Jesus described Christians as “the light of the world” and said we are called to “let [our] light shine before others.” [Matt. 5:14,16]. But how do you let your light shine when you are surrounded by darkness? If you’re having a hard time overcoming the darkness of the world around you, Father Emil Kapaun’s story is for you.
There are few places darker than a prisoner-of-war camp. Surrounded by starvation, disease, and cruelty, it can be difficult to keep your own light shining, let alone to shine on others. Yet in that dark place, Father Kapaun was a shining example of bravery, compassion, and joy for his fellow prisoners, sacrificing himself to keep others from losing hope.
Emil Kapaun was born on a Kansas farm in April 1916. Drawn to the Catholic faith of his Czech immigrant parents, he went to seminary straight out of high school. He felt called to serve in the military, and entered Army Chaplain School in the summer of 1944. He spent about a year in the Burma Theater during World War II, ministering to US soldiers and local missions.
After the war, Kapaun returned to his native Kansas and resumed life as a parish priest, but felt his conscience calling him back to military service. In 1950, he and the 8th Cavalry Regiment joined the escalating conflict in Korea.
Father Kapaun gained a reputation for confidence and good cheer, setting up an altar on the hood of his Jeep to celebrate Mass on the front lines. He performed baptisms and heard confessions as bullets and bombs flew overhead. The Army awarded him a Bronze Star after he ran into enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier.
During the Battle of Unsan in November 1950, Father Kapaun stayed with a group of soldiers trapped under heavy fire. Ultimately, he and 15 others were captured and marched to a POW camp.
At Camp Number 5, the prisoners found themselves in hellish conditions. They didn’t have enough food to eat, or enough blankets and firewood to protect themselves from the winter chill, or enough medicine to control the diseases that ran rampant. As many as two dozen men died each day.
Father Kapaun did whatever he could to serve his fellow soldiers and keep their spirits up. He dug latrines and assisted at the camp hospital, feeding and bathing those too weak to care for themselves. He built tools from scraps he found around the camp. He mediated disputes between prisoners. He gave away his own food to those who were starving, and even stole food, tobacco, and firewood from their Chinese captors for the prisoners. (He decided the commandment against stealing didn’t apply when lives were on the line.) At night, he snuck between huts to say prayers and minister to men of all faiths to cheer them up and give them the will to survive.
Father Kapaun’s attitude toward his captors mixed courage with compassion. He refuted the Communist indoctrination that they gave to the prisoners. When the captors said God must not exist because He hadn’t saved the prisoners, Kapaun replied: “God is as real as the air you breathe but cannot see; as the sounds you hear but cannot see; as the thoughts and ideas you have but cannot see or feel.” At the same time, he forgave his captors for their cruelty and prayed for them to be delivered from their Communist beliefs.
Father Kapaun’s months of selfless service took a terrible toll on his health. He came down with dysentery and pneumonia, and developed a blood clot in his leg. Despite his worsening health, he continued to serve, holding a sunrise service on Easter of 1951. But eventually, his ailments overtook him.
To the very end, he sought to reassure his fellow prisoners, telling them: “I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go, and when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” In his final days, he asked the Chinese guards for their forgiveness if he had hurt them. Shortly thereafter, he died of malnutrition and pneumonia at the age of 35.
The Army posthumously awarded Father Kapaun the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Service Cross. After years of effort by Kansas’ congressional delegation, he received the Medal of Honor in 2013. The Catholic Church has also recognized Kapaun’s selfless service, considering him for sainthood; he was declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II in 1993, the first step on the path to canonization.
If you’re struggling to keep your light shining and not to be swallowed up by darkness, look to the example of Emil Kapaun. He helped to brighten the spirits of his compatriots even in the darkest conditions. He truly was the light of the world.
Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:27):