Vincent Capodanno: Catholic Priest, Maryknoll Missionary, United States Marine, Servant Of God

Did you know that there is a very special Archdiocese in these United States of America that does not have any geographical boundaries? It has its own Archbishop based in Washington, D. C., but he is not the Bishop of that city. The Archbishop that I speak of is the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, of the Archdiocese of Military Services, or AMS. His diocese is the farthest-ranging of all American dioceses, perhaps of all dioceses in the world. Archbishop Broglio is in charge of all the Catholic American servicemen worldwide, from the elite military academies to the lowest privates stationed in the most isolated and dangerous places where soldiers, Marines, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen go. Besides these duties, he oversees the religious needs of those Catholics in U. S. military hospitals both at home and abroad.

This is an amazingly demanding and responsible job for one man. Besides being Bishop to all American Catholic servicemen and women and their families, Archbishop Broglio is responsible for fundraising to support his enormous diocese and the education of the priests who commit to a life as military chaplains. According to an article that he wrote for the AMS’ magazine “Salute,” he spends the better part of every year on the road and in the air traveling to his various outposts, visiting and saying Masses, hearing confessions, performing the Sacrament of Confirmation, comforting the wounded in military hospitals, all scheduled around visits to the various military academies in the States. He seems to be a man of boundless energy and endless good cheer.

The Archdiocese for Military Service was created by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Archbishop Broglio is the fourth head of the AMS having been appointed to succeed Archbishop Edwin O’Brien in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. He serves nearly two million men, women and children in more than 220 installations in twenty-nine countries, patients in one hundred fifty-three V.A. Medical Centers, federal employees serving outside the USA in one hundred thirty-four countries. That is almost a world-wide ministry. Four auxiliary bishops, all former military chaplains, assist him in his duties.

Priests who become military chaplains remain priests in good standing in the dioceses from which they are recruited. It is interesting that the many chapels on military bases and in hospitals and other military facilities are the property of the United States government and not the Church. Because of this, all records of births, baptisms, confirmations and other sacraments are held at the AMS headquarters in Washington, D. C. Also interesting is that the AMS receives no funding from the United States government, nor from the Catholic Church in general. It is funded by the chaplains themselves, the men and women in uniform and private donors. I first became interested in the AMS when I received an appeal from them a few years ago, one of many I have gotten from numerous Catholic organizations. Often we Catholics in the pews do not consider that, of all people who need the consolation of a good priest on a regular basis, those who put their lives on the line for the protection of our country must be at the top of the list. Since that time, I have become a regular (though small) contributor to the support of this important work.

Of course, there have long been chaplains throughout the years in military service. They were there through all of the wars of the nineteenth century and the big wars of the twentieth century. Korea gave us Father Emil Kapaun, who died in a Korean POW camp and whose cause for sainthood is ongoing. He is now “Servant of God.” In addition, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic military service. His heart-wrenching story is written by Brian Kelly on this website.

This brings us to the Vietnam War of the 1960’s, and the heroic figure of Father Vincent Capodanno. Recently, the Archdiocesan phase of inquiry into the life and death of Father Capodanno was concluded by the AMS and Archbishop Broglio. This tribunal was headed by Monsignor Frank Pugliese of the AMS and Monsignor Thomas Olszyk, Promoter of Justice, who conducted a painstaking four year search into the life of our subject. Now these findings will be sent to the Vatican to the Holy See’s Congregation for the causes of Saints to determine if Father Capodanno lived a “life of heroic virtue,” a life worthy of sainthood.

A Brief Bio of Father Vincent Capodanno

Vincent Robert was the tenth child of his Italian immigrant parents, Vincent, Sr. and Rachel. When they came to America, the Capodannos settled in Staten Island, New York. Like all Italian families, the Capodannos had close family ties supported by their intense and devout Catholic Faith. Vincent was a “regular boy” who developed the admirable habit of attending daily Mass in his high school years. Born in 1929, Vincent saw three of his older brothers enter military service during World War II. He was a good student and was able to attend Fordham University in New York City. It was while he was on retreat in 1949 that he told a friend he felt called to the religious life. That same year he applied to the Maryknoll order — the Catholic Foreign Mission Society — because he wanted to bring the Faith to people in foreign lands.

First Mission

After nine years of intensive study, young Father Capodanno was posted to Taiwan as missionary priest to the Hakka people of that island. These people were the aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan and spoke a much more difficult and obscure language than the Chinese inhabitants. He was able to learn to communicate with them in their tongue and served the little community as pastor and friend. On Taiwan, he also served as youth director to Chinese students who were preparing for their college entrance exams. He was their mentor and friend as well as their teacher and priest.

