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Honoring “the Grunt Padre” 50 years after his death

Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno died administering the sacraments to men in combat. Fifty years later, the cause for his canonization is underway.

Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is pictured ministering in the field in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers)

“He certainly could be a patron for doing the right thing at the right time,” Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio told Catholic World Report, speaking of Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno’s willingness to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In honor of the 50th anniversary of the fallen military chaplain’s death in Vietnam, Archbishop Broglio—head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA—presided at a Mass in the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, on September 5, 2017.

More than 650 people attended the Mass. “It was standing-room only,” Mary Preece, vice postulator for the Father Capodanno’s cause, later told CWR. “We had a wonderful Mass, attended by many of the Capodanno family members, many of the Marines who served with him in Vietnam, and [a few] Maryknoll priests who knew him personally. We also had more than 50 priests concelebrate with [Archbishop Broglio], because they were here in Washington attending a chaplains’ convocation.”

Fifty years after his death, Father Capodanno is still remembered and well loved. Going well beyond the duties of a chaplain, he came to be known as the “grunt padre” because he willingly shared in all the ordeals of the Marine infantrymen (nicknamed “grunts”). He in turn called them “my Marines.” He kept his homilies down-to-earth and tried to console and guide those young men through harrowing and sometimes morally gray circumstances. But in a time of war, reminded them to pray for their enemies.

“And that’s why he was beloved,” Preece said. “He just embraced them where they were, in their fears and anxieties.” She also described his homilies as “very ecumenical” and spoke of how he appealed to men of all faiths.

Father Capodanno in life and death

Born in 1929, the youngest of 10 children in an Italian immigrant family, Capodanno embraced the faith he was taught. In 1949, he applied and was accepted into the Maryknoll Fathers. After serving as a missionary priest in China for six years, he petitioned his superiors for and eventually received permission to serve as a Navy chaplain. He arrived in Vietnam in 1966, and, before his year-long tour was over, he requested another.

On September 4, 1967, his company was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces, which outnumbered them five to one. Though ordered to stay behind the lines, Father Capodanno repeatedly went—unarmed—into the battlefield to help the wounded, when possible carrying them out of harm’s way. Even after being wounded himself—twice—and losing the use of his right arm, he continued to go out ministering to body and soul: medical aid to the wounded and Last Rites to the dying. Risking everything to reach a wounded corpsman, Father Capodanno crossed the line of fire of a North Vietnamese machine gunner and was shot 27 times.

Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, a Navy Bronze Star medal, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and a Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.

Cause for canonization

In addition to the military honors he received after his death, Father Capodanno has also been honored by the Church. In the days leading up to the 50th anniversary of his death, EWTN premiered a new film on Father Capodanno, written and directed by award-winning Catholic filmmaker James C. Kelty. And the Archdiocese for Military Services has been working for years to forward the cause for his canonization.

Father Capodanno was declared “Servant of God,” and his cause for canonization was opened by then-Archbishop Edwin O’Brien in 2006, after the “competency” (or jurisdiction) to do so was given the military archdiocese by the Diocese of Da Nang, Vietnam, where Capodanno had died. O’Brien’s successor, Archbishop Broglio, later set up a tribunal to investigate whether Father Capodanno’s life could be considered one of “heroic virtue.” In an inquiry process that lasted well over three years, the tribunal interviewed dozens of those who knew Father Capodanno: his surviving siblings, schoolmates and childhood friends, fellow seminarians, and Marines in his company. In late May 2017, the archdiocesan phase of the cause was formally concluded and more than 1,000 pages of documentation was sent to the Vatican.

“This documentation is evaluated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to determine if the virtues of the Servant of God are heroic,” said Archbishop Broglio, explaining the next stage in the canonization process. “Heroic doesn’t just refer to his steadfastness and valor, but that the way he lived his virtues are worthy of presentation as something to be imitated.” If such a determination is made, Father Capodanno will be declared “Venerable.”

When asked how long that stage might take, the archbishop replied, “I wish I knew the answer to that question. It varies; it can be several years, though. I hope it’s not in this case, but it can be.”

Not long after the archdiocese sent the Capodanno documentation, the Holy Father made an alteration to the canonization process that might possibly speed the chaplain’s cause. On July 11, 2017, Pope Francis opened up a new pathway to beatification, the “Offering of Life.” Previously, the two paths to sainthood were (a) living a life of heroic virtue or (b) martyrdom, that is, dying specifically for the Faith. Now there is a third way: freely and voluntarily dying prematurely as an act of charity for another. Archbishop Broglio called Father Capodanno “an amazing example of this”; whether or not that fact will expedite his cause remains to be seen.

The value of Father Capodanno’s example

The valiant example of Father Capodanno is especially meaningful for military chaplains and those in the armed forces. Not only is he “seen as an intercessor for those who are in difficulty or in combat,” Archbishop Broglio told CWR, he’s also “a model of total devotion to the men and women in uniform.”

In his September 4 homily at Father Capodanno’s Mass, Archbishop Broglio said, “Father Capodanno teaches us the value of commitment and belief.  He invites us to give our all in the pursuit of our vocation, which is the path the Lord has set for us to share in the joy of His Kingdom.”

But Father Capodanno’s devotion and valor also provide an inspiring example for anyone. Indeed, this is what motivates Mary Preece, who has been working for his cause—pro bono—since 2000. “I feel that in this crazy world of ours a real hero—a man’s man, if you will—offers some example to our young people, who I think are desperately looking for a genuine hero,” she said. “EWTN too, in making the film [Called and Chosen] also felt it’s important to share his virtuous life and heroic death with those young people—and anyone really—who might feel disillusioned with what life is offering right now. So if I can get the word out to as many people as possible—if I can use a little of my free time, now that I’m no longer working, and whatever God-given talents I have, to do it, I want to do it.”

Preece concluded with a reflection on Father Capodanno’s humility: “The irony of it all is—anybody who knew Father Capodanno says he would be shaking his head and saying [to all those working for his canonization], ‘Please don’t do this.’ He was a very humble, quiet man. But we could say to him, ‘Yes, but your role-modeling is going to help people become closer to God.’ And then he might tolerate it, I guess.”

More information

To learn more about Father Capodanno, visit the website of the Father Capodanno Guild. There you will also find the book The Grunt Padre, written by Capodanno’s first postulator, Father Daniel Mode, and the documentary The Grunt Padre in Vietnam. The Father Capdanno Guild is also offering a free DVD of the documentary Called and Chosen for every $20 donated.

One can also find prayers and prayer cards at the guild website. For instance, the “Prayer to Obtain a Favor through the Intercession of Servant of God Father Vincent R. Capodanno, MM,” by Archbishop Broglio, reads:

Almighty and merciful God, look with Love on those who plead for Your help. Through the intercession of your servant, Father Vincent Capodanno, missionary and Catholic Navy Chaplain, grant the favor I earnestly seek (mention the request). May Vincent, who died bringing consolation to the Marines he was privileged to serve on the field of battle, intercede in my need as I pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About Jeanette Flood 3 Articles

Jeanette Flood has an M.A. in literature from Catholic University and a B.A. in English and History from Franciscan University. She has written for Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, St. Austin Review, Franciscan Way, Voices, Faith and Family, and New Covenant, as well as on her blog, Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Living in the Kingdom.

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