Monsignor Stephen M. DiGiovanni, historian, author and pastor of The Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, tells the compelling story of Father Capodanno’s life, his missionary work in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and his service as chaplain during the Vietnam War, in a new book titled, “Armed with Faith: The Life of Father Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M.”
Servant of God Father Capodanno, who died at 38 on a hill in Vietnam during a fierce firefight on September 4, 1967, stands as an example for priests in our troubled time. A Navy chaplain, he often said that where his men were he wanted to be. He shared the hardships and the deprivations of war with them and was known among Marines as “the Grunt Padre.”
Throughout his 16 months in Vietnam, he was a humble hero, who never told his family about the military awards and decorations he received. He was a priest so committed to his Marines and to his faith that he ultimately died for them and was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. Now, he is being considered for a much higher honor — sainthood.
Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children and named after his father, a native of Gaeta, Italy, who came to the United States in 1901 and worked as a ship caulker in New York City. Vincent attended P.S. 44 on Staten Island, where his classmates voted him “Best Looking” and “Best Dresser.” At the time, he wanted to be a doctor and he claimed as his motto, “Do a good turn daily.”
After graduating from Curtis High School, he began taking night classes at Fordham University. He attended daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration in the evening, and by the summer of 1949, he considered applying to the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, known as Maryknoll. He was inspired by the stories of missionaries that he read in the society’s magazine, The Field Afar.
Vincent Capodanno was ordained on June 14, 1958 by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, and began his new life as a priest in Maryknoll, which actor Gene Autry famously described as “the Marine Corps of the Catholic Church,” Msgr. DiGiovanni said.
After seven years of missionary work in Taiwan and briefly in Hong Kong, he asked to be assigned as a Navy chaplain, and on December 28, 1965, he received a commission as lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps. Soon after, he was sent to Vietnam.
On September 3, 1967, Father Capodanno said Mass in a village near Da Nang before moving out with the Marines on Operation Swift in the Que Song Valley.
A fierce battle began without warning, when a few companies of Marines confronted a regiment of 2,500 North Vietnamese. Two platoons of M Company from Father Capodanno’s battalion were being overrun by the enemy.
Eyewitnesses recalled that through the intense fighting, Father Capodanno was running unarmed from one wounded Marine to another on the battlefield to administer last rites, encourage them, tend to their wounds and pull them to safety.
He was wounded by rifle fire and then an exploding mortar shell. His arms and legs were bleeding and part of his right hand had been blown off, but he refused assistance from a corpsman and told him instead to help the others. He refused to leave the battle even though he was bleeding and choking from tear gas.
In his eulogy at Father Capodanno’s funeral, his friend and fellow chaplain Eli Takesian told the congregation, “Hearing the fatal news, a young Marine tearfully came to me and asked, ‘If life meant so much to Chaplain Capodanno, then why did he allow his own to be taken?’ ‘The answer is in your question,’ I replied. ‘It was precisely because he loved life—the lives of others —that he so freely gave of himself.’ His was the pilgrimage of a saint. Even to the end, he faithfully held to the precept of Our Lord that ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”
Msgr. DiGiovanni’s book is a moving account of bravery and faith and Father Capodanno’s unselfish concern for servicemen in the struggle of battle. It is the story of a man who eschewed the glories of the world to follow Christ, even unto death. Equally important, Father Capodanno stands as an inspirational example of everything that Christ intended a Catholic priest to be.
Msgr. DiGiovanni had been asked to serve as the chairman of the historical commission of Father Capodanno’s cause for sainthood by Archbishop for the Military Services USA Timothy Broglio
For more information about Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno, visit www.Capodannoguild.org.
By Joe Pisani