"You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek." (Psalm 110:4)
On this Corpus Christi Sunday which happens to fall on Memorial Day Weekend, I wanted to tell you about the life of a fascinating priest, Fr. Emil Kapaun. He was born in Kansas and was ordained a priest there when he was 24 and assigned to the small parish church where his parents were married and where he was baptized. In 1944, he enlisted in the army and did a brief stint in the service and then re-enlisted later on during the Korean War. Fr. Kapaun was sent to the front lines and that's exactly where he went. He rode around in his jeep seeking out soldiers to celebrate Mass for them on the hood of his jeep. He would not wait for the soldiers to come back from battle so they could receive the Eucharist in a secure setting. No, he went and put himself in harm's way so he could take Jesus into the most evil of places: a war zone. The enemy would steal his jeep and his Mass kits but he trudged on commuting on a bicycle of all things. Fr. Kapaun was known to not retreat when an order was given and his forces were being overrun by the enemy. Instead, he would go into the teeth of a battle to try and rescue or give last rites to as many soldiers as he could. During was one of these battles the good father was caught by the enemy and told to process to the nearest prisoner's camp. Not far from where he was caught, Master Sergeant Herbert Miller was wounded in the battle and was trying to avoid capture by placing the corpse of another dead soldier on top of him, but an enemy soldier caught him. Since Master Sergeant Miller was not healthy enough to walk to the prisoner's camp he was going to be executed right there on the field of battle, that is until Fr. Kapaun arrived and pushed the enemy soldier's rifle aside and literally picked Miller up. They both then proceeded to make the 80 mile "Tiger Death March" as they called it and for many of those miles, this priest carried Master Sergeant Miller on his back. Once they arrived at the prison camp, Fr. Kapaun started to tend to his fellow POWs. He would take his own blanket and fashion socks out of it so that his fellow soldiers would be protected from the harsh winter that they were enduring. He would steal food to give to starving soldiers with no care for his own well being. He would lead the soldiers in prayer and now and again, no one knows how, he would celebrate the Eucharist literally bringing heaven to hell on earth. But the winter and the food deprivation would soon catch up with Fr. Kapaun as he too would one day get sick. The enemy soldiers came to take him away to the "hospital" which the POWs referred to as the dying room because none of their fellow soldiers ever returned from there. As his fellow POWs were forced to carry this saintly priest away, Fr. Kapaun assured them that he was going to a better place and he blessed his captors and said to them the same words Jesus used on the cross: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." On May 23, 1951, at the age of 35, Fr. Kapaun died and was subsequently buried in a mass grave in North Korea.
Three years ago, the President posthumously awarded Father Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor and presented it to his nephew. Sitting in the first row of the East Room of the White House for this presentation was Master Sergeant Herbert Miller who was able to hold the medal even for a few moments of a priest he would call his hero. Fr. Kapaun: that is a priest! In 1993, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him a "Servant of God" and hopefully one day he will be canonized because can you think of a better example of a saint? He risked his life to bring the presence of Christ to others! Risked his life to celebrate the Eucharist in some of the most unthinkable places. Like Jesus in the gospel who saw the hungry crowds, he fed the starving POWs from what little he had with no regard for his own life.
This morning, I came across this quote from Benedict XVI that says: "The Eucharist, therefore, heaven comes down to earth, the tomorrow of God descends into the present and it is as if time remains embraced by divine eternity." Fr. Kapaun and so many military priests do just that by celebrating the Eucharist on the hoods of jeeps, on the empty helmets of soldiers, on makeshift altars on the field of battle, and in doing so they quite literally bring heaven to our men and women in uniform who are fighting for our country. Now Fr. Kapaun and so many who gave their lives on the altar of freedom remain "embraced by divine eternity." We look upon the Eucharist today, here in this church, and think about so many who are celebrating Mass like us but on battlefields, air craft carriers, refugee camps, warships, military bases, and we join with them, in a way that only the Eucharist can join us, in praying for all those who gave their lives for their country. Men like Fr. Kapaun, a priest forever! Like his Savior, he endured torture on this earth, but loved so much that he gave his life for his friends. He celebrated the Eucharist and because Eucharist for others. Fr. Kapaun, pray for us!
For a quick and moving video of Father Emil Kapaun, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZuPrQBSDCs