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“Tell my bishop I died a happy death”: Fr. Emil Kapaun's enduring example of hope

Scott Carter

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass on the hood of his jeep on October 7, 1950, in Korea. Kapaun died in a prison camp in Korea in 1951 and is now on the path to sainthood. Image courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita.
This Sunday, May 23, marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Father Emil Kapaun, a native son and priest of the Diocese of Wichita.
In thinking about his death lately, two phrases Fr. Kapaun spoke before he died have been standing out to me. “Don’t worry about me,” he told his fellow POWs who were devastated at the loss of their friend and chaplain, “I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” And, in a message of reassurance for his superior back home: “Tell my bishop I died a happy death.”
To me, a slow, lonely, painful death in a Communist prison camp halfway across the world doesn’t seem like a happy death, but then, the saints have a different outlook on life, and that’s why we hold them in high esteem. Father Kapaun’s last words are expressions of his hope. Not hope for a life of ease and comfort but the hope that comes from trusting God’s promises.  The hope that comes from knowing that one has lived one's life striving to follow Christ’s commandment of love.
This year, May 23 is also Pentecost Sunday. Holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit, and in every age, the Spirit invites and inspires men and women to offer their lives for Jesus and for others. This Spirit was at work in Fr. Kapaun, enabling him to fulfill the words that Christ spoke to his disciples before his own death: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Of course, Fr. Kapaun didn't start living this way only as death drew near; he offered himself in so many little ways throughout his life: by offering words of encouragement and washing soiled fatigues in the prison camp, by braving enemy fire to pray with and rescue GIs on the battlefield, by his hospitality and dedication to daily duties as a priest – even by his simple prayers and kindness to others as a student and son. That’s what makes a saint, and that’s why he was able to die such a remarkable death.
We remember and honour Fr. Kapaun this weekend, and with his return to the Diocese of Wichita this coming fall, we pray that he helps us respond generously to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to offer our lives for Jesus and others so that we too may live and die in our own remarkable manner.
Servant of God Emil Kapaun, pray for us!

Scott Carter is the coordinator of the Fr. Kapaun Guild for the Diocese of Wichita.
Want to know more about Fr. Kapaun?
Read Farm boy, hero, saint: Meet Fr. Emil Kapaun, the US Army chaplain every Catholic should know
Find out more about Fr. Kapaun from the Diocese of Wichita’s Father Kapaun Guild.

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