By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 5/27/2012
On Sept. 3, 1967, in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, U.S. Marine Col. Francis L. Loving (Ret.) served at the last Mass celebrated by Maryknoll Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps assigned to the First Marine Division.
The next day, Company D of the 1st Battalion 5th Marines was badly outnumbered by more than 2,500 North Vietnamese. When reinforcements were requested, Father Capodanno left the safety of the command post to minister to the dying on the battlefield.
An exploding mortar round hit his face, arms and legs and severed a portion of his right hand. Yet he stayed to give last rites to fallen marines. When Corpsman Armando Leal was shot 15 yards from enemy machine guns, Father Capodanno jumped from cover and ran to his side. They were both killed in a burst of machine gun fire, with the priest riddled by 27 bullets in his spine, neck and head. He was 38.
Loving heard about the chaplain’s death over the radio. “It was like a smack in the face,” he said. “He was such a wonderful human being. Everyone was shocked when it happened. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. ”
Father Capodanno became known as the Grunt Padre. His cause for canonization was opened on May 19, 2002, and on May 21, 2006, a Public Decree of Servant of God was issued by the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA.
Loving, 73, grew up in Virginia, graduated from St. Bernard College in Cullman, Ala., and enlisted in the Marines in 1957. He was commissioned second lieutenant in 1960, and was 29 and a captain when he knew Father Capodanno. He retired in 1989 and lives in Jacksonville, Fla. He recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor about Father Capodanno.
Our Sunday Visitor: When did you meet Father Capodanno?
Col. Francis L. Loving: It was late June 1967 when he would come down and say Mass at our battalion. We were in Operation Cochise in August and we became pretty close during that time. One time, about three weeks after we met, we were on a bench eating some C-rations and talking, and he asked me about myself, and we just kind of clicked.
OSV: What about his last Mass?
Loving: I remember it vividly. It was in the late afternoon and there were about 30 to 40 Marines. We went back to his tent and I said, “This place has never been so neat and squared away. Did the CO get on your butt?” He said, no, he wanted to get everything in order because we weren’t sure what was going to happen. It was just general chatter. I served that Mass not knowing it would be his last one.
OSV: What was he like as a priest?
Loving: There was something unique about him. I remember a couple of times going to Mass when I wasn’t serving, and I realized that I wanted to be very much involved whenever he said Mass. He took his responsibilities as a priest seriously, yet at the same time he was very human about it. Whenever he’d give a sermon or eulogy, he brought in a personal touch and a Godly touch to let people know that there are bad things in the world, and that we also had to recognize that there are good things. One time I talked to him about why evil exists. He said that we are all responsible for our own actions and in how we respond to God. He said it was free will.
OSV: What spiritual issues were the troops facing?
Loving: I don’t think that anyone was not put into the position of needing one another for survival, and I don’t mean that it was necessarily the survival of facing death every night. There also was a need for him to let them know that what we were doing was not something that they needed to feel guilty about, and that was one thing that Father Vincent did very well. The [morality of war] is an issue that will always be debated.
OSV: How did you react when you heard about his cause for sainthood?
Loving: I was stunned but not surprised. Then I thought about all the things he did, and to my knowledge, they were never done for his own self-gratification. I can remember a couple of times that he was supposed to be in a staff meeting and he would come in late and say, “I’m sorry, I was talking to PFC Jones” or whoever needed him.
OSV: What do you think his sainthood will add to the Communion of Saints?
Loving: It is probably in terms similar to Joan of Arc, and what they did would have to be considered martyrdom. Father Vincent basically sacrificed his life for the good of those who were around him.
OSV: What was outstanding about Father Capodanno?
Loving: He made an impression on me with the quality of his presence and how he was able to talk to young people. He just had a unique knack for being able to communicate.
OSV: What did he teach you about being a Marine?
Loving: He was very straightforward and priestly in how he handled himself on a day-to-day basis. He taught me that if you got into a situation, deal with it. Having been in combat and stressful situations myself, I truly cannot imagine being able to do some of the things he did, and under the circumstances that he did.
OSV: What message does he have for today?
Loving: I think he would fit well into today’s military environment. His personal approach to dealing with people would span the ages. As far as the military and young people, he would be the same today as he was then in responding to them. He was just an amazing individual. Whatever God-given talent he had to be able to relate to young people wouldn’t make any difference if it was then, if it was now or if it was in 2212.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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