Saints Who Served in the Military

Gillian Weyant

Saints Who Served in the Military

As Memorial Day approaches, we begin to think about those who have served in the military, sacrificing in some instances their very lives for the safety and prosperity of the United States.  We primarily think of saints as those who have dedicated their lives in service to God, and ultimately that is true.  However, there are a number of great saints who devoted parts of their lives to military service.  Here are a few. 

St. Ignatius of Loyola  

One well-known saint who served in the military is St. Ignatius of Loyola, a co-founder of the Jesuit Order.  Born Íñigo López de Loyola in Spain in the year 1491, Ignatius began his military career as a boy by serving as a page.  These early years shaped a devotion to the military that Ignatius would carry with him for quite some time.  He cherished the stories of the knights of Camelot and of El Cid, and dedicated himself to all aspects of the army that he joined at the age of seventeen.  He served in many battles without injury for over a decade, and his readily apparent leadership and diplomatic skills made him quite valuable to his superiors.  His legs were badly wounded in 1521, and several ultimately unsuccessful operations left him with a limp that would be the end of his military career. 

Ignatius had not been a Catholic while in the military, and it was ultimately his departure from it that would lead to the conversion and visions he experienced while recovering from surgery.  However, the hard work, perseverance, and leadership that he had learned while in the military would prove exceptionally useful in his life as a Catholic theologian who eventually went on to co-found the Jesuit Order. 

Servant of God Emil Kapaun  

 A more modern story is that of Servant of God Emil Kapaun, designated as such by St. John Paul II in 1993.  Emil was a priest and a United States Army captain who served as a chaplain during World War II and the Korean War.  Born in 1916 in Kansas, Emil was ordained a priest in 1940.  Several years later, he entered the U.S. Army Chaplain School and graduated in 1944.  He did serve at the end of World War II, but was most active in the Korean War.  During this time, Emil escaped death a number of times: he would often say Mass, hear confessions and minister to the dying and the dead with enemy fire close by.   

Emil was taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers in North Korea in 1950.  While a prisoner, he remained devoted to the task of helping and ministering to others, even sacrificing his own meals and giving them to those who seemed to need them more.  Weakened by a blood clot as well as dysentery and pneumonia, Emil was left to die alone in the Pyoktong camp in May 1951.  He posthumously received a number of military awards, including the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart.  Emil’s selfless actions, culminating in his own death, truly mirror Christ’s sacrifice of Himself. 

St. Sebastian 

An early Christian martyr who served in the military was St. Sebastian, who died in 288.  Since he died so early on in Church history, not much is known about his life prior to his martyrdom.  He was educated in Milan, and joined the army in Rome under Emperor Carinus in 283.  Sebastian’s courage in the army was noted, and he became one of the captains of the Praetorian Guards under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware of Sebastian’s Christian faith.  His faith was discovered in 286, and Diocletian commanded that he be shot with arrows and left for dead.  Sebastian did not die at the time, but was brought back to health by St. Irene of Rome, a widow whose husband was martyred himself.   

After regaining his health, Sebastian became much more vocal about the injustices and cruelties towards Christians, even berating Diocletian directly as he passed by one day.  Shocked to find someone he thought he had killed not only alive but also vehemently against him and standing so proudly for the Christian faith, Diocletian ordered him to be beaten to death.  Sebastian’s courage, which he had exemplified earlier in his military career, became so much more apparent with his willingness to speak for Christ and give his life for his faith. 

St. Maurice 

A contemporary of St. Sebastian was St. Maurice, another soldier in the Roman army, who died in the year 287.  Maurice was an accomplished soldier who rose in the ranks until he reached the position of commander of the Theban legion, leading approximately one thousand men.  Maurice was a devout Christian at this time, and spoke openly about his faith and his dedication to God above all else.  His legion was Christian as well, and their faith proved highly influential in their military decisions.  If they considered a battle to be unfair or seemingly unjust, they would refuse to fight as they considered this kind of slaughter immoral. 

It was ultimately Maurice’s strong Christian morals that led to his death.  Emperor Maximian at one time ordered Maurice and his legion to harass Christians, and they refused.  Maximian punished Maurice and his legion multiple times for their disobedience, and when they continued to remain steadfast in their choice not to attack fellow Christians, Maximian ordered Maurice and his men to be executed.  St. Maurice and his men give us an amazing example of holding tightly to our faith and our principles when confronted with difficulty. 

St. Joan of Arc 

One military saint who is arguably one of the most famous in history is St. Joan of Arc.  Born in France in about 1412, Joan reported visions in her late teenage years from St. Michael the Archangel, St. Margaret and St. Catherine of Alexandria.  These visions instructed her to support Charles VII to reclaim France from English dominion.  Under Charles’ instruction, Joan fought with his army in the siege of Orléans.  This siege greatly contributed to final French victory. 

In 1430, Joan was captured by a group of French nobles who sympathized with the English.  Her several attempts to escape were unsuccessful, and she was repeatedly harassed by her captors, who ultimately placed her on trial for several unfair and ridiculous reasons.  Joan answered the questions set to her at the trial with wisdom and grace, and remained peaceful even when unjustly sentenced to death by burning at the stake.  From St. Joan, we can learn that God’s grace remains with us at all times, and when situations arise in our lives that are unfair, we can approach them with tranquility and trust in God and His will. 

Blessed Rupert Mayer 

One who has not yet reached the ranks of sainthood is Blessed Rupert Mayer, beatified by St. John Paul II in 1987.  Born in Germany in 1876, Rupert became a Jesuit priest as an adult and ultimately became one of the leading figures in the German Catholic resistance to Nazism.   

Rupert volunteered as a chaplain in World War I, but most of his story began in earnest after Hitler rose to power.  Hitler began to close parish schools in the early 1930s and sought to discredit and minimize religious orders.  Rupert preached from the pulpit against the evils of Nazism, and emphasized that man must belong to God first above all else.  This led to numerous encounters with the Gestapo wherein he was ordered to halt this type of preaching, but Rupert persisted, convinced that he could only preach according to his conscience.  He was sent to a concentration camp for his disobedience to Hitler’s laws, and stayed there until he was set free by United States forces in 1945.  Rupert died shortly thereafter. 

Rupert’s story, which takes place so close to our own times, is an excellent reminder that we must listen to God and to our conscience before all else even though it may condemn us in whatever time we live in.  May we take after his example and never let our political climate or leaders silence our beliefs. 

The Strength to Persevere 

These various stories exemplify a number of things, but what is common to all of them is earnest dedication to God above man.  May we learn from all of these examples and remember that although it is important that we live in this world, our eyes must always be fixed on God and on the truths of Catholicism, and we must at all costs hold steadfastly to our faith.