Let’s remember chaplains on Memorial Day Print E-mail
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Written by Fr. Donald Lange, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, May. 26, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May.

On Memorial Day, we honor military personnel who died in the service of our country, particularly those who died in battle or from wounds sustained in battle.

This includes military chaplains.

Fr. Emil Kapaun

Fr. Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain, is one of these. In 1953 he died as a prisoner of war during the Korean War. St. John Paul II honored him with the title of “Servant of God”, the first step on the path towards sainthood.

On April 11, 2013, President Barack Obama presented him with the (Congressional) Medal of Honor “for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.” He is the ninth military chaplain to receive this honor.

President Obama described him as a soldier who didn’t bear a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all -- a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live!

When his unit was attacked by Chinese Communist forces, Father Kapaun calmly walked through deadly enemy fire to provide medical aid and comforting words. He gave the last rites to wounded Catholics.

When Father Kapaun saw a Chinese soldier about to execute Father’s wounded comrade, Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away and saved his life. He carried him many miles to a prison camp.

Mr. Miller attended the White House ceremony when Father Kapaun was honored with the Medal of Honor.

Through the winter as prisoners froze to death, Father Kapaun offered them his clothes, sneaked out to bring them grain, and cleaned prisoner’s wounds.

Guards tortured him for his courageous faith, but on Easter they looked on as he offered Mass.

Examples of bravery

The four chaplains on the S.S. Dorchester are another example of heroic bravery.

They were Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; Rev. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; and Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed Church of America minister.

On February 3, 1943, a Nazi submarine torpedoed the S. S. Dorchester in the cold North Atlantic waters near Greenland. 902 Americans were aboard the ship.

Nearly 700 men died. The chaplains moved about the ship, handing out life jackets and helping injured soldiers towards lifeboats.

When the order came to abandon ship, the chaplains gave their life jackets to four soldiers. Then, they locked their arms, folded their hands in prayer, and went down together with their ship.

Their heroic actions were a sign of unity for which Jesus prayed.

Appreciating chaplains

During my four years of active duty in the U. S. Navy, I appreciated the chaplains who served where I was stationed.

At the San Diego Naval station, when I went to Confession, the zealous chaplain asked me if I ever considered priesthood.

Later at Sunday Masses in 1954, he introduced worshippers to the dialogue Mass which prepared Catholics for the full, conscious, and active participation which the Second Vatican Council encouraged.

When I was assigned to the USS Hamel, a flagship and Destroyer Tender, our chaplain was a minister who held Protestant services.

However when we were in port, boats were always available to take Catholics to Masses, which were offered within a reasonable distance.

I remember when I was the only Catholic who requested to go to Mass. I was informed that no boat was available.

Our first class petty officer was not a very religious person, but he raised the roof in protest. I suspect too that this was a rare chance to show his authority. Thanks to him, we both felt important as one boat came for me.

Eventually a Catholic priest was assigned to our ship as chaplain.

We now had the opportunity for daily and Sunday Mass. I began to serve Mass and asked if we might have a retreat. After the retreat, the chaplain asked me to consider priesthood. He influenced my journey to priesthood.

The responsibilities

Military chaplains are responsible for the religious and moral well-being of service members and their families.

The chaplain’s responsibilities include everything from performing religious rites and conducting worship services to providing counseling and advising commanders on religious, spiritual, and moral matters.

Military chaplains perform other duties, beyond the expertise of this poor writer that only a military chaplain can fully describe.

May we honor and pray for all military men and women who served our country, including military chaplains.


Fr. Donald Lange is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.