Editor’s Note: Joe Drape, a sportswriter for The New York Times, is the author of the new book “The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero inspired a Journey of Faith.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion at CNN.
On the evening of March 27, Pope Francis acknowledged that the faith of many was being tested as the world was seemingly coming apart. He appeared in an empty St. Peter’s Square to deliver a solemn “Urbi et Orbi” address, “to the city of Rome and the world.” He spoke on the coronavirus and on the gospel story of Jesus calming the storm. The day he spoke was the deadliest day of the coronavirus in Italy.
The Pope stood alone under a canopy as rain bounced off the ancient cobblestones. He was bathed in the blue lights of police cruisers; the police were enforcing a lockdown across the city. Pope Francis knew that Italy, and the world, was anxious and terrified.
I was, too. But as I listened to Pope Francis remind us not to be afraid, I also had another source of comfort: the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a priest who has been dead nearly 70 years. I had spent years reporting and contemplating his life for a book.
A country priest from Kansas who died in a Korean prisoner of war camp, Father Kapaun is beloved around the world by men and women of all faiths. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama. Now, he is on the long, slow path to sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Saints are in one sense the church’s superheroes, having lived lives of surpassing faith and virtue. But none of them is superhuman – like Father Kapaun, they are all men and women whose mortal lives are worth studying and imitating, and also ultimately relatable.
Watching the Pope from my home in New York City, with my son remote learning, my wife making Zoom calls – and all of us, frankly, knowing that more terrible and trying times were ahead – I was grateful that I had spent this time with Father Kapaun, examining his life and, yes, praying to him.
On the battlefields and in the prison camps of Korea in 1950, Father Kapaun saw the lost looks and terrible darkness in the faces of his fellow GIs. He reassured them that together they were going to make their way through their tribulation.
When they were hungry, weak and ill, he conjured comfort from thin air, offering imaginary coffee to drink and ribeye steaks to taste. He scavenged real food for them as well and engineered tools out of scrap. He shook them awake from their selfish ways when they wanted to hoard food or be cruel to one another.
Camp No. 5, where Father Kapaun died, was a sick and twisted prison, but with prayer and defiance, kindness and love, the priest made it survivable for many of his men. His example showed them strength that they could receive by turning to God. He did not care whether his men were Jewish, Muslim or Baptist, but he did want them to embrace their faith, to free themselves from fear and to find hope.
Did Father Kapaun imitate the life of Christ? Absolutely, right down to forgiving his Chinese captors and then asking them for forgiveness even though they had made his and his men’s daily existence a living hell. His final words were a question. “Forgive me?” he said to the officer in charge at the door to the Death House — a ward where gravely ill prisoners were taken — knowing full well that he would never walk out. His cause of death is unknown.
Is Father Kapaun a saint? To the GIs he served with, he is. There are tens of thousands — perhaps even hundreds of thousands — of people from Kansas and beyond who recite a simple prayer — “Father Kapaun, help me” — when their troubles become hard to bear alone.
We do not have to look far to see the virtues Father Kapaun embodied in ordinary people living among us. The doctors and nurses who show up every day to battle the pandemic with determination and compassion. The “essential workers,” many of them immigrants and poor people of color, who go out into the world — show up to work every day — keeping commerce and the economy going while the lucky rest of us stay home and safe. And all of us who smile at strangers, reach out to the lonely, and do our best to keep our families close.
Becoming a saint in the Catholic Church is a long, expensive and complicated process that has evolved over the centuries. It usually requires verification of at least two miracles, in which a person recovers from a life-threatening disease in a way that defies all medical evidence, after the friends and family of the sick one implore the candidate for sainthood to intercede with God for the cure.
Vatican historians, theologians and cardinals will consider the merits of Father Kapaun’s case. Someday, most likely decades from now, whoever is pope will make the decision. The average time from a candidate’s death to canonization is 181 years. Father Kapaun died in 1951.
While we wait, let’s call Father Kapaun a hero if not a saint, a thoroughly modern and healing example for our time.
Service, courage, and forgiveness for all were the hallmarks of Father Kapaun’s life. They are in short supply in these troubled days.
Yes, Father Kapaun lived a life worth imitating — not for us to become saints with a capital “S.” No, but by performing the smallest acts of kindness, we will make our communities a better place.
“He was just an average guy. He was just a poor Kansas farm boy,” Father John Hotze, another priest from Kansas who had spent much of his adult life promoting the cause of Father Kapaun, told me. “He had nothing, and he was able to use what little he had in service to others. If he becomes a saint, then there’s hope for each and every one of us to be a saint.”
I will hope against hope that I am still around when Father Kapaun is finally made a saint.
Until then, he will remain in my prayers.
I pray that I remain in his.