'Grunt Padre' Capodanno brought holiness to battlefield

It seems that holiness can be at home almost anywhere -- even on a battlefield. The man they called the Grunt Padre is a case in point.

Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno died in Vietnam 42 years ago after displaying uncommon bravery in the service of others -- in this case, the foot soldiers who call themselves "grunts."

On Sept. 4, 1967, he was in the field with 500 men of the 1st Battalion 5th Marines near a village called Dong Son in the Que-Son Valley when they ran into 2,500 North Vietnamese army regulars.

The fighting was intense, and the Marines took heavy casualties. The chaplain was wounded twice, but refused evacuation. "I have work to do," he said.

"There he was," a Navy medic recalled, "moving slowly from wounded to dead to wounded using his left arm to support his right as he gave absolution or last rites." Then a Marine was felled by automatic weapons fire. "Father C. ran out to him and positioned himself between the injured boy and the automatic weapon" -- and the weapon opened up again and riddled him with bullets.

Sainthood cause

Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, presented to members of his family in January 1969. A Navy escort ship, the USS Capodanno, was named for him. Many other civic and religious honors salute his memory.

But the most significant recognition so far came on May 21, 2006, when he was officially declared "Servant of God" -- the first major step in a process that could eventually lead the Church to recognize him as a saint. In the formal decree, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, then ordinary of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and now archbishop of Baltimore, cited "ample evidence of the granting of favors and graces by God through his intercession."

The official petitioner for the cause is Catholics in the Military, a volunteer Web-based organization that provides services for military personnel. The postulator -- in Church law, the person principally responsible for pressing the cause -- is Father Daniel L. Mode, a priest of the Arlington, Va., diocese and a Navy chaplain himself.

While dying a hero's death, Father Mode says, Father Capodanno also lived as "a dedicated priest who sought to realize that perfect charity to which we are all called."

"Ultimately, what should be remembered about Father Vincent is not the way he died. His death was simply the last and greatest witness to what he believed and how he lived," Father Mode writes in his biography of Father Capodanno, "The Grunt Padre" (CMJ Marian Publishers, $15.95).

'Manly hero'

Vincent R. Capodanno was born Feb. 13, 1929, youngest of 10 children of an Italian immigrant couple. He grew up on Staten Island, in New York, in a town called Mariners Harbor, attended public schools and Fordham University, and, in 1949, surprised nearly everybody by entering the seminary of the Maryknoll order with the aim of becoming a missionary. He was ordained on June 14, 1958.

After service in Taiwan and, briefly, in Hong Kong, Father Capodanno sought permission from his religious superiors to become a Navy chaplain. Permission granted, he was sworn in on Dec. 28, 1965. In April 1966, he went to Vietnam.

Although he believed the United States was fighting a just war in Vietnam, he didn't go there to make a political statement but to minister to the troops. The number of U.S. military was rising fast -- 185,000 at the end of 1965 and 385,000 a year later. By 1966 some 400 American soldiers were dying monthly.

Father Capodanno's dedication to the grunts became legendary. "He was one of them, he was truly their Padre," says a Southern Baptist chaplain quoted in the Mode biography. The events of Sept. 4, 1967, dramatically confirmed that.

Sitting in the Capodanno Room -- a repository of memorabilia in the Military archdiocese offices in Washington, D.C. -- two women close to the canonization cause recently expressed guarded optimism about its result. "Our country needs a manly hero," declared Mary E. Preece, the vice-postulator.

While avoiding premature claims of miracles, Jean Stanley, an admiral's wife who brings Communion weekly to those she calls "wounded warriors" at the naval medical center in Bethesda, Md., spoke of instances where it was easy to think that Father Capodanno's intercession was at work.

In many other cases, the two women said, the story of the Grunt Padre has touched people's hearts. Two Knights of Columbus councils have taken his name, while nuns in a cloistered Carmelite monastery in New Jersey, along with praying for his cause, call their mother superior "The Grunt Madre."

Information gathering

Five ex-Marines who were on the battlefield where Father Capodanno died were in the congregation for a memorial Mass -- an annual event -- celebrated Sept. 3 by Archbishop Timothy M. Broglio of the Military archdiocese at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Father Capodanno's cause is at the information-gathering stage, with input sought from family, friends, former Marines and others who knew him. In the end, it will go to the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes and be studied there. The people involved are happy to hear from others besides military buffs. After all, the authorized prayer card for use by people seeking the Grunt Padre's help ends like this: "May I be granted this request on my own field of battle."

Call for vocations

Last month, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, asked for prayers for vocations to the chaplaincy.

Currently, there are 285 active-duty Catholic chaplains serving the needs of 1.4 million Catholic servicemen and women and their families from each of the five branches of service throughout the world. The following is a prayer for those priests who answer the call:

Prayer for Military Chaplains

Heavenly Father, bless and protect military chaplains and fill them with the joy and courage of their vocation as personal ministers of Christ in preaching your word and nourishing us with the sacraments.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sources: Catholic News Service, U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services

Related reading

Get updates on the canonization causes of servants of god, venerables and blessed with U.S. ties in the Oct. 11 issue of OSV.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. Visit www.VincentCapodanno.org for more information on Father Capodanno's cause.