WASHINGTON, D.C. — For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, a time when pools open and families celebrate backyard barbecues.
But for Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who leads the military archdiocese in the United States, “Memorial Day now has a face. It’s a face that I recognize. You meet the relatives, the spouses and parents of men and women who have died as a result of combat,” he told Crux in an interview. “Also, you meet countless young men and women who are willing to take the risks to serve our country.”
When people lose a loved one in combat, “you always sense the loss,” he said.
Some day, Memorial Day may also have a patron saint, especially for those killed or wounded in action, for their families, and for military chaplains and those they serve.
At the end of the Military Archdiocese’s 23rd annual Memorial Day Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Broglio formally closed the archdiocesan phase of the cause of canonization for Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest and Navy chaplain killed during a fierce battle in Vietnam almost 50 years ago, on Sept. 4, 1967 at the age of 38. Now the cause goes on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The Mass, pre-taped on May 21, will be televised on EWTN on Memorial Day, Monday May 29, at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time and later at midnight, and on Catholic TV at noon and 8 p.m.
The heroic chaplain was born in Staten Island, New York, on Feb. 13, 1929, the youngest of 10 children in an Italian immigrant family. During World War II, he witnessed two of his older brothers going off to serve in the U.S. Army, and another serving in the Marines.
At the age of 20, Capodanno felt called to become a missionary priest and entered the seminary for the Maryknoll order and was ordained to the priesthood in 1958. After the traditional tolling of his seminary’s bells, he learned that he was assigned to be a missionary in Taiwan, where he learned the language, administered the sacraments, trained catechists and distributed food and medicine.
About six years later he was transferred to Hong Kong, where he met U.S. military personnel and felt called to serve as a chaplain.
“When he makes the decision to ask his superiors to become a Navy chaplain, this opens a whole new experience,” said Broglio. “This is where he discovers that vocation within a vocation. That really is his path to sanctity.”
The chaplain was nicknamed the “Grunt Padre,” because of his personal care for and ministry to the “grunts” – the nickname for members of the infantry, like the Marines he served in his battalion after arriving in Vietnam during Holy Week in 1966.
“He responds to the concrete needs of Marines, and he is going to take care of them,” said Broglio. “He’s typical of many chaplains I’ve met in the last 10 years. He knows what’s right. He’s going to take care of his people.”
Capodanno’s biography on the website of the Archdiocese for the Military Services describes his ministry: “He became a constant companion to the Marines: living, eating and sleeping in the same conditions of the men. He established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for the local villagers. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing Confessions, instructing converts and distributing St. Christopher medals.”
After serving a year-long tour, he signed up to continue serving as a chaplain with the Marines. On Sept. 4, 1967, during Operation Swift, his seventh combat operation, he died heroically ministering to the Marines in his battalion.
“His view is, he’s going to be with his Marines and take care of them. As they’re shot up, he’s there ministering to them and encouraging them. That’s his vocation,” the military archbishop said.
The citation for the chaplain’s Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously in 1969, describes Capodanno’s heroism:
“In response to reports the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon.
“Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded.
“When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines.
“Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.”
The citation concluded, “By his heroic conduct on the battlefield, and his inspiring example, Lt. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the cause of freedom.”
Capodanno “went from being an ordinary missionary to an exceptional chaplain. In that is clearly the hand of God,” said Broglio, who added that what made him exceptional was “just the conviction that he is going to take care of his Marines… He was their counselor, their friend,” who gave his life serving them.
The story of Capodanno’s faith, sacrifice and heroism was chronicled in the book, The Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam 1966-67, written in 2000 by Father Daniel Mode, who came from a Navy family and was inspired by the chaplain’s life and as a seminarian wrote his thesis on the heroic priest, interviewing 100 people who knew him.
Mode – who later became a U.S. Navy chaplain himself, and has been deployed to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan and served on aircraft carriers and in the Philippines after the 2013 typhoon there – has said his ministry has been inspired by the grace and courage of the “Grunt Padre,” who brought Christ to the Marines he served in Vietnam.
