BROOKLYN, New York — A battlefield commander’s radio message pierced the frenzied bustle at the headquarters for the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment.
Top brass expected lots of casualties during “Operation Swift” — an assault aimed at sweeping enemy troops from a strategic rice-producing valley in Vietnam.
The cost was 127 U.S. service members killed in action, but no one expected one of them would be the 38-year-old Naval Reserve lieutenant from Staten Island.
The commander didn’t say the man’s name, but everyone quickly guessed it was the chaplain, Father Vincent Capodanno, affectionately known as the “Grunt Padre.”
“He said, ‘One KIA Naval officer,'” recalled George Phillips, then a corporal from Brooklyn, who was wounded in the same battle. “They made him repeat the message to make sure they heard it correctly.”
This grim news, Phillips said, quickly spread — “The padre is dead.”
Phillips, a lifelong Catholic, attended St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Brooklyn and in Vietnam, he developed an easy acquaintance with Father Capodanno.
He recalled seeing the priest on the morning of Sept. 4, 1967, at the staging area for Operation Swift. The priest joked with Marines, shared cigarettes and handed out St. Christopher medals.
Later, Phillips caught glimpses of him during the battle, pulling the wounded to safety and giving last rites.
Phillips was evacuated with shrapnel wounds to his legs. The next day he learned that shrapnel tore fingers from Father Capodanno’s right hand. Still, the priest continued until 26 machine gun bullets killed him.
“Grunts” of the 5th Regiment, part of the 1st Marine Division, mourned their popular chaplain. His heroism nearly 55 years ago brought him the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor — and spawned efforts to have him canonized.
But members of the Father Capodanno Guild were recently startled by a recommendation from theological consultants for a “suspension” of the chaplain’s cause for sainthood.
The consultants’ recommendation is under consideration by the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican, which ultimately decides whether a case moves forward. One concern suggested that venerating someone from the military may not be appropriate for the modern church.
Phillips served 24 years in the Marines and retired as a captain. Now living in Sarasota, Florida, he’s a founding member of the guild and a former chairman of its board of directors. His successor as chair is Vice Adm. (Retired) Stephen Stanley of Waterford, Virginia. Both men were disappointed by the concerns related to the military.
“In my mind, it’s almost specious,” Stanley told The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “The process of canonization is not a process about what the person did in this world. It’s about whether or not the soul is in heaven and in communion with God.”
The Archdiocese of the Military Services is the “petitioner” of the priest’s sainthood cause.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the military archdiocese was unavailable for comment, but issued a statement saying the suggested suspension does not mean that the cause is denied. The recommendations