What Does It Take to Be Granted Sainthood?
Following Emil Kapaun's Journey from Kansas to the Vatican
It took a three-by-three-by-three-foot wooden crate crammed with 8,268 pages of documents to launch this pilgrimage from Wichita, Kansas, to Rome, Italy, and—with patience—hopefully, the Gates of Heaven. Inside was the life’s work of two priests separated by 57 years. Father John Hotze signed the FedEx bill, then watched as the 300-pound crate was scooted onto a dolly.
He then watched his scholarship roll out the door.
It was July 2, 2011, and inside that crate was the remarkable life of Father Emil Kapaun. In the previous dozen years, Father Hotze had unearthed every letter the military chaplain and war hero had written to his family and friends back in Kansas. He had unearthed copies of the sermons Father Kapaun had given from pulpits in farm parishes as well as theaters of war. Father Hotze had the notebooks Kapaun had filled while studying to become a Catholic priest in the 1930s. Then there was the testimony of more than a hundred witnesses, from Korea to Kansas, recounting the heroics Father Kapaun had performed on the battlefield and in a prisoner-of-war camp.
But Father Hotze asked himself for the gazillionth time, Was it enough?
Father Hotze, 51, was a homegrown and beefy Kansan who was more comfortable in dungarees and a work shirt than the priestly uniform of black that he was sweating through on this June morning, a day that had transformed south central Kansas into a broiler. On his drive in to the office of the Diocese of Wichita that morning, he had seen the combines vibrating in the heat as the farmers hustled to bring the wheat in before a sudden thunderstorm that could render a year’s work, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, into drowned stalks barely worth the pennies on the insurance claim they would have to file.
Like the farmers, Father Hotze was worried about the fruits of his own harvest—the materials sown and reaped into those boxes were off to the Vatican where the contents would be measured by the most divine of standards. The life and times of Father Emil Kapaun were about to be reviewed and challenged, picked apart, and prayed over by layers of canon lawyers, Catholic cardinals, and, ultimately, the pope himself.
Father Kapaun’s arc from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse during the Depression to the most decorated chaplain in military history was compelling. His battlefield exploits were the stuff of adventure novels: He dodged the bullets of Chinese soldiers to rescue wounded Americans. He put them on his shoulders and carried them for days over frozen snow in subzero temperatures. In a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp, Father Kapaun kept hundreds of his fellow soldiers alive, and instilled the will to live in thousands more, by stealing food for their shriveled bodies and saying Mass and ministering to their crushed souls. When his captors decided they had had enough of the defiant priest, they removed him from the group. As he was carried away by stretcher—starved, sick, and unable to stand—to die alone in a fetid Death House, his fellow prisoners wept. They were Catholics and Christians, Jews and Muslims all touched deeply by this remarkable priest. Father Kapaun astonished them once more when he forgave his tormentors before them and asked them to forgive him.
What hung in the balance was a question far beyond this earth: Did this simple Kansas priest who died a horrible death in a North Korean prison camp at the age of thirty-five really belong in the Congregation of Saints? Father Hotze understood this was a pass-or-fail test. He may have looked like he should be baling hay, but Father Hotze possessed a disciplined mind that rivaled his unshakable faith.
Both priests had been forged by indecision and doubt.
Growing up in Kansas, John Hotze was a fine student and decent athlete but one who was forever adrift. He earned a business degree from Wichita State, and had done well enough to be accepted into the university’s business school to pursue a master’s. He cruised through his first year of studies but struggled in his second year to find motivation. Hotze detested sitting in a classroom and, after three straight semesters of enrolling in classes that he subsequently dropped after a few weeks, set out to find himself. Where? At first it didn’t matter. His brother Bill was an army sergeant stationed in Germany, which was reason enough for Hotze to spend some time there and traveling through Europe.
There were more weeks spent crossing Canada by train—camping and couch surfing. When his money ran out and his curiosity needed recharging, Hotze returned to Wichita to work for his sister Mary, who had a successful business creating retail and holiday displays. They called themselves high-tack engineers and spent their days outfitting mannequins in air-conditioned malls. It earned him plenty of walking-around money, but Hotze had this nagging feeling that God had something more planned for him.
The Hotzes had faith and were practicing Catholics, but were by no means fanatics. They went to Mass as a family on Sundays and abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during the Lenten season, but otherwise offered no display of public devoutness.
In their community south of Wichita, humility and discretion were the fabric that bound neighbors together. All John Hotze knew about religious vocations was what he had heard one Sunday each year when a diocesan priest took the pulpit at his parish to recruit more clergy.
Did Hotze feel a calling from God? Did he possess a vocation? He had no idea.
The Lord hadn’t dumped him off a tractor and told him to change his ways as he had knocked Saul off his horse on his way to Damascus and told him to become Saint Paul. Hotze also did not know if poverty, obedience, and celibacy were the right paths to finding his true self. There wasn’t anything attractive about it.