The chaplain’s biography includes the story of Marine Cpl. Ray Harton, who as he lay wounded from a gunshot in his left arm, said he opened his eyes during that battle and saw Capodanno, who in a calm voice told him, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.”
In his homily at the Memorial Day Mass, Broglio referred to that story, saying, “How appropriate that the annual Memorial Mass offers the occasion to conclude the archdiocesan phase in the Cause for the Canonization of Father Vincent Capodanno.
“He clearly knew the value of his priesthood, and he willingly laid down his life so that others might have the benefit of the gifts he brought. Ray Harton will never forget Father Capodanno’s encouraging, ‘Stay quiet, Marine. You will be okay,’ but neither will any of us who have known that commitment repeated so often by a priest in the military.”
In his interview with Crux, Broglio said the heroic chaplain’s spirit lives on in the more than 200 priests serving as U.S. military chaplains around the world.
“That notion of caring for others, that’s very evident in the best chaplain’s ability to meet a service person where he or she is, and find ways to talk with them… that willingness to give of yourself and your free time, that tremendous notion of wanting to care for people,” the military archbishop said. “That’s clear in Father Capodanno’s life, and it’s clear in most of the chaplains I know.”
Broglio added, “A priest is unique among chaplains in the sense he brings something only a Catholic priest can bring – the person of Christ in the sacraments. He celebrates the Eucharist, anoints the sick and hears Confession. Those are gifts only he can bring.”
The military archdiocese’s website notes that priest chaplains “go wherever their people are – in a tent in the desert, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, in the barracks on base, on a fire-fighting line, in the VA hospital, in the halls of the Pentagon.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, was established by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1985. Its priests serve at more than 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries, making it the world’s only global archdiocese. Its priests also serve in 153 VA medical centers throughout the United States.
Its website notes that an estimated 1.8 million Catholics depend on that archdiocese to meet their spiritual and sacramental needs. That includes 325,000 Catholics on active duty, and their families.
Capodanno was declared a “Servant of God” in 2006 by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the request of then-Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who led the military archdiocese until 2007 and was succeeded the next year by Broglio, who formerly opened the chaplain’s cause of canonization in 2013 and appointed a tribunal to investigate whether he lived a life of heroic virtue.
The diocesan phase included gathering facts on his life, interviewing people who knew him, and investigating his writings.
The chaplain’s earthly honors include the Navy Bronze Star medal and the Purple Heart medal. The USS Capodanno, a Navy frigate in commission from 1973-93 that was deployed during Desert Storm, was named in his honor, as are seven chapels around the world, including one at Navy Chaplains School in Newport, Rhode Island, and one on Hill 51 in Que Son Valley in Vietnam that the chaplain himself helped build out of thatched palms and bamboo.
A naval clinic in Gaeta, Italy, is also named in his honor, as is Capodanno Boulevard in Staten Island, and an annual scholarship given to the children of Marine Corps members bears his name. A room in the chancery of the Archdiocese for the Military Services includes artifacts related to the life and death of the chaplain, including a green field hat that he wore in Vietnam, and an etching of his name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Broglio said that the chaplain’s sainthood cause moving forward this year is especially poignant, because the annual Memorial Mass in his honor, which this year will be celebrated on Sept. 5 at the National Shrine, will mark the 50th anniversary of his death.
The military archbishop said Capodanno offers a role model not just for chaplains and those serving in the military, but for other Catholics to emulate. The cause for canonization, he said, means “this figure is worthy of imitation. This is not a Bronze Star. It’s for us (that) we’re doing this.”
“I think Father Capodanno, in terms of virtues, he teaches us fidelity,” Broglio said. “He teaches us perseverance. He teaches us immense charity, not only on the battlefield, but in the hundreds of little things he did for his Marines.”