For the past 13 years, the people of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, have gathered annually for the Father Emil Kapaun pilgrimage, four days of walking, companionship, and prayer, culminating in the Father Kapaun Day Mass held at St. John Nepomucene Church. As Joe Bukuras recently reported for Catholic News Agency, "The 2021 walk was unique because the Wichita diocese is preparing to welcome the bodily remains of Fr. Kapaun."
Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun was a United States Army chaplain who served in World War II and the Korean War. He displayed tremendous heroism while on the front lines of the Korean War's Battle of Unsan, when he braved enemy fire to rescue nearly 40 men. He was captured with other survivors and marched 87 miles to a prisoner of war camp. As a POW, he inspired his men through courage and sacrifice, stealing food for those who were starving, smuggling medicine for those who were sick, standing up to communist indoctrination, and regularly leading his men in prayer. On March 25, 1951, Father Kapaun led an Easter sunrise service in a near death state, and he died from malnutrition and pneumonia on May 23, 1951.
In 1953, Operation Glory returned the remains of 1,868 soldiers to the U.S. as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement. Father Kapaun's remains were known to be among this number, but they were unable to be identified and were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) in Honolulu, Hawaii. It wasn't until 2018 that the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency's Korean War Disinterment Project began a plan at the NMCP to disinter all remaining Korean War Unknowns. And on March 4, 2021, it was confirmed by U.S. Senator Jerry Moran and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita that Father Kapaun's remains had finally been identified.
Father Kapaun was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Wichita, and he celebrated his first Mass at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, where his memory is kept alive through the Chaplain Kapaun Museum. Also based in the Diocese of Wichita is the Father Kapaun Guild, which promotes his cause for canonization. The Father Emil Kapaun Pilgrimage is a 60-mile walk in the heat and over mostly gravelly roads. It is challenging, and pilgrims sometimes need to take breaks by riding in support vehicles that follow the group. "This is a humbling experience," said veteran pilgrim Sharon Norden, "but even Jesus needed help on His way to the cross."
Norden describes the pilgrimage as a bonding experience where people share stories of faith, suggest books and podcasts to each other, and avail themselves of the sacraments provided by priests who say Mass and hear confession daily. "No one scoffs at saying a rosary on the road or the divine mercy chaplet between conversations," says Norden. "It is where you feel your faith recharged, just like Father Kapaun recharged the men and they all continued to go on in their imprisonment."
What profound insight this pilgrim shares about the call Christ extends to each of us to strengthen each other in trying times. Often, we cannot relieve each other's burdens, but we can help each other cope with difficult situations, and we can keep hope alive for each other. So let's all take up this pilgrimage, at least in spirit, to walk in the footsteps of Father Kapaun and answer the call of Christ to recharge the faith of those entrusted to our care.
This essay is a recent "Light One Candle" column by Father Ed Dougherty, M.M., The Christophers' Board of Directors ; it is one of a series of weekly columns that deal with a variety of topics and current events.Background information: