The Vatican investigator analyzing Father Emil Kapaun's case for sainthood says the U.S. Army chaplain's Korean War heroism and religious devotion make for a great, inspiring story.
But on Sunday, Andrea Ambrosi -- who has conducted 500 sainthood investigations for the Vatican -- injected a note of caution into what on the surface might seem a slam-dunk story about a soon-to-be-announced sainthood.
Ambrosi, an Italian lawyer, gave an interview at the Wichita Diocese Chancery. He spent the weekend in Wichita examining more evidence the church says could solidify Kapaun's candidacy for sainthood.
Speaking with translation by Ohio-born aide Madeleine Kuns, he said a key decision the Vatican must make is whether Kapaun was martyred for standing up for his faith.
There is no doubt Kapaun was a hero, he said. But was he a martyr?
Ambrosi said he has analyzed more than 8,000 documents and testimonies, including from Korean War combat soldiers who saw Kapaun's heroism. Ambrosi said that for the first time after years of study of Kapaun's life, he now plans to propose Kapaun as a martyr in his report to the Vatican, a report he thinks will be completed in the next six months.
And that bit about martyrdom is important to the Vatican's decision. But because the Vatican's bar for martyrdom is so high, even his recommendation may not be enough to persuade church officials, Ambrosi said.
If the church decides Kapaun was martyred -- killed because he was a religious person defending his faith -- it could significantly speed up the process to canonize Kapaun to full sainthood. But if the cardinals in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decide Kapaun wasn't a martyr, it could mean many years before Kapaun's sainthood cause would advance.
And though he would still have a chance at full sainthood then, it is also possible that Kapaun's cause might reach only the respected but intermediate step of beatification, not full canonization.
In his 40-year career as a Vatican investigator, an outcome like that isn't unusual, Ambrosi said. Of his 500 investigations, 100 resulted in beatification, and of those, only 15 were canonized.
"The bar is high," he said.
This takes nothing away from the story of Kapaun's heroics, Ambrosi said. The heroism in this case makes many of those hundreds of other investigations pale in comparison, he said.
Kapaun's heroism was "extremely unique," inspiring and amazing, he said. President Obama's decision to give Kapaun's family the Medal of Honor in April will carry "great weight" with the Vatican, he said.
Ambrosi said he has done more than just analyze Kapaun's story. He also has done research to show the Vatican that the atheist Communist Chinese Army guards at the time really did hate the Christian faith and really did persecute and kill people for practicing it.
To Kapaun's prison camp friends, both Protestant and Catholic, the question of Kapaun's martyrdom has never been in doubt.
Kapaun, a farmer's son from Pilsen in Marion County, performed hundreds of acts of heroism in battle and in prison during the Korean War.
Fellow prisoners of war said Chinese guards, fed up with how Kapaun rallied starving prisoners to resist Communist brainwashing and to defy rules banning religious practices, arranged his death in a North Korean prison camp in 1951.
They isolated Kapaun from food and water after he had spent several months starving and suffering from pneumonia and a blood clot.
Before he died, Kapaun often gave away his own meager camp meals and repeatedly defied his Communist prison guards by praying with fellow soldiers.
Kapaun's fellow POWs who saw him persecuted all have said he was slain both for being a zealous priest and for being a courageous soldier. But they all have said he was a priest first.
"Before I met Father Kapaun in the prison camp, I believed in God but felt that God was far away," William Funchess said last week. Funchess was an Army lieutenant from South Carolina -- and a lifelong Methodist -- who risked his own life to save Kapaun from the Chinese camp guards in 1951.
"After I met Father, I realized God was very near, was all around us," Funchess said. "Father Kapaun talked to us about God nearly every day, prayed with us nearly every day, and he persuaded me that God was very close to us.
"He told us all we had to do was reach out to him."