We all have times when we get into something that is much larger and more complex than we ever dreamed.
Such was the case Sunday when I embedded with the pilgrimage for Father Emil Kapaun for the final leg of the three-day trek, a seemingly doable walk from Aulne to Pilsen.
I was taken aback by the enthusiasm people expressed when they learned a local newspaper guy was walking with them. We’ve written about the pilgrimage before but never from interviews conducted while tripping over the new boulder-sized gravel on Marion County roads. (Yes, it was a frequently mentioned challenge).
The folks I talked to were as genuine as could be, openly sharing their faith (and Gatorade) along the trail. As the list of stories grew, so too did my humility in receiving them.
But the outpouring of acceptance and information led headlong into a conundrum: How could I possibly leave anything out of this deep and multifaceted story of Father Kapaun and those who are influenced by him?
The afternoon Mass after we arrived in Pilsen would’ve made a good story. It marked the beginning of the Year of Father Kapaun in the Diocese of Wichita, a year in which the chaplain’s story will be presented in Rome, a significant milestone in the beatification process.
A prisoner of war with Father Kapaun, Mike Dowe, was in attendance. So, too, was Kapaun’s sister-in-law Helen.
Greg Davidson of Pilsen, whom I talked to during the walk Sunday, put together a wonderful diary of his three-day, 60-mile pilgrimage experience.
And there were all those stories from the hours and steps and aches and pains I put in walking from Aulne to Pilsen.
A book could do justice to all those stories; an article could not.
I set out Sunday in search of a story about the pilgrimage. That’s where my feet went, and seated at the keyboard, my fingers followed those sore, blistered feet. I reluctantly, but comfortably, set the rest aside.
Along the way, I discovered that I didn’t know a familiar section of Marion County as well as I thought I did. You notice different things when you’re walking — particularly how a road once perceived as flat has a slope to it.
We’re a local paper, and we focus on local angles, so to this Marion non-Catholic who’s lived most of his life away from here, the story of Father Kapaun has been a Pilsen story, a Catholic story, a story easily brushed aside in favor of fond Pilsen memories involving Catholic weddings and Starlight Ballroom dances.
That changed for me Sunday on the road to Pilsen — call it my personal Father Kapaun epiphany. This is much larger and more complex than I ever imagined. I saw it in the faces of the pilgrims. I heard it in their words. I felt their conviction in my heart.
I was surprised at first by those who didn’t seem concerned that Father Kapaun might not ever be named a saint — after all, isn’t that what this is all about?
Evidently not. It’s important, but the response from almost everyone I talked to was the same: Father Kapaun is already a saint to them. His example instructs them in how to live a life of Christian service. He already intercedes, they say, on their behalf, as evidenced by miracles they’ve witnessed or heard about.
The benefit of sainthood, they told me, is that more people would learn of his story and example, so that their faith and service would be strengthened, too.
And if someone told them walking from Pilsen to Rome would seal the deal, I dare say a goodly number of them would respond, “When do we leave?” I guarantee I’d once again walk at least part of the way with them.
— david colburn