On April 11 2013, a Catholic priest was honored at the White House. It may be the first time that the United States has bestowed an award on someone who was at the same time being considered for sainthood. His name is Fr. Emil Joseph Kapaun.
He was born on April 20, 1916 to immigrants from the Czech republic. After he was ordained a priest in 1940, he decided to serve as an army chaplain at the end of World War II and was eventually sent to Korea in July of 1950.
During one especially fierce battle, he was given the opportunity to fall back to a safer location in the field. However, he refused, preferring to stay by the side of the wounded and dying. He was finally captured by the Chinese forces and was marched 87 miles to a prisoner of war camp in North Korea.
Though he was often threatened by the guards, he defied their orders, visiting the other prisoners to offer them comfort, hear their confessions, offer Mass and encourage them. Often he would go without food to share it with the sick.
He died in the prisoner of war camp of starvation and pneumonia on May 23, 1951.
Those soldiers who knew Fr. Kapaun called him their hero. His humility and love helped them endure imprisonment, torture and hours of interrogation. He was also remembered for the holiness of his life which radiated through all he did.
In today’s gospel, Jesus encourages us to love one another as He has loved us. He tells us in another place in Saint John’s gospel that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. Jesus showed this love by His willingness to be humiliated, scourged and crucified for our sins. Fr Emil Kapaun also gives us an example of such love in everything he did, especially in his willingness to sacrifice his comfort, his health and eventually his life for his brother soldiers.
It is precisely this type of love that Christ is calling us to express in our everyday lives. We often think of love merely as a feeling of affection between spouses, family members or friends. It is an emotion or an attachment that is shared and reciprocated. If I love you, I expect you to love me back. We know also that this type of love does not always last. We lose touch with friends or we get into conflicts with them that cause resentment. The minute one person stops loving the other, the relationship comes to an end.
However, this is not the type of love which Jesus is calling us to have. This is not the type of love that sets His disciples apart from other groups. Rather, the love of Jesus is totalling different than the type we sing about in our popular songs or see portrayed in movies. It is not based on feelings, on whether the other person loves us back or on how convenient the relationship is. Instead, Jesus’ love is unconditional, sacrificial and permanent.
First of all, the love of Jesus is unconditional. Our God loves each and every person without distinction. He loves sinners and saints. He loves us when we are far from Him and when we are close to Him. There is no limit to our Heavenly Father’s love. Therefore we, as His children, are called to do the same. We must love those who love us and those who hate us. We must love those whom it is easy to love and those whom it is difficult to love. There is no one who is unlovable for a Christian. Jesus makes it clear to us that we will be judged by how we have loved. That love will be measured not by the person we love the most but by the person we love the least.
Secondly, Jesus’ love is sacrificial. The greatest act of love the world has ever known is Jesus’ death on the cross. He embraced death to save us. He was willing to take on our human weakness so that we could have a new friendship with our Heavenly Father. As followers of Christ, we must sacrifice for others. We must continually put the interests of others before our own. We must go without so that others may have what they need. As Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton put it, “We must live simply so that others may simply live.” It is that type of love, a love that is willing to sacrifice, that is a true reflection of the love of Jesus.
Finally, the love of Jesus is permanent. God never stops loving us. He never grows tired of providing us with what we need. Just so, our love must be permanent and faithful. Love is not based on feelings which change over time. Rather, real love is a decision to give of ourselves to others. It is a commitment to actualize the good of our neighbor and even our enemy no matter what the cost to us personally. Such love does not waver amid hardship, does not wither in the face of criticism and does not get discouraged because of failure. It is like the love of God who holds us in being from the moment of our conception to eternity.
The love of God is demanding. It requires much of us. The only way it is possible to live such a love is to realize that God has loved us first. When we experience the unconditional, sacrificial and permanent love of our Heavenly Father, we will find the strength and inspiration to love in just the same way. It is the love that Jesus showed on the cross. It is the love that Fr Emil Kapaun and countless other saints have shown in their ministries. And it is that love that we are called to show in everything we do.