After a furlough back to New York to visit his family, he returned to Taiwan, only to be sent to Hong Kong, a station he did not particularly want, but he remained obedient to his superiors. It was the early 1960’s and more and more American Marines were being deployed to the area of the Far East. Father Capodanno knew that these men would need spiritual guidance; so he applied to Maryknoll to become a military chaplain. Eventually Maryknoll gave the go-ahead and Father Capodanno attended Officers Training School, finishing in the Spring of 1966. At that point he reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam as their chaplain.

This dedicated and heroic priest accomplished an amazing amount of good in his short time with the fighting men. His primary focus became the “grunts,” the new guys coming into the field of battle. His dedication to these young Marines was so complete, that he became known as the “grunt priest.” Besides ministering to their spiritual needs, he established libraries, instructed converts, gathered gifts and organized outreach programs to the local villagers. He was with his men on the battlefield, comforting the wounded and administering the sacraments to the dying. He loved these men so much that he requested a second tour of duty with them.“Stay quiet Marine, you will be OK. God is here,” were his comforting words to the wounded.

On September 4, 1967, he was with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. During “Operation Swift” they were holding a hill in the Que Son Valley when they were ambushed by a much larger force of the enemy. There were 2,500 of the enemy to 500+ Marines. His men were wounded and dying all around. He was also seriously wounded, having part of his right hand shot off. Nevertheless, he kept going from Marine to Marine whispering prayers and comforting words to them. When he ran to attend to a seriously wounded corpsman, even though he was unarmed, he was shot twenty-seven times. Both men died in the machine gun assault.

For his bravery and service to his men, Father was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Bronze Star Medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with silver star and the Purple Heart. A Navy ship named the USS Capodanno served twenty years and has the distinction of being the first United States Navy ship to receive a Papal Blessing. There are several military chapels named in his honor, and a beautiful statue of Father administering to his last wounded Marine just before he was killed. There is even a street on Staten Island named for him.

You can see a very touching video produced by Remnant TV on your computer. It is not long. I have seen it twice and both times, I have cried. His is a beautiful story of love of God, his fellow man, his own family, his country. His holiness and willingness to sacrifice his young life truly demonstrates “heroic virtue.” This is the quality which someday will make Father Vincent Capodanno — Saint Vincent.

  • Amazingly, I received the following story “by coincidence” a day before Eleonore Villarrubia’s article was posted. I am grateful to a man named William for sending it. I present it below in full just as I received it:

    The Badge of Grace
    In the spring of 1967, my younger brother was reported missing in action in Vietnam.Although it was just a clerical error on the part of the Marines, it gave us all a horrible fright. First, we received a telegram stating Mike was missing in action. Then another informing us Mike had lost his legs and was in critical condition. Then followed the nightmare of a Marine officer and chaplain arriving on my parents’ doorstep with thenews Mike had died.It turned out Mike was actually recuperating from a minor wound in Tokyo, Japan. He called soon after we received the mistaken report.It was at this point that my older brother Bill determined to put college on hold and rejoin the Marines. He asked for duty in Vietnam to be with my younger brother Mike. His hope was to convince Mike to file under the Sullivan ruling, which states no more than one family member has to serve in a life-threatening situation at a time.Bill wanted Mike in a safer place—out of the combat zone—while he served in ‘Nam himself. Bill had always looked out for his three younger siblings, and he was determined to do so again. If Mike refused to leave, Bill figured they could at least support one another.The last thing my father did on the day Bill was to leave for retraining was to make sure he was wearing hisSacred Heart badge. My parents had my sister, two brothers, and me consecrated to theSacred Heart when were babies. They made sure we made the First Friday devotions that were given to St. Margaret Mary. It was to her that Christ revealed his promises concerning devotion to His Most Sacred Heart.Daddy jokingly told Bill: “It might not stop a bullet, but it can keep you safe along the way. Just remember it is only as good as the faith you put with it. If you wear it as as a scrap of material and don’t follow Christ, it will be no help at all. Remember what’s important … Trust Christ and follow him. He will get you home. Ask St. Margaret to help you too. That’s all the protection you really need.” With that last bit of unassuming faith from my father, Bill left for boot camp wearing the banner of Christ, his SacredHeart badge.After training, Bill landed in Vietnam on August 21st. Sadly, the very day Bill landed, our brother Mike was again wounded. This time his wounds were much more serious. A landmine struck his amphibious mobile unit and Mike was badly burned. Bill managed to track him down in a hospital in Dong Hoa.