But he was twenty-eight and lost. Entering Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, did not seem like the dumbest idea in the world. He figured either it would last only a few weeks before he tired of yet another school or God would tell him what do.
Five years later, in 1993, John Hotze was ordained. His first assignment was at All Saints Parish in Wichita, the same church he grew up in and where the Hotze family spent their Sundays. He was at home for two years before being reassigned to St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen, Kansas, where Father Kapaun had not only grown up but had also once been the pastor. Father Hotze had heard the stories of Father Kapaun’s virtue and valor—most people in these parts of Kansas had. Hotze’s mother had kept a prayer card tucked in a corner of the bathroom mirror depicting Father Kapaun, and the family asked often for his help when a crisis was upon them.What hung in the balance was a question far beyond this earth: Did this simple Kansas priest who died a horrible death in a North Korean prison camp at the age of thirty-five really belong in the Congregation of Saints?
Father Hotze had prayed to Father Kapaun often while in university and seminary, asking him to intercede when he grew bored and restless and wanted to drop out. Father Hotze had not only finally finished what he started, but now he also had a flock who looked to him for guidance. His superiors in the chancery—the home office—soon recognized that Father Hotze might have more to offer the diocese. He was a bright guy with a burning curiosity as well as a nice touch with ordinary people. Father Hotze, then 35, also had maturity and worldliness by virtue of being a seeker who was late to his calling. Bishop Eugene Gerber, the man in charge, advised Father Hotze to go to The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, where he could pursue a JCL (Juris Canonici Licentiatus) in canon law, which is the highly specialized, some say Byzantine, legal system that creates and enforces the laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Byzantine or not, canon law is part of the business of diocesan and parish affairs: someone in the Wichita area needed to know how to interpret and apply its rules.
Father Hotze wasn’t sure why a priest perfectly happy serving farm communities needed an advanced degree to administer what Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest thinker and philosopher, had foreseen as “an ordinance of reason for the common good” enacted by “competent authority.” He decided the most prudent course, however, was to do as he was told—so he tucked the frayed Father Kapaun prayer card of his mother’s into his black suit coat and headed to Washington, DC.
Over the next two years, both Father Kapaun and that prayer card got a workout, never more so than on the days leading to his final test. Father Hotze needed to pass a Spanish exam. Easy, huh? Not for him. Foreign languages were his most glaring weaknesses. He had already taken the translation test twice before; he had flamed out. So Father Hotze prayed hard to Father Kapaun, as did his classmates who knew of his devotion to the Kansas chaplain. They stood outside the classroom where he was taking the test with bowed heads and closed eyes and asked that Father Kapaun intercede on their friend’s behalf.
Father Hotze did his best and turned in his test to the instructor. What was done was done. His academic fate was now in God’s hands. He headed out to join his classmates for a beer at happy hour in their favorite saloon to celebrate their shared academic achievement. Father Hotze did not get far. Monsignor Green, the head of the language department, caught him on the steps of the building and asked for a word.
“Are you going on for a PhD?” the professor asked.
“No,” said Father Hotze, “this is it for me.”
The professor narrowed his eyes.
“Good,” the monsignor said. “You got maybe two translations right, but I’m going to pass you. Don’t ever let me see you back here again.”
Father Hotze was awarded his JCL, a degree that he still believed he had no use for (and nearly didn’t acquire), and returned to Kansas. He was sent to Newton, a town of no more than nineteen thousand, north of Wichita, to become the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. For four years, no one ever asked him a single question about canon law.
In the fall of 2001, however, Father Hotze was summoned to the chancery by Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who had just been elevated to the rank of bishop and was overseeing a diocese for the first time. He was a fellow Kansan, and he held a doctorate in canon law from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy, which was created in the sixteenth century by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. Bishop Olmsted’s intellect was matched by his ambition: he had been an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State for more than a decade in Rome. Bishop Olmsted asked Father Hotze what he knew about Father Kapaun.
Father Hotze told him about his deep devotion to the priest, and they shared a laugh at how Father Kapaun had interceded in his Spanish test. Bishop Olmsted was contemplating a campaign to have the hero of the Kansas plains presented to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to be considered for sainthood. He had a job for Father Hotze for the cause of Father Kapaun, one with a fancy title: Episcopal Delegate. Bishop Olmsted was not the first Catholic clergyman to champion Father Kapaun. It was not a new thought—the Archdiocese for the Military Services had first taken up his cause, and, in 1993, Father Kapaun cleared the first step on the road to sainthood when Pope John Paul II declared him a Servant of God. But a campaign for sainthood demands money and manpower. Both had been in short supply, so the cause of Father Kapaun had stalled.
Excerpted from The Saint Makers copyright © 2020 by Joe Drape, reprinted with permission of Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.