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I am a star in certain Kansas circles, thanks to Columbia magazine.
I was blessed this Memorial Day to share in the magazine of the Knights of Columbus the moving story of a hero for the faith and a hero for the United States who gave the last full measure of sacrifice for his country.
It’s a testament to the power of the Knights that I have been stopped several times by people thanking me for the article and was able to share the story on the Cale Clarke show on Relevant Radio. It’s an amazing story about how providence played an indisputable role in the return of the earthly remains of Father Emil Kapaun to his Kansas home. See the story for details but I wanted to share here four lessons I take from it.
Father Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, is integral to the story of how his uncle’s life became widely known. Asked to sum up his uncle he in a word, he said, “Peace. I think that’s what Father lived for. I think that’s what Father fought for. … To be able to give that peace. I hope everybody can look at Father Emil and just see peace.”
We think of our armed forces as fighting men and women, and they are, but the reason they fight and the greatest gift they have given us is peace.
Since Father Kapaun was holy in addition to being a hero, he gave us even more. His last homily broadcast by the U.S. Armed Forces is available on YouTube. In it, Father Kapaun describes true peace.
“The world regards peace as freedom from suffering, freedom from worry and care,” he says, “freedom from want, freedom from fighting. In a way it is a sort of a negative thing. But the peace which God gives is a gift which exists even in suffering or even in time of war.”
One reason we call veterans heroes, living and deceased, is because their sacrifice is so remarkable to us. We sense that we couldn’t do what they did: Rise above petty partisanship, leave attachments to our own will and our own way, and put our lives on the line for others who we don’t even know.
We tear up when we hear their stories, thank them for their service whenever we see them, and decorate their graves when we lose them because they represent our best selves.
Father Kapaun has had this effect on everyone he knew, from the soldiers he encouraged on the front lines and in his POW camp, to the Catholics who encounter him today. At his homily when Father Kapaun’s remains returned to Kansas, Bishop Carl Kemme shared what this means for him.
“One of the emotions I felt so strongly is that I need to step up my game when it comes to my own living of the priestly life,” he said, “so that my actions, both seen and unseen, are steeped in the quality of self-giving and self-sacrifice that was so evident in the life and ministry of Father Kapaun.”
Memorial Day should have that effect on us all.
Every Memorial Day we remember what Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Father Kapaun showed this in a profound way. In the end, he died in service to his country. But he laid down his life for his friends over and over again before that final day. He did it by rushing to the side of the wounded on the battlefield, and then by bringing hope to his fellow prisoners of war in whatever way he could: By sharing a joke, giving them a trinket he scrounged, helping remove lice from their hair, or offering a prayer.
Better than that, as one Army official put it, “being an enemy soldier didn’t necessarily make you a personal enemy” for Kapaun, and that “even enemy officers were forced to respect the things that Father Kapaun did.”
We mourn for those lost in war every Memorial Day, sad that they are gone and inspired by what they did.
But Father Kapaun’s story reminds us that our tears will turn to laughter one day when, God willing, we are re-united with our heroes in heaven.
The last thing his comrades remember him saying was, “Don’t be sad. I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I will be praying for you all.”
My story in Columbia ends with the remarkable, seemingly miraculous, return of Father Kapaun’s body to Kansas. People lined the streets and waved flags to greet him when he returned. POWs embraced with tears of joy at having the opportunity to honor the earthly remains of this great man.
Their joy was enormous, but it is nothing compared to the joy they will have in heaven when they meet the man himself — or the delight all of us will have when we are reunited once again with those who loved us and made us who we are in the light of Jesus Christ, the defeater of death who will bring peace on Earth.