WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ceremonies honoring Father Emil Kapaun on Thursday at the White House and Friday at the Pentagon aren’t just events celebrating the Kansas priest’s bravery on the battlefield, church officials say.
They could one day be viewed as pivotal steps in the chaplain’s journey to canonization by the Catholic Church.
President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Kapaun posthumously at a White House ceremony Thursday. On Friday, Kapaun will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, which honors each of the nearly 3,500 recipients of the nation’s highest military award.
Although the honors are not religious, the Rev. John Hotze said, they will carry significant weight as the Catholic Church considers the case for declaring Kapaun a saint.
“It shows that Father Kapaun is more than somebody being honored by the Catholic Church,” said Hotze, who for nearly 15 years has led the Wichita Diocese’s investigation of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood. “He transcends matters of faith.”
Eugene Gerber, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Wichita, called Thursday’s ceremony “significant.”
“The Medal of Honor and all it exemplifies is a highly significant recognition of Chaplain Kapaun by a grateful nation,” said Gerber, who plans to watch the ceremony online in Wichita. “Such public recognition will catch the attention of the multitudes, increase the prayerful devotion to him locally and add significantly to the cause for his canonization by the church.”
The Medal of Honor helps validate the belief held for years by many in the Wichita Diocese that Kapaun deserved the honor, Hotze said.
“It’s confirming the fact that he is somebody that we should all be emulating … following his example,” he said.
The ceremonies reflect that Kapaun’s story continues to spread to the nation and beyond, he said. The Vatican monitors the support for a person being considered for sainthood to see how strong and widespread it is.
“That’s not only talking about Father Kapaun in terms of the Wichita Diocese or in terms of the United States, but also the universal church,” Hotze said.
Just last week, he said, he received a request from Finland for a Kapaun relic. The diocese has already received requests from the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Korea, Japan, Peru, Argentina, the Netherlands and England.
“I thought Finland was an accomplishment,” Hotze said, because Scandinavian countries have a reputation for not being overly religious.
A relic is something personally connected to a saint or person blessed by the Catholic Church. Traditionally, a piece of the body of a saint, such as a bone, would be considered a relic. Because Kapaun was buried in Korea in what likely was a mass grave, that is not an option.
Instead, Hotze said, the diocese sends pieces of Kapaun’s clothing.
Bishop Michael Jackels of Wichita, who recently was named archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, said Kapaun’s story reflects the church’s tenets of humble service and self-sacrifice. But he said the story resonates beyond the Catholic Church.
“The inspiration his story gives to all people, regardless, to live a shared life of self-gift in service, like Father Kapaun,” Jackels said.
“And if we all did that? Well, what a different, better world it would be.”