The example of two military chaplain heroes reminds us what is most essential in the earthly and spiritual battles of life
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid—John 14:27.
Above and beyond. The Medal of Honor citations for two military chaplains each begin with the words, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty….” And in addition to being posthumously recognized with our nation’s highest honor for valor, they also have the unique distinction of being examined for the highest honor of the altar—beatification and canonization—as saints of the Church! In the heroic examples of the Servants of God Father Vincent Capodanno and Father Emil Kapaun we discover what is most needed in our fight upon the earthly and spiritual battlefield of life—peace of heart.
Heroes of the Church? As noncombatants, they selflessly laid down their lives as testament of Christ’s words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). But in the case of Father Capodanno’s cause for beatification, concerns have been raised by consultors to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, summarized by one who commented that “Raising someone from the military for veneration may not be appropriate for our Church.” But many with the Church were quick to push back on their opinion.
Courageous love. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services was extremely disappointed with the consultors’ view saying, “It is [our] firm conviction… that Father Capodanno is enjoying the bliss of heaven and it is felt that raising the exemplary service of this distinguished priest to the altars would serve the Church and especially the Chaplain Corps….” I myself find it difficult to understand how anyone would feel that Father Capodanno’s selfless sacrifice of love upon the earthly battlefield is somehow inappropriate to highlight as an example of the heroism that the Church has traditionally called upon Catholics to exercise as milites Christi—soldiers of Christ—in the spiritual battles of life.
One battlefield. Consider the strong words of the Second Vatican Council, which speak of world history as but one long battle: The whole of human history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding ourselves in the midst of the battlefield, we have to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to ourselves, and aided by God’s grace, that we succeed in achieving our own inner integrity (Gaudium et Spes, 37). Indeed, the earthly battlefield is not separate and distinct from the spiritual but is in fact one battlefield. And what both Servants of God brought so heroically to the fight was the love and peace of Christ.
Service and sacrifice. Affectionately nicknamed the “Grunt Padre” by those he so faithfully served, Navy Chaplain Father Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest, risked his life repeatedly aiding Marines pinned down during a ferocious ambush in Vietnam on September 4, 1967. Disregarding the extremely intense and accurate enemy fire, he repeatedly moved about the most deadly part of the battlefield to aid and comfort the wounded and administer last rites to the dying. Even after receiving multiple debilitating wounds, he continued to seek out the wounded and dying and minister to them.
God is with us . . . As detailed in the book The Grunt Padre by Father Daniel Mode, one Marine’s brief encounter with Father Capodanno in the midst of the hellish ambush stands out. Having been critically wounded and crying out for help, he despaired of being aided because of the closeness of the enemy and intensity of the ambush. But suddenly he found himself looking into the eyes of Father Capodanno. In that moment, a sudden sense of peace rushed over him such that he no longer heard the deafening noise of the raging battle. And then Father Capodanno said to him, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.” Only as Father Capodanno turned to go to the next wounded man did he notice how badly wounded their chaplain was.
My peace I give you. But it was that incredible sense of peace that Father Capodanno was the bearer of that made Christ present to others even in the midst of the horrors of the battlefield. And even after he was fatally struck down in a hail of bullets in a valiant attempt to shield and help another of the fallen, the pall of death could not shade the peace upon his face. Indeed, the spiritual “combat” mission that defined his life was that of living those words he so often repeated in the holy sacrifice of the Mass—“This is my body… given up for you,” and “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” The example of Father Capodanno is that of a bearer of Christ’s peace.
For the lives of others. Similarly, the cause for the beatification of another bearer of Christ’s peace, Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun, has been progressing. During the Korean War, Father Kapaun, a native of the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., remained with the wounded on the battlefield when his unit was overrun by Chinese troops on November 1, 1950—All Saints’ Day. When an enemy soldier was about to execute one of the wounded, he brazenly pushed the enemy’s weapon aside and picked up the wounded man. During the 60-mile death march to a prison camp in the freezing cold, he carried the wounded soldier and encouraged and helped the others as a beacon of hope.
A prison camp’s saint. In the brutally harsh conditions of the North Korean prison camp, Father Kapaun selflessly cared for the sick and wounded, helping with their basic needs, such as cleaning them and picking lice off of them. He repeatedly risked his life by routinely sneaking out of the prison camp to search for food and medicine to bring back to the sick and starving POWs. But, above all, what he gave them most was Christ’s peace, sacrificing himself totally for love of them. In fact, he gave so heroically of himself to his fellow prisoners of war that his health finally failed him, dying on May 23, 1951, at the age of 35.
Reality of spiritual combat. We are reminded no less than 37 times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that our life resembles “a hard battle” in the spiritual struggles none of us are immune from (n. 409). And what is most essential in spiritual warfare is Christ’s peace. Satan is real, and so are his efforts to ambush us and fill us with anxieties and agitations and wear us down, to make us captives of sin, and ultimately rob us of our eternal peace with God.
First rule of spiritual combat. In his outstanding short treatise, “Searching for and Maintaining Peace,” Father Jacques Philippe explains that “The first goal of spiritual combat is to learn to maintain peace of heart under all circumstances, even in the case of defeat.” Why? Because it is the one thing Satan knows he must rob us of if he is to vanquish us. And this is because God is the God of peace—if our heart is filled with anxieties, anger, and resentments, His grace cannot act upon us, nor can we communicate His peace to others. As St. Francis de Sales reminds us, “The devil does his utmost to banish peace from one’s heart, because he knows that God abides in peace and it is in peace that He accomplishes great things.”
What’s in your heart? Because Father Capodanno and Father Kapaun embraced this essential rule of spiritual combat, God was able to accomplish great things through them for love of others. The Church most certainly needs their example. And their heroic example should cause us to ask this question of ourselves—What do I most give from my heart to others? Is it a reflection of the agitations, anxieties, and resentments that dwell within, or is it Christ’s peace? Father Capodanno and Father Kapaun, pray for us!