One of the compensations for the captivity of old folks’ lockdown for the Coronavirus pandemic is the opportunity it gives to read things you never should have missed. I was first drawn to the early 20th Century American novelist Willa Cather by her great novel of New Mexico in the mid-19th Century, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Local history, local color for me.
But Willa Cather grew up in Nebraska and her deepest sympathies are for the people of the Great Plains, many of them recent immigrants from Central Europe, many of them deeply religious, people for whom miracles – and the hope for them – were real and significant. Miracles were loved, Cather wrote in Shadows on the Rock, “not as proof or evidence, but because … in them, the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumed a form, a shapeless longing … becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated … and can be bequeathed to another.”
Miracles bring divine principles to life and the stories about miracles spread those spiritual values to those who missed the ‘live’ event. Miracles are an essential credential for almost all candidates for Sainthood in the Catholic Church for good reason. The lives of the Saints are meant to exemplify divine principles and to spread them to people who had not yet taken them to heart. Miracles help with that.
From boyhood in a mostly Czech-American parish in Pilsen, Kansas, to his death at age 35 in a Chinese prison camp in North Korea in 1951, observers saw a passion for holiness in Emil Kapaun. Men he had served with in the Burma Theater in World War II, and in Korea describe Chaplain Kapaun as both a saintly and a heroic figure. So do people who knew him as a parish priest in Kansas. He won a Bronze star on a battlefield and a posthumous Medal of Honor more than 60 years later, in 2013. And in 1993 Pope John Paul II declared him a Servant of God, the first step on a path that can lead to official Sainthood.
New York Times reporter Joe Drape tells the story of Father Emil Kapaun and the campaign for his canonization in his new book The Saint Makers. “A campaign for sainthood demands money and manpower,” Drape tell us, but at its heart it demands a saint with proven impact, who inspires prayer and devotion, summed up – brought from Heaven to life – by miracles.
Of course, from their foxholes under fire, or in their North Korean prison under starvation or torture, his fellow soldiers saw Fr Kapaun as a kind of miracle unto himself. He was, to the troops who shared his suffering in the most Hellish places on Earth, “proof that God existed.”
Joe Drape is an award-winning sportswriter for the New York Times. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestsellers Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen and American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise. His book Black Maestro was the inaugural winner of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. A native of Kansas City and graduate of Rockhurst High School, Drape earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Southern Methodist University. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.