    Because of the severity of Mike’s wounds, Bill was not allowed in to see him. All Bill could do was say a prayer and report for duty. The two never saw each other before Mike was soon transported stateside for medical treatment. Bill’s plans were to do his duty, and then return home to finish college. He had a sense of duty to serve his country,and he strove to follow Christ even under difficult circumstances.In order not to worry us, Bill wrote letters home telling us he was assigned in Da Nang as clerk. He jokingly referred to his great quest to serve as being reduced to shuffling papers. That was our Bill—always protecting others. His ploy worked, and we believed that he was fairly safe in Da Nang.But then, during the night of September 21, 1967, I had a terrible dream. I dreamed I was standing on a small incline and saw my brother Billy carrying a machine gun. I heard the horrible sound of rockets and mortars going off. In my dream I screamed: “Run,Billy, run!” And then a big flash and explosion landed close to him. Through the smoke and fire I saw him lying wounded. Both of his hands were gone and there was blood everywhere. He was moaning in pain but I could not reach him. My heart broke as I watched and tried to run to him. My beloved Billy was all alone. I was so close to him and yet so far.Then, suddenly, I saw a Catholic chaplain run over to Bill. He appeared to be wounded also but leaned over Bill and began to comfort him. He prayed and anointed Bill as best he could. He was so calm and reassuring to my brother. He said: “Don’t worry son. God is with us this good day.” I was crying so hard by this time, I woke up from this awful nightmare. As I always did as a child, I wanted my dad to sooth me from this nightmare.I got out of bed and called him at 1:30 a.m. When I called, the phone barely rang once before Dad picked it up. He was crying softly when he answered. To this day I don’t remember which one of us said it first: “Billy is dead.” Dad and I related the exact same dream and the exact details. We consoled one another, and clung to the hope that it was just a warning. “Maybe it is just a sign we need to pray harder for Bill,” Dad said. We both so desperately wanted to believe that.One week later, on September 28th, the Marines again paid a visit to my parent’s home.This time there would be no phone call saying it was a mistake. Instead, our nightmare was confirmed. Billy was dead.The Marines reported that on September 21st, while on night patrol, Bill’s entire unit was caught in an ambush. They were trapped in a crossfire of rocket and mortar fire, which claimed the life of every man in the unit. Bill managed to survive alone until another unit found him. One of the letters we received later related how the Marines, who ministered first aid to Bill before he died, had promised to honor Bill’s request: “Please thank the Padre for helping me die well.” They unfortunately did not know the name of the priest who had administered the last rites of the Church to Bill. There wasn’t one in their unit.We were told Bill was at peace when he died on September 21st, exactly one month
    from the day that he had landed in Vietnam.
    Christ kept his promise to protect those devoted to His Most Sacred Heart even deep in the jungles of Vietnam. We never could locate the chaplain who helped my brother. As time passed, we decided we would never be able to thank the mysterious priest in this life.My beloved father went home to meet his Lord on Valentine’s Day, 1985. Before hedied, he gave me his most treasured possession—the tattered and bloodstained SacredHeart badge which the Marines had returned after Bill’s death. He asked that should Iever find that wonderful priest who had helped Bill, to thank him personally.Many years had passed when I received an e-mail one day from a friend who had also served in Vietnam. He wanted me to read about a wonderful chaplain from Vietnam who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his extraordinary service. The chaplain was known as the “Grunt Padre.” As I opened the attachment and saw the picture of the priest, my heart skipped a beat. It was the priest from my dream of Bill’s death, all those years before. My father and I had both described him to each other in the same exactdetail. His name was Father Vincent Robert Capodanno. He also had died in Vietnam in1967.Reading the attachment, I learned that Father Capodanno had died of severe wounds. He was missing part of his right hand. The story explained the extent of his injuries. They were the same wounds of the priest in my dream.The article stated that Father Capodanno was well known for his council to his belovedtroops. He was known to say: “God is with us this good day.” It was unbelievable; those were the words he had said in my dream. Then reading the date of his death, I held in my breath, blinked, and looked at the date again. A shiver shot through me from head to toe: Fr. Capodanno had died seventeen days before Bill. As part of the communion of saints, Father Capodanno was truly “a priest forever in the order of Melchezidek.” Father Capodanno was the man whom Christ sent to fulfill the promise of the Sacred Heart Devotion revealed to St. Margaret Mary:

    I promise thee in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to those who communicate on the first Friday in nine consecutive months the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving their sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment. Christine Kildare

  • Steven_Broiles

    I have read that soldiers in the field have sworn that their prayers to Fr. Capodanno were answered, in the affirmative, within one hour of his death. I hope his canonization comes soon.

  • Fr. J.

    Very, very beautiful and moving. Thank you for publishing it.

  • Me, too! Thanks for this edifying fun-fact.

  • GeneDe

    Fr. Capodanno died in the field three months before I arrived in Vietnam. I saw the video that the Remnant produced; I too cried. Thanks, Eleonore, for this wonderful article.