A Kansas priest’s quest to canonize a Korean War hero

It took a 3-by-3-by-3-foot wooden crate crammed with 8,268 pages of documents to launch this pilgrimage from Wichita, Kan., to Rome, Italy, and—with patience—hopefully, the Gates of Heaven. Inside was the life’s work of two priests separated by 57 years. The Rev. John Hotze signed the FedEx bill, then watched as the 300-pound crate was scooted onto a dolly.

He then watched the results of his scholarly work roll out the door.

It was July 2, 2011, and inside that crate was the remarkable life of the Rev. Emil Kapaun. In the previous dozen years, Father Hotze had unearthed every letter the military chaplain and war hero had written to his family and friends back in Kansas. He had unearthed copies of the sermons Father Kapaun had given from pulpits in farm parishes as well as theaters of war. Father Hotze had the notebooks Father Kapaun had filled while studying to become a Catholic priest in the 1930s. Then there was the testimony of more than 100 witnesses, from Korea to Kansas, recounting the heroics Father Kapaun had performed on the battlefield and in a prisoner-of-war camp.

But Father Hotze asked himself for the gazillionth time, “Was it enough?”

The life and times of Father Emil Kapaun were about to be reviewed and challenged, picked apart and prayed over by layers of canon lawyers, Catholic cardinals and, ultimately, the pope himself.

Father Hotze, 51, was a homegrown and beefy Kansan who was more comfortable in dungarees and a work shirt than the priestly uniform of black that he was sweating through on this June morning, a day that had transformed south central Kansas into a broiler. On his drive in to the office of the Diocese of Wichita that morning, he had seen the combines vibrating in the heat as the farmers hustled to bring the wheat in before a sudden thunderstorm could render a year’s work, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, into drowned stalks barely worth the pennies on the insurance claim they would have to file.

Like the farmers, Father Hotze was worried about the fruits of his own harvest—the materials sown and reaped into those boxes were off to the Vatican where the contents would be measured by the most divine of standards. The life and times of Father Emil Kapaun were about to be reviewed and challenged, picked apart and prayed over by layers of canon lawyers, Catholic cardinals and, ultimately, the pope himself.

Father Kapaun’s arc from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse during the Depression to the most decorated chaplain in military history was compelling. His battlefield exploits were the stuff of adventure novels. He dodged the bullets of Chinese soldiers to rescue wounded Americans. He put them on his shoulders and carried them for days over frozen snow in subzero temperatures. In a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp, Father Kapaun kept hundreds of his fellow soldiers alive, and instilled the will to live in thousands more, by stealing food for their shriveled bodies and saying Mass and ministering to their crushed souls. When his captors decided they had had enough of the defiant priest, they removed him from the group. As he was carried away by stretcher—starved, sick and unable to stand—to die alone in a fetid death house, his fellow prisoners wept. They were Catholics and Christians, Jews and Muslims—all touched deeply by this remarkable priest. Father Kapaun astonished them once more when he forgave his tormentors before them and asked them to forgive him.

What hung in the balance was a question far beyond this earth: Did this simple Kansas priest who died a horrible death in a North Korean prison camp at the age of 35 really belong among the saints?

Did this simple Kansas priest who died a horrible death in a North Korean prison camp at the age of 35 really belong among the saints?

Two Kansas Priests

Both priests had been forged by indecision and doubt.

Growing up in Kansas, John Hotze was a fine student and decent athlete but one who was forever adrift. He earned a business degree from Wichita State, and had done well enough to be accepted into the university’s business school to pursue a master’s degree. He cruised through his first year of studies but struggled in his second year to find motivation. Hotze detested sitting in a classroom and, after three straight semesters of enrolling in classes that he subsequently dropped after a few weeks, set out to find himself. Where? At first it did not matter. His brother Bill was an army sergeant stationed in Germany, which was reason enough for Hotze to spend some time there and traveling through Europe.

