A Priest on the Field of Battle

On Thursday, September 3 at 7 p.m. a dedicated band of people will gather in the crypt church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington to honor a man who may some day be declared a saint. Archbishop Timothy M. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services will be main celebrant of the Mass — an annual event — which this year falls on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the death of Father Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M., the "Grunt Padre."

Information that could conceivably lead to his beatification and canonization is now being collected. Input from family, friends, and former military personnel will go to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. Meanwhile Father Capodanno enjoys the designation "servant of God." The postulator of his cause is Father Daniel L. Mode, an Arlington priest and Navy chaplain who authored his biography, The Grunt Padre (CMJ Marian Publishers, 2000).

Vice-postulator Mary E. Preece says among those facing their own special "field of battle" who believe Father Capodanno has helped them are soldiers recovering from amputations and life-threatening injuries, a Vietnam war veteran’s widow coping with his unexpected death, a young priest suffering from a blood disease, and others.

Vincent Capodanno was born February 13, 1929, youngest of ten children of an Italian immigrant couple. He grew up on Staten Island, joined the Maryknoll order to become a missionary, and was ordained in 1958. September 4, 1967 found him, a Navy chaplain in Vietnam, with elements of the 1st Battalion 5th Marines near the village of Dong Son in the Que-Son Valley. A Navy medic, Lt. Joseph E. Pilon, described the day’s events.

"If you get three Purple Hearts you go home within 48 hours. On Labor Day our battalion ran into a world of trouble… 500 Marines against 2500 North Vietnamese Army regulars. We were constantly on the verge of [being] completely overrun and the Marines on several occasions had to ‘advance in a retrograde movement.’ This left the dead and wounded outside the perimeter….

"Casualties were running high and Fr. C. had his work cut out for him. Early in the day, he was shot through the right hand which all but shattered his hand — one corpsman patched him up and tried to med evac him but Fr. C. declined. A few hours later a mortar landed near him and left his right arm in shreds hanging from his side. Once again he was patched up and once attain he refused evacuation.

"There he was, moving slowly from wounded to dead to wounded using his left arm to support his right as he gave absolution or last rites, when suddenly he spied a corpsman get knocked down by the burst of an automatic weapon. Fr. C. ran out to him and positioned himself between the injured boy and the automatic weapon. Suddenly the weapon opened up again and this time riddled Fr. C. from the back of his head to the base of his spine—and with his third Purple Heart of the day Fr. C. went Home."

Vietnam remains a controversial affair. Father Capodanno believed what America was trying to do there was morally right, but in serving his beloved grunts he wasn’t making a political statement but ministering to men who needed him. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously. Other awards and honors have come his way. I don’t know if he will ever be declared a saint, but a brave and dedicated priest he unquestionably was.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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