He dwells among us: Never alone

We are all called to be the consoling presence of the Merciful Father to others

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“THE HOUR IS COMING,” Jesus said to His disciples, when “each of you will be scattered … and you will leave me alone; yet I am not alone for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32) In the month of November, with our celebration of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Veterans Day, I am mindful of the unselfish love of three priests whose causes for beatification are underway. Such was the heroic and loving witness of these priests, those they ministered to in times of dire need could exclaim, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me.”

“Fight or flight.” Perhaps you have experienced this basic psychological reaction to a perceived or very real danger. In the extreme conditions of a battlefield, fear can so overwhelm a soldier as to create an impulse of cowardice or the fuel for an incredible burst of heroism. But in pondering the lives of so many heroic saints and martyrs in the history of the Church, particularly in our present day, I am reminded that love is greater than fear.

And when it is the love of God that moves our heart, it is evil that flees.

The first priest I am thinking of is from our own diocese: Servant of God Father Patrick J. Ryan, whose cause for beatification officially began this past June. Father Ryan was still a young priest when a deadly yellow fever epidemic spread through Chattanooga in 1878. As Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga and episcopal delegate for Father Ryan’s cause, explained, “Here we have a priest who could very easily have fled the city, or stayed away from the areas that were afflicted with the ravages of the yellow fever. But following an impulse of great charity, Father Ryan went into those places, stayed, and ministered to the people that contracted the disease, and died from it while ministering to his people in a very heroic way.”

By virtue of his great love, those Father Ryan cared for could say, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” Yes, God the Father was with them, and so was Father Ryan.

These words of Jesus spoken to His disciples on this first Holy Thursday night could also be repeated by those who served in the Korean War alongside Father Emil Kapaun, who was born on Holy Thursday in 1916. He attended the same seminary I did, now Kenrick Glennon, in St. Louis — 45 years before me. After his ordination, he became an Army chaplain and deployed to Korea when war broke out on this Asian peninsula.

One of the many great stories of his heroism occurred on Nov. 1-2, 1950. When enemy forces encircled his unit on All Saints’ Day, Father Kapaun completely disregarded his own safety as he anointed the dying and dragged the wounded on the battlefield to safety. Offered a last chance to retreat, Father Kapaun refused to leave the side of the wounded. On All Souls’ Day, he and the wounded were taken captive by the enemy. Seeing a wounded soldier about to be shot by an enemy soldier Father Kapaun rushed over, pushed the enemy’s rifle aside, and picked up the wounded American. Stunned by the chaplain’s bravery, the enemy soldier let the two live. During their brutal march in freezing temperatures to a prison camp, and thereafter until his death in May1951, Father Kapaun selflessly offered the consoling presence of the Heavenly Father to his fellow prisoners. So inspired was one of his fellow prisoners, who was Jewish, that he carved a four-foot-tall crucifix out of wood he found in the camp in memory of Father Kapaun. When the prisoners were released nearly three years later, they brought the crucifix with them to freedom. It is now on display at a high school named after this revered priest.

Another heroic chaplain is Maryknoll Missioner Father Vincent Capodanno, who served during the Vietnam War. Affectionately nicknamed the “Grunt Padre” by the Marines he so faithfully served, Father Capodanno came to their aid during an enemy ambush on Sept. 4, 1967. Repeatedly exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he aided the wounded upon the battlefield and administered last rites to the dying, even after receiving multiple debilitating wounds. He was fatally struck down in a valiant attempt to reach another of the fallen.

Both Father Capodanno and Father Kapaun were posthumously recognized with our nation’s highest medal for heroism: the Medal of Honor. And like Father Ryan, their causes for beatification are also under way.

Through their intercession, along with all the saints in heaven, may we be inspired to be the consoling presence of God to the lonely and afflicted. And let us also pray for the souls in purgatory that they also behold the face of the Father of Mercy. May you all have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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