Trinity Sunday and Father Kapaun

All Saints Day, 1950, was properly joyful in Korea. U.S. Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun celebrated four field Masses that day for the soldiers in the Third Battalion of the Eighth Calvary Regiment. Camped almost on the Chinese boarder, the men believed the war all but won. All Souls is a somber day, and, that year in Korea, it turned cataclysmic as twenty thousand Chinese soldiers entered the war, quickly overwhelming the three thousand Americans posted in the north. So badly outnumbered, GIs recall that aiming one’s weapon was almost superfluous. One was bound to hit a Chinese soldier simply by firing.

Instead of evacuating, Father Kapaun kept driving north in his jeep, returning with wounded soldiers. Most of two American battalions managed to escape that day, but Kapaun remained among eight hundred men of the Third Battalion who shielded the retreat. In The Miracle of Father Kapaun, Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying write,

Advertisement

GIs saw Kapaun running from foxhole to foxhole, dragging wounded out, saying prayers over the dying, hearing confessions amid gunfire, ripping open shirts to look at wounds. Men screamed at him to escape, but he ignored them..."I’m going to give you guys the last rites," he said, "because a lot of you guys are not going to make it home."...The priest called out the sacred words in English, not Latin, as the GIs were from all shades of belief.

Eventually, Kapaun was in a small circle of the surrounded. The soldiers knew that the Chinese were not taking prisoners, but, in their dugout, Kapaun appealed to the humanity of a captured Chinese officer, who arranged for the surrender, rather than the death, of those forty men. One more would be saved when an unarmed Father Kapaun rapidly strode toward a Chinese soldier and physically turned his gun barrel away from the head of a badly wounded Sergeant Herb Miller.

A death march to the north followed. Prisoners unable to walk were shot. When exhausted and wounded soldiers refused their officers’ orders to carry the wounded — wasn’t it essentially an order to kill one’s self? — their chaplain walked the line, begging them to do so. Father Kapaun carried Herb Miller on what the sergeant remembered as "skinny shoulders." He did it for days. "‘Father,’ Miller said, ‘you need to put me down.’ Kapaun shook his head. ‘If I put you down, Herb, they will shoot you.’"

When Saint Augustine compared the Most Holy Trinity to a Lover, the Beloved, and the Love they share, he didn’t propose that this proved the existence of the Trinity, a mystery revealed to us only in the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. No, these were vestiges of the Trinity in our humanity, clues hidden in creation, providing a way to ponder such a mystery.

While still a young parish priest, back in Kansas, Father Kapaun once told his congregation that "if a crisis ever came, a person who wants to help others should imitate Christ." Because a saint is conformed to Christ, the life of any saint also reveals something of the Trinity. Like Jesus, every saint surrenders to the Mystery whom Christ called "Father." And, like the whispering Spirit whom we call Holy, every saint gently cajoles others to do the same.

The Americans were marched to a POW camp outside Pyoktong, on the banks of the Yalu River, two miles from Manchuria. There they would die from starvation and dysentery at a rate much higher than in previous wars. Thirteen hundred, roughly a third, did not survive that first winter. Camp conditions and the cold were so harsh that a despondent soldier could commit suicide simply by failing to pick the lice from his body or by pushing away from the other men at night, who slept spooned, head to toe, in order to fight off the cold, which reached twenty to thirty degrees below zero.

Prisoners remember Father Kapaun visiting as many as two hundred men a day, treating their wounds, offering them food that he had stolen, teaching them to steal food, saying the rosary with them, and always, like his Christ, pointing to the mystery of the unseen God, telling the men not to lose hope. "Have faith, have faith." He would say. "Don’t give up. We’ll get out of here someday. God is on your side."

This incensed the guards, who said that God was a lie. Kapaun retorted that Communism was the lie. Responding with increased punishments, his guards would ask the priest, "Where is your God now?"

"Right here," he would answer. Eventually, covered in rags, with long hair and a beard, Kapaun physically resembled Jesus, but, even before his capture, his way of being a priest evoked the gentleness of the Holy Spirit.

"On the march, Kapaun sometimes didn’t bother to introduce himself to fellow soldiers as a chaplain, or even as an officer. Instead he would throw himself into whatever task they were doing." At Pyoktong, soldiers recall that "the chaplain did not even bring up the subject of prayer without permission," but, before long, even atheists would join him in the rosary.

A blood clot developed in Father Kapaun’s leg. His soldiers had almost nursed him back to health, but his captors so detested the priest that they took him, from sobbing men, to a shed filled with maggots and feces, where prisoners were left to die without food or water. Father Kapaun passed two days later.

Saint Paul explained the mystery of the Trinity to the Romans by writing, "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:1). He went on to link even our suffering to the hope whom we call the Holy Spirit. "We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5:3-5).

Among the soldiers he served, the name Father Emil Kapaun became legendary. His cause has been introduced for sainthood, and, this Spring, he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor by President Obama. Father Kapaun preached that, "Christ’s works testified to what he was; our works will testify to what we are." They clearly did in his case. Looking at him, even from this distance, you can still see the unseen God.

Proverbs 8: 22-31 Romans 5: 1-5 John 16: 12-15

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A boy presents a hat to Pope Francis upon his arrival at the international airport in Trujillo, Peru, Jan. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero.’”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at the Maquehue Airport near Temuco, Chile, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Pope Francis’ statements...were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a statement released Jan. 20.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 20, 2018
 Pope Francis and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stand outside the presidential palace in Lima, Peru, Jan.19.(CNS photo//Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
“The degradation of the environment...cannot be separated from the moral degradation of our communities.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
The U.S. bishops had an unusually busy year issuing positive and negative statements about the new president, but some hoped for more decisive action against his policies.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 19, 2018