In May 1951, the chaplain contracted pneumonia and the Chinese quarantined him in a sick house. That's where his journey ended, from illness, starvation, or freezing to death—no one knows which.
Fifty-eight years later, Father Kapaun is a man in search of a miracle, maybe even two. For his valor, he may soon receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. But officials in the Diocese of Wichita would like to see him honored as a saint. To qualify, a servant of God must usually be credited with a pair of miracles, one for beatification and one for canonization, but Kapaun could be beatified as a martyr, says the Reverend John Hotze, a judicial vicar for the diocese who's conducting the investigation into the priest's life. Even so, an authority outside the church must confirm that each act of divine intervention defies all scientific explanation.
Over the centuries, hundreds of Europeans have been credited with performing such works and thereby declared saints, but only two Americans have passed the test. The shortfall is a result, in part, of the nation's relatively brief history, but it also has something to do with the burden of proof. As medical science has advanced, so have the standards for confirming miracles.
On October 2, 2008, during track practice at a community college in Hutchinson, Kansas, a young pole-vaulter misjudged a jump. Instead of propelling himself over the bar, he launched himself outward beyond the crash mat. He fell face-first onto the pavement, splitting his skull from ear to ear. Chase Kear was airlifted 50 miles to Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, where he was given last rites and put into a medically induced coma to stop his brain from swelling. Twenty-four hours later, in a last-ditch effort to save his life, doctors removed the right side of his skull. They cut two quarter-size purple chunks of matter from his right frontal lobe, an area of the brain that helps control emotion and short-term memory. If he awoke at all, they said, Kear would likely be a vegetable.
Kear's mother, Paula, hung a laminated prayer card at the foot of her son's hospital bed and the Colwich community rallied around him, joining hands and invoking Father Kapaun's name. Kear's younger brothers, Cole and Clay, posted the prayer on a Facebook get-well page and more parishioners joined the chorus.
Ten days later, the young pole-vaulter woke up. He was partially paralyzed and unable to talk but soon commandeered the remote control. The following week in a rehab unit, he pulled the trachea tube from his neck. Before long he was asking for Mountain Dew. He was fitted with a protective helmet and spent 30 days learning how to walk again. On November 21, he stepped from his hospital bed for the last time and, with a police escort, returned home. Friends and neighbors lined the streets.