in Combat Boots: Father Emil J. Kapaun

It is not every day that a man who is a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church also receives the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor. Fr. Kapaun received this medal posthumously on April 11 for his service to soldiers in the Korean War.

You can use Fr. Kapaun’s story in several ways in class.

  • You can share the news of Fr. Kapaun’s Medal of Honor because it has been national and Catholic news.

  • You can invite your students to research the military chaplaincy. Do students know that there is a separate Catholic archdiocese for these chaplains? The Archdiocese for Military Services, USA, provides pastoral ministries and services to more than 220 installations in 29 countries, patients in 153 Veterans’ Administration Medical Centers, and federal employees outside of the US in 134 countries.

  • President Obama noted that Fr. Kapaun never used a gun but rather a more powerful weapon, love. You can ask your students discuss this idea. Does the Bible support this concept?

  • You can review the steps to sainthood. Fr. Kapaun is a Servant of God.

  • You can pray Fr. Kapaun’s prayer with them. See. Your students may want to write this out and send it to soldiers in Afghanistan or in other foreign countries.

  • Ask students this question: What attributes you think Fr. Kapaun’s family must have had to nurture such a brave and generous person?

Father Emil Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun, born in 1916, was a priest of the Diocese of Wichita and joined the Chaplain Corps in 1944. He died in a Chinese prison camp as a prisoner of war (POW) in 1951.

In North Korea, under attack by the Chinese military, Father Kapaun walked calmly through enemy fire, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat to give the Anointing of the Sick or medical aid to wounded men. Though Kapaun had the chance to withdraw with other able-bodied American soldiers, he chose to remain with those who were injured, knowing that the Chinese would capture all of them. He stopped a Chinese soldier from killing a wounded American solder.

Kapaun then carried this same wounded man for the greater part of a death march, encouraging other soldiers who were struggling to keep going. When Kapaun and his unit arrived at the prison camp, he helped his fellow prisoners stay alive. He cleaned weak soldiers, washed their clothes, gave them his own food, found them clean water, and risked his life to find food in neighboring fields or from the prison stores, praying for forgiveness through the intercession of the good thief at Jesus’ crucifixion. He prayed and blessed the prisoners.

Fr. Kapaun fell ill for several weeks and the guards finally took him to the “Hospital,” a death house, where he died two days later. His companions worked secretly on a cross in his honor that they brought out when the prisoners were released. Of the prison camps in the area, Fr. Kapaun’s camp had the highest percentage of survivors, a credit to Fr. Kapaun’s inspiration.

President Obama and the White House honored Father Kapaun on April 11, 2013 for heroism when Chinese Communist forces attacked his unit. Nine former POWs attended as well as his family. The man that Fr. Kapaun had carried on the death march was among them.

Fr. Emil Kapaun is a “Servant of God,” meaning that the process for discerning his beatification and canonization has begun. The Vatican is investigating a miracle attributed to Fr. Emil Kapaun, the miraculous healing of a college pole-vaulter named Chase who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Many people prayed with the “Father Emil Kapaun” prayer and weeks later, to the amazement of the doctors, Chase walked out of the hospital.

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