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Seminary classmate remembers Kapaun

Case for Kapaun canonization to be submitted in January

Staff writer

While Bishop Michael Jackels, of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, presided over the mass, the special guest at the annual mass to honor Fr. Emil Kapaun Thursday at St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen was Monsignor Jerry Sommer.

Sommer attended Kenrick Seminary with Kapaun from 1936 through 1940. They were ordained on the same date, June 9, 1940, but in different cities — Kapaun in Wichita and Sommer in his native St. Louis. After they left the seminary, they never saw each other again.

Although he spent four years with Kapaun, Sommer remembers little of the candidate for Sainthood. He said he did not remember anything extraordinary about Kapaun just that the Pilsen native was a prayful student, a good student academically, and a good athlete in the seminarians games of soccer, handball, and golf.

The real link between the two priests occurred after they were separated. Kapaun enlisted in the Army in 1944 and was an Army chaplain in India and Burma in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Sommer also went through training — fitness drills, chemical warfare tests, and crawling under live fire — to become an Army chaplain. Sommer started World War II in the Philippines but later accompanied the occupying army in Japan. He spent two years in Japan.

“The Japanese men, women, and children were waving Japanese and American flags at us,” Sommer said of his first arrival at Osaka. “They welcomed us. They realized we would treat them fair.”

While Kapaun was enduring his heroic struggle in a prison camp in North Korea, Sommer spent time in Denver and later Germany. He ended up in the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel after the Korean War had ended in 1955. He learned about Kapaun’s deeds a year earlier in 1954 after reading a story in the Saturday Evening Post.

“That’s my classmate,” Sommer recalled saying when he read the story. “It’s an inspirational story. He gave his life. His fellow POWs attribute their survival to Fr. Kapaun.”

While Kapaun’s love of his fellow soldiers is documented in articles and books, Sommer has lived the life Kapaun might have enjoyed had he survived. With all of his combined service, Sommer spent 29 years as an Army chaplain. He traveled to two more foreign countries, Turkey and Vietnam, and with his service in Vietnam, he equaled Kapaun by volunteering in two foreign conflicts. He retired from the Army in 1974.

Sommer said being an Army chaplain is just as important as being a parish priest. The duties for a chaplain may be more intense. HHHHHe accompanied an officer and he usually was the one who told families that their loved ones had died in battle. When he was stationed in Hawaii, he told one man that his son had died. Wrought with grief, the man flung himself to the floor, knocking Sommer down.

Working with wounded soldiers was easier. Even though soldiers may have been crippled with wounds sustained in battle, he did not encounter troops that felt forsaken by a higher power.

“Most don’t rebel,” Sommer said. “As they say, in foxholes there are no atheists. Soldiers with injuries sometimes deal with it better than people at home.”

After retiring from the Army, Sommer became the pastor at St. Robert near Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Sommer joked that working at St. Robert was not much different from being a chaplain because of the proximity of the military training ground.

He currently lives at Regina Cleri, a home for retired priests on the grounds of Kenrick Seminary.

Cause for canonization

During his homily, Jackels talked about the peace Kapaun inspired in his soldiers at the prisoner of war camp in Korea.

“Fr. Kapaun, wherever he was, brought the Kingdom of God,” Jackels said. “Many of the vets Fr. Hotze interviewed talked about the effect Fr. Kapaun had when he walked into a room, there was a peace. A ramshackle hut was transformed into a cathedral.”

Jackels said presiding over the mass at Holy Family is always an inspiration for him.

“It makes me try to be a better priest and a better person,” Jackels said.

To spread that inspiration, Jackels has worked with Father John Hotze to beatify Kapaun.

Hotze said he has interviewed everyone who knew Kapaun and gathered medical information on two miracles that have been attributed to prayers to Kapaun.

One is the case of Chase Kear who suffered a traumatic pole vaulting accident when he was a senior at Colwich High School. Kear was facing death when his parents Paul and Paula prayed to Kapaun.

“They expected him to die,” Hotze said.

Kear has experienced a full recovery. Hotze said Kear has even pole vaulted again.

The other miracle involves a high school girl. Hotze refrained from releasing her name because she does not want the attention associated with a miracle.

Hotze is combining the interviews, medical records of the miracles, and other documents. He plans to send the package to the Vatican in January to start the beatification process. Hotze was not sure when exactly, but the diocese of Wichita will have a celebration in January when the documents are sent.

“It goes into ‘Church time’,” Hotze said. “It’s an extensive process.”

“It could take months, years,” Jackels said. “We’re trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.”

The most exhaustive part of the Vatican research, Hotze explained, is verifying the miracles. A Vatican doctor researches the miracles to search for a scientific explanation. To be a miracle, a logical explanation for a person healing cannot be uncovered.

For example, a qualification for a miracle cannot be that God entered the mind and hand of Kear’s brain surgeon to complete a procedure the neurosurgeon may have been incapable of completing. Hotze said Kear’s recovery is more than exceptional work by a talented surgeon; it cannot be explained by medical science.

There is no doubt in either Hotze or Jackel’s mind that Kapaun meets the qualification for canonization.

“He gives us an inspiration to how we should live out our lives as priests,” Hotze said. “To everyone else, he gives us an example of Christ.”

“I believe he’s in heaven,” Jackels said of Kapaun. “It’s not going to affect him. The point is to affect us. You can imitate that type of sacrifice and devotion.”

Last modified Nov. 17, 2010

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