WICHITA, Kan. — Father Emil J. Kapaun conformed his life to Christ, Bishop Carl A. Kemme of Wichita said about the Korean War hero at a funeral Mass for him Sept. 29.
“Jesus modeled that love for us on the cross. He gave His life for us, His friends, so that we might not perish but might have eternal life,” Bishop Kemme said in his homily.
“Father Kapaun imitated that love all throughout his ministry but it reached its fulfillment on May 23, 1951, the day of his personal Calvary, in a dark and lonely place, giving all he had for others,” he said.
The funeral Mass was celebrated for Father Kapaun, a native of Pilsen, Kansas, in Hartman Arena in Park City, Kansas. More than 5,000 attended the event that was livestreamed by EWTN and several other outlets.
A sainthood candidate, Father Kapaun has the title “Servant of God” and his cause is under consideration by the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes. Prior to ordination, he studied at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Class of 1940. The recreation center on the seminary campus is named The Father Emil Kapaun Student Center.
The priest of the Diocese of Wichita, a World War II and Korean War U.S. Army chaplain, was captured with many other soldiers Nov. 1, 1950. He died at age 35 May 23, 1951, after being forcibly taken to a North Korean prisoner of war hut to die.
“Don’t worry about me,” he told fellow prisoners. “I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”
Bishop Kemme said Father Kapaun’s imitation of Christ began long before that day.
“Father’s earthly life began and was lived in a quiet, almost hidden way, but in a way that attracted the attention of family, priests, parishioners and others,” he said. “Something was special about young Emil Joseph Kapaun. In so many ways, he was like his middle name’s sake, Joseph, he was humble, obedient, virtuous, simple and hardworking.”
No one was surprised when he announced he wanted to become a priest, Bishop Kemme said. Young Emil made an almost daily, three-mile trip to St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen to serve Mass. He was ordained in 1940.
“Like all priests, he offered his life in obedience to the bishop in whatever form of service he would be called to give, but he heard in the quiet recesses of his heart a call within a call, the call to give of himself as a chaplain in the armed forces.”
Thus began a life of sacrificial and selfless love of others, especially his beloved fellow soldiers, whom he regarded as brothers, even sons, the bishop said.
“The accounts of his service to his fellow soldiers and in the last months to his fellow POWs reveal so much of the man whose body we honor today with Christian burial. His love was simple, effective, selfless and deep.”
He strived to lift the spirits of his fellow prisoners, Bishop Kemme said.
“He was a missionary disciple of hope — and that hope indubitably kept many of those men alive.”
Bishop Kemme was among the entourage from the diocese that traveled the previous week to Hawaii to claim the remains of Father Kapaun at a military facility dedicated to identifying the remains of fallen soldiers.
Several bishops from the Midwest and Auxiliary Bishop F. Richard Spencer of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services attended the funeral along with nearly all of the priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Wichita.
The day ended with a procession after the casket with Father Kapaun’s remains was placed onto a U.S. Army funeral caisson, a two-wheel, horse-drawn cart originally used to transport the wounded or dead from the battlefield.
The procession began at Veteran’s Memorial Park, about a half-mile west of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita.
The caisson was led by a military color guard and was followed by Bishop Kemme, Kapaun family members and other military personnel. An estimated crowd of 3,000, made up of Catholic school students, their families and others, lined the streets as the horse-drawn cart passed.
A 21-gun salute was fired in front of the cathedral after an honor guard carried Father Kapaun’s body up the steps of the cathedral.
His casket was placed in a marble tomb located beneath a large crucifix in the east transept of the cathedral. Before the tomb was covered with a nameplate, diocesan priests, family members and friends were allowed to touch the coffin and offer a prayer.