When award-winning New York Times sportswriter and author Joe Drape moved his family to Kansas in 2008, he didn’t know God was planting a seed. Drape thought he was just there to work on a book about an undefeated high school football team, the Smith Center Redmen, who had two rules: love one another, and let’s get better each day.
But God never lets a good opportunity go to waste, and so while Joe was there, he learned about the life of Korean War hero Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas native on the road to possible sainthood.
Drape, a lifelong – albeit lukewarm – Catholic, was impressed by Father Kapaun’s story, but nothing else came of it until seven years later when his publisher asked him if he had an interest in writing about something other than sports for his next book. That’s when Father Kapaun came to mind – and that’s why Joe has now authored “The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith.” We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Born in Pilsen, Kansas in 1916, Emil Kapaun always felt called to be a priest. After being ordained, he discovered that parish life didn’t particularly agree with him. But when he was assigned to be a chaplain at a nearby Army base, he knew he had found his niche. That assignment also led to him being sent to Korea with US troops as they fought the war that proved so brutal, few wanted to talk about it after they returned home.
“The US didn’t really know what they were walking into,” explained Drape, “and what Father Kapaun and his fellow GIs walked into was 25,000 Chinese soldiers descending on about 6,000 of them.”
Father Kapaun quickly earned the respect of his fellow soldiers through his actions more than his words. He moved from battlefield to battlefield with his stole and ciborium, also carrying food, tobacco, and several canteens of water. Joe said, “He crawled into these foxholes and never really pushed the faith on them. The most he’d say is, ‘Do you mind if we say a little prayer?’ And they might say an Our Father or a Hail Mary. It didn’t matter what faith they were, he never asked. And during that stretch, a lot of people were getting slaughtered, and he would not leave the wounded behind. That’s when he first got noticed. He would go to these places where the wounded were [and] wouldn’t wait for the rescue mission. [He would] pile them up on the Jeep [himself]. It was almost superhuman. They just marveled at how he’d go into enemy fire and, with artillery going off, he’d always come back with men.”
Eventually overwhelmed by the Chinese, Father Kapaun and the US troops had no choice but to surrender. But the Chinese didn’t want to bring wounded Americans with them to the POW camp, so they prepared to execute a soldier named Herb Miller who had been hurt.
When Father Kapaun saw a Chinese soldier with his rifle aimed at Miller’s head, he rushed over, pushed the gun aside, put Miller on his own shoulder, and carried him 60 miles over a period of weeks until they arrived at the camp. “That simple act right there in the beginning,” explained Joe, “made everybody around him pick up the wounded. It was a moment of leadership that everybody emulated.”
Under horrific conditions in the POW camp, Father Kapaun continued to care for his men both materially and spiritually. For example, he helped feed them by foraging for berries and stealing food from the guards. “And when they were dying,” added Drape, “he would go sit with them and he would bury them, digging the hole himself…He was just a 360 degree caregiver for these guys, and they all looked up to him.”
Another quality of Father Kapaun’s that impressed Drape was his ecumenical approach to faith. He explained, “You had Turkish soldiers who were Muslims, they loved the guy. You had two Jewish doctors, they loved the guy. Atheists, Protestants, he just saw the goodness in everybody and was able to exude goodness back.”
Father Kapaun eventually died in the camp, but the men he served wouldn’t let his heroism and courage be forgotten. Their stories – along with a couple of miracles attributed to Father Kapaun’s intercession – paved the way for his consideration for sainthood.
Father Kapaun’s example also prompted Drape to reevaluate his own lackluster spiritual life. Specifically, he noted, he had forgotten how to pray.
It was a conversation with his friend Father Jim Martin that gave Drape the guidance he needed. The priest put it this way: “You have a teenage son. If he was troubled by something, wouldn’t you want him to come to you and ask for help?”
Drape responded, “Yes.”
It’s the same with God, pointed out Father Martin: “‘God wants you to come lay your troubles at His feet and let Him help you.”
Father Martin also advised Drape to pray to Father Kapaun for guidance, an idea that had never occurred to him. All these ideas are improving the author’s relationship with God and efforts to live out his faith.
There is a lot more to “The Saint Makers,” so Drape encourages people to read the book. His hopes for them are the following: “I did not intend for it to come out in a divided culture in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s probably good it comes out at this time. I hope people pick it up and say, ‘This guy [Father Kapaun] was just like me. He was nothing special, except he put his faith in God. And he put the effort in to serve God. He made the world a better place, and he endured illness, division, and ridicule about everything else, physically and mentally. And he did it with grace and dignity.’ I think that’s a worthy lesson to move on with.”
(To listen to my full interview with Joe Drape, click on the podcast link):