Lessons from ‘the greatest generation’

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The maternal grandfather of Catholic Digest’s Paul McKibben served in the Navy during World War II. Photo: Paul McKibben family

Near the end of May, many of our communities will host Memorial Day parades and solemn ceremonies honoring those who died while serving in our nation’s armed forces. Veterans — young and old — will be visible to all of us as they pay tribute to their fallen comrades. 

Both of my late grandfathers served in the military. They were members of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” those who sacrificed so much defending our freedom. My maternal grandfather served in the Navy during World War II; my paternal grandfather was in the Air Force during the Korean War. (Both were truly fortunate to return home from their service, and both lived long enough to see grandchildren.)

In our May 2019 print issue, Deacon Ralph Allen Cicora remembers a time when he and his wife met two former German soldiers who spent time as POWs in the United States during World War II. Deacon Ralph’s reflection on that visit is a real-life example of practicing one of the most difficult teachings of Christ — loving your enemy (see Matthew 5; Luke 6). As Deacon Ralph writes, hatred “impairs one’s perception and clouds one’s vision.” 

My maternal grandfather was probably a lot like the German soldiers and their American captors you’ll meet in Deacon Ralph’s story. I can’t recall Grandpa ever saying a curse word about a person; he could make friends with anyone, anywhere. He didn’t have any enemies to hate or love; he just loved people. 

Fr. Emil Kapaun, whom the Church is considering for canonization, certainly embodied that as well. Fr. Kapaun was an Army chaplain from Kansas who died after being captured by communist forces during the Korean War. The story of Fr. Kapaun’s remarkable life is chronicled by Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying in their book The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Solider, and Korean War Hero (Ignatius Press, 2013). 

Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass. Photo: Public Domain

The book contains a poignant lesson from Fr. Kapaun as he talked with fellow American POW Lt. William Funchess: 

Funchess asked about forgiveness. 

“Of course we should forgive them,” Kapaun said of their captors. “We should not only forgive our enemies but love them, too.” 

But they shot wounded soldiers, Funchess said. They abused prisoners. 

It doesn’t matter, Kapaun said. “If we fail to forgive, we’re rejecting our own faith.” 

This Memorial Day, let’s ask for the intercession of Fr. Kapaun for all of our beloved dead, especially those who, like him, died while protecting us. (You can find a prayer for intercession on this page linked from the Diocese of Wichita’s website for his canonization cause.)

You are in my prayers, 


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