When his money ran out and his curiosity needed recharging, Hotze returned to Wichita to work for his sister Mary, who had a successful business creating retail and holiday displays. It earned him plenty of walking-around money, but Hotze had this nagging feeling that God had something more planned for him.

The Hotzes were practicing Catholics, but were by no means fanatics. They went to Mass as a family on Sundays and abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during the Lenten season, but otherwise offered no display of public devoutness. All John Hotze knew about religious vocations was what he had heard one Sunday each year when a diocesan priest took the pulpit at his parish to recruit more clergy.

Did Hotze feel a calling from God? Did he possess a vocation? He had no idea. But he was 28 and lost. Entering Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., did not seem like the dumbest idea in the world. He figured either it would last only a few weeks before he tired of yet another school or God would tell him what to do.

Five years later, in 1993, John Hotze was ordained. His first assignment was at All Saints Parish in Wichita, the same church he grew up in and where the Hotze family spent their Sundays. He was at home for two years before being reassigned to St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen, Kan., where Father Kapaun had not only grown up but had also once been the pastor. Father Hotze had heard the stories of Father Kapaun’s virtue and valor—most people in these parts of Kansas had. Father Hotze’s mother had kept a prayer card tucked in a corner of the bathroom mirror depicting Father Kapaun, and the family asked often for his help when a crisis was upon them.

Father Hotze had prayed to Father Kapaun often while in university and seminary, asking him to intercede when he grew bored and restless and wanted to drop out. Father Hotze had not only finally finished what he started, but now he also had a flock who looked to him for guidance. His superiors in the chancery—the home office—soon recognized that Father Hotze might have more to offer the diocese. He was a bright guy with a burning curiosity as well as a nice touch with ordinary people. Father Hotze, then 35, also had maturity and worldliness by virtue of being a seeker who was late to his calling. Bishop Eugene Gerber advised Father Hotze to go to the Catholic University of America in Washington, where he could pursue a degree in canon law, which is the highly specialized, some say Byzantine, legal system that creates and enforces the laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Byzantine or not, canon law is part of the business of diocesan and parish affairs: Someone in the Wichita area needed to know how to interpret and apply its rules.

Father Hotze was not sure why a priest perfectly happy serving farm communities needed an advanced degree, but he tucked the frayed Father Kapaun prayer card of his mother’s into his black suit coat and headed to Washington.

Over the next two years, both Father Kapaun and that prayer card got a workout, never more so than on the days leading to his final test. Father Hotze needed to pass a Spanish exam. He had already taken the translation test twice before; he had flamed out. So Father Hotze prayed hard to Father Kapaun, as did his classmates who knew of his devotion to the Kansas chaplain.

Father Hotze did his best and turned in his test to the instructor. His academic fate was now in God’s hands. He headed out to join his classmates for a beer at happy hour in their favorite saloon to celebrate their shared academic achievement. Father Hotze did not get far. Monsignor Green, the head of the language department, caught him on the steps of the building and asked for a word.

“Are you going on for a Ph.D.?” the professor asked. “No,” said Father Hotze, “This is it for me.” The professor narrowed his eyes.

“Good,” the monsignor said. “You got maybe two translations right, but I’m going to pass you. Don’t ever let me see you back here again.”

Father Hotze had prayed to Father Kapaun often while in university and seminary, asking him to intercede when he grew bored and restless and wanted to drop out.

Servant of God

Father Hotze was awarded his degree and returned to Kansas. He was sent to Newton, a town of no more than 19,000, north of Wichita, to become the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. For four years, no one ever asked him a single question about canon law.

In the fall of 2001, however, Father Hotze was summoned to the chancery by Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who had just been elevated to the rank of bishop and was overseeing a diocese for the first time. Bishop Olmsted asked Father Hotze what he knew about Father Kapaun.

Father Hotze told him about his deep devotion to the priest, and they shared a laugh at how Father Kapaun had interceded in his Spanish test. Bishop Olmsted was contemplating a campaign to have the hero of the Kansas plains presented to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to be considered for sainthood. He had a job for Father Hotze in the cause of Father Kapaun, one with a fancy title: Episcopal Delegate.

Bishop Olmsted was not the first to champion Father Kapaun. The Archdiocese for the Military Services had first taken up his cause, and, in 1993, Father Kapaun cleared the first step on the road to sainthood when Pope John Paul II declared him a servant of God. But a campaign for sainthood demands money and manpower. Both had been in short supply, so the cause of Father Kapaun had stalled.

Bishop Olmsted told Father Hotze that it was a long, costly process but that he was willing to invest hundreds of thousands of the diocese’s money into the effort. He also assured Hotze that neither one of them would be alive when—or if—Father Kapaun was ever canonized. The plan was to launch the campaign and leave it in the best shape possible for whichever bishop, priest and postulator came after them.

The numbers made that a very good bet. Since 1588, when the Vatican started keeping records on the process, the average time between the death of an eventual saint and canonization was 181 years. Even more daunting was the dearth of American-born saints: There were only two, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Katharine Drexel. Sister Seton founded the first American order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, as well as the nation’s first Catholic elementary school, which (as luck would have it) was adjacent to Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, where Father Hotze earned his divinity degree. Sister Drexel was an heiress and philanthropist who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She was canonized in the year 2000, after 34 years of consideration.

In 1993, Father Kapaun cleared the first step on the road to sainthood when Pope John Paul II declared him a servant of God.

The Lawyer

Now they were handing off his cause to an Italian canon lawyer by the name of Andrea Ambrosi. Mr. Ambrosi was charged with crafting Hotze’s finding into a narrative (in Italian, of course) and becoming the chief spokesman and lobbyist for Father Kapaun in Vatican City. The diocese felt fortunate to have Mr. Ambrosi. For generations, his family had been part of the Vatican machinery, and he was considered a go-to postulator in Rome.

Mr. Ambrosi had come to Wichita for the Mass and ceremony for Father Kapaun, looking immaculate, old-world, and elegant in a bespoke suit. He was all those things—as well as expensive. The average cost of a cause for sainthood was half a million dollars, and the billable hours of Mr. Ambrosi would eat up much of that. At the foot of the altar, amber and rouge light reflected through the stained glass and spotlighted the wood crate. After the box was sealed with red wax, Mr. Ambrosi tied a red ribbon around it.

Afterward, Mr. Ambrosi was upbeat about the chance Father Kapaun had for measuring up to the near-impossible standards of the Congregation of Saints. “I’m not worried,” he said in Italian. He ticked off a highlight reel of the sacrifices and the derring-do Father Kapaun had performed on the battlefield. He nodded to the detail and testaments from fellow soldiers whom Father Hotze had chased down and brought to life.

Mr. Ambrosi was upbeat about the chance Father Kapaun had for measuring up to the near-impossible standards of the Congregation of Saints.

The Miracles

Two miracles would have to be attributed to Father Kapaun to get him over the finish line, and Mr. Ambrosi believed that he might have two already in his pocket from right here in Kansas.

In 2006, a girl named Avery Gerleman, then 12, spent 87 days in the hospital; and doctors told her parents that they had exhausted all medical options. Her parents remained devoted to Father Kapaun, praying to him day and night and enlisting their friends in their parish to do the same. Avery was on a ventilator and her kidneys were failing. Finally, doctors decided to induce a coma. Her organs were ravaged. If Avery was to live at all, doctors believed, it would be in a vegetative state. Little by little, Avery appeared to heal herself. Six months later, she was back on the soccer field.

Two years later, Chase Kear, a college track athlete, fractured his skull from ear to ear in a pole vaulting accident. Doctors told his family that his chances to survive surgery bordered between slim and none. The Kear family and friends petitioned Father Kapaun to intercede. The young man survived the surgery and was out of the hospital eight weeks later. Doctors in both cases said there was no medical explanation for either of their recoveries: They had witnessed miracles.

After decades of promoting the causes of priests and nuns, Mr. Ambrosi especially relished the task of arguing for a hero like Father Kapaun, who had impacted so many lives far beyond the borders of their parishes.

“He saved so many people’s lives, lived his final days in a prison camp, died so young,” Mr. Ambrosi said of Father Kapaun. “Already by itself, it all says something great about him that you don’t need to read. You know it. He showed that there was not just a devil working on the battlefields of the war, but something else.”

Father Hotze could not help but think back to a letter Father Kapaun had written to a family friend on the eve of his ordination. “I feel like the dickens,” Father Kapaun wrote. “Maybe you do not realize fully what it means to be a priest, but I tell you—after I have studied all these years, I am more convinced that a man must be a living saint in order to take that step. And that is where my worries come in. Gee whiz, I have a feeling that I am far, far from being a saint.”

Father Hotze, on the other hand, believed with every cell in his body that Father Kapaun was a saint. He bowed his head and prayed that he had done enough to make the case to Rome, to the pope and to the world that this priest did indeed deserve sainthood. And he fervently hoped that those 8,268 pages of documents would convince them.

Father Hotze believed with every cell in his body that Father Kapaun was a saint.

Meeting A Saint Maker

It was early morning and Rome was still sleeping as I walked alongside the Tiber River. Tourists were lining up outside St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums. They are home to priceless works of art, from the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s ceiling to the ancient Laocoön sculpture animating a moment of the Trojan War. With its treasures and its cultural and historical significance, it is easy to overlook the fact that Vatican City is a company town. As I am a Catholic, it is my company’s town.

On this morning, I was stopping outside its walls at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to meet with Msgr Robert Sarno. He is an American, a New Yorker actually, who had been a part of the saint-making machinery for nearly 40 years. I had been told that Msgr. Sarno answered his own phone, and I was also forewarned that he was a gruff, blunt man who did not suffer fools easily. My briefers were correct on both counts.

He had not been eager to see me because he was a stickler for process and I had not gone through proper channels. Still, he agreed to a brief meeting after I pleaded ignorance of the protocols and explained that I was in Rome already.

I promised him that I would not take up much of his time. I explained that I understood the steps to becoming a saint and was familiar with the machinery in place here in Rome, but I was interested in what he believed was the essence of a saint.

Monsignor Sarno inched up in his seat and launched into an explanation that he had leaned on often in interviews with others. He said the Lord, for reasons only he knows, chooses some people in certain moments of history and bestows gifts on them. These gifts are witnessed by the people in his or her community at the time and are interpreted as “signposts” on a road, and they lay out a path to follow in life or for how to get to heaven.

In saints, Monsignor Sarno explained, word of these gifts spreads beyond the community and is handed down for generations. At some point, these gifts become widely known. People start praying for this gifted and holy person to help them and, if the person possesses the stuff of saints, miracles occur—people come out of comas or diseases suddenly disappear without medical explanation.

“I like to say that a saint has two ‘I’s,” he said, warming up. “The ‘I’ for imitation and the ‘I’ for intercession. Once a bishop has determined that the faithful [are] convinced of this ‘imitatableness,’ if you will, and then has the confirmation that prayers have been answered through the intercession of these individuals, he can start a process, the cause.”

In a few quick strokes, he argued that saint-making is among the most democratic processes because the causes bubble up from the church faithful. It takes time because reams of evidence must be discovered, and scores of historians and theologians—experts all—must examine the candidate’s life and alleged miracles. When that is concluded, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints makes only a recommendation.“The Holy Father alone has the final decision,” he said.

I asked about the importance of lobbying, politics and even “star power.” After all, St. John Paul II, a man for whom Monsignor Sarno had worked, was canonized in 2014, just nine years after his death. Monsignor Sarno was not biting. And what about the “cold causes,” in saint-making parlance, I asked, or the candidacies that go dormant for generations or die altogether?

He got up from behind his desk. My time was up. “You have to find the miracles they are responsible for,” he said. “The way you do that is with more prayer.”

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