The only experience I had as a child with military chaplains was watching Fr. Mulcahy on the television show M*A*S*H. As a teenager, I learned that my own pastor, Msgr. George Wierzalis, had been a chaplain in the Pacific theater during World War II. Although I knew “Father George” well during my teen years working at the rectory, he never talked about his experience as a chaplain. According to his assistant pastor, he had ministered to so many young, dying men that he didn’t want to discuss it. Fr. George died while I was in college, so I was never able to ask him more about his military service.
In my late 20’s, I came to know military chaplains in an entirely different way while working as a contract specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency. My area procured the uniforms and equipment needed by the military. Although our sole focus was clothing and textile items, we became responsible for a new class of items – ecclesiastical supplies. Fortunately for my office, I knew a good deal about these supplies from the years spent assisting at my parish as well as from having a couple of good friends who were priests. Fortunately for me, the program became my responsibility, and through my new duties I had the honor of getting to know a very special category of military servicemen – our chaplains.
The Ecclesiastical Supplies Program provided Catholic/Christian, Jewish, and Muslim supplies to military chaplains. Some of the items, such as bibles, rosaries, or prayer books, were intended for the troops. Other items, like vestments, were for the chaplains’ use. The most significant items in our catalog were the “Chaplain’s Kits” which allowed the Chaplain to conduct religious services in the field – which literally could mean in the field, or in the desert, or wherever the troops and their chaplains found themselves without a chapel or any building for services. The kits were small but contained all of the necessary items for a priest to say Mass, and the altar linens were in a camouflage green color instead of white in case the service was being held under fire.
I met many chaplains of all faiths during my time as manager of this program, and I was continually impressed by their ability to offer comfort even if the person in need did not share the chaplain’s own faith. I met a rabbi and a priest or two, but the majority of the chaplains I met were Protestant ministers – the military has an even bigger priest shortage than some other dioceses of the country. Because there were so few Catholic chaplains, they were in great demand and usually were responsible for ministering to thousands of soldiers even if they had to travel great distances to reach them all.
Some may be surprised to hear that the military goes to great lengths to ensure that their servicemen and women are free to practice the religion of their choice and have ministers available for their religious needs. But chaplains have always been a part of the U.S. military – chaplains were present when General George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army as well as in every conflict since.
In every war our country has fought there have been Catholic (and non-Catholic) chaplains serving alongside the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Chaplains are unarmed non-combatants whose mission is to provide for the religious needs of the unit whether that may be worship services or counseling sessions or rites such as marriages, baptisms, and funerals. Each war or conflict has examples of chaplains who have lost their lives while assisting other servicemen and many chaplains are recipients of the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
One blog post is not long enough to give due credit to every chaplain in every conflict. But I’d like to name two of the Catholic priests who served so that more people can become familiar with their courageous stories. These two men in particular have received the title “Servant of God” which is the first step in the canonization process to sainthood.
Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Emil Kapaun was born in 1916 in Kansas to Czech immigrants. He became a priest in 1940 and entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944. He served for two years, including in the Burma Theater. In 1948, he re-enlisted in the Army. In July, 1950, Fr. Kapaun was sent to Korea – one month before North Korea invaded South Korea. The unit he was with, the 35th Brigade from Ft. Bliss, engaged in combat as they moved north. During these battles, Fr. Kapaun would often run into mortar fire and risk his own life to rescue wounded soldiers and bring them to safety.
In November, 1950, Fr. Kapaun was with the 8th Cavalry Regiment when they were overrun by the Chinese Army. The Army retreated, but he stayed behind with the wounded soldiers and they were captured. Fr. Kapaun remained in a prisoner-of-war camp until his death on May 23, 1951. Survivors of that POW camp have testified that Fr. Kapaun ministered to fellow prisoners in both spiritual and physical ways. He would offer up his own portion of what little nourishment they received to others who were sick and challenged the prison guards when they mistreated the prisoners. Father also spent hours in prayer and helped many fellow prisoners with the Sacraments. Because of his heroic actions and devout life, the cause for his canonization to sainthood was opened in 1993. Several miracles have been attributed to Fr. Kapaun’s intercession and are under investigation by the Vatican.
Fr. Vincent Capodanno
Fr. Vincent Capodanno, also known as “the Grunt Padre”, was born in 1929 in New York. He was ordained a priest in 1957 and became a missionary to Taiwan for seven years. In December, 1965, Fr. Capodanno became a chaplain with the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the First Marine Division in April, 1966. He was with the Marines on September 4, 1967 during Operation Swift when they engaged in battle with the North Vietnamese. Vastly outnumbered, the Marines took heavy casualties as they awaited reinforcements. Fr. Capodanno ministered to the wounded and offered last rites to the dying. Fr. Capodanno came under fire himself and was wounded in the face as well as his hand, which was nearly severed. Despite his injuries, he ran into fire to help a wounded Marine and was killed. For his heroic actions, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. He was declared a “Servant of God” in 2006 as the first step in the canonization process. Many veterans testify to the good works of Fr. Capodanno and the difference he made in their lives.
Pray for Our Chaplains!
These are only two stories of Catholic priests who served as military chaplains serving those who serve by fighting for our country. There are many other stories of brave and heroic deeds of chaplains, and this very day there are Catholic priests in Iraq and Afghanistan with our soldiers and Marines to provide for their spiritual needs.
My work with the military chaplaincy became a career stepping stone for me, but I miss my chaplain friends to this day. Even though I am no longer responsible for the program, the chaplains still hold a special place in my heart. Today, on Veterans Day, we honor and salute all men and women who have served our country. But in a special way let’s also remember our chaplain veterans – the occasionally forgotten heroes of our country. Please offer a pray for all of those serving today, and may God strengthen our chaplains so that they can continue to offer support to our troops.
For further reading:
- Catholic Military Chaplains: America’s Forgotten Heroes – This article highlights several chaplains throughout history and lists several biographies so you can read about their inspiring lives.
- Fr. Emil Kapaun – More about his life and the cause for sainthood
- Fr. Vincent Capodanno – More about his life and the cause for sainthood as well as “Mission Capodanno” which supports Catholics serving in the military
- No Greater Sacrifice: Dorchester’s Four Chaplains – the story of the “Four Chaplains” (a priest, a rabbi, and two ministers) who offered their life vests to sailors as the USAT Dorchester sunk during World War II.
- Profiles in Courage – A National Catholic Register article about chaplains
- Catholic Chaplains – A series of profiles of Catholic chaplains at The American Catholic blog
- Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA – Military members belong to this Archdiocese. Their publication, Salute, has some great stories about military members and their Catholic faith as well as the chaplains who minister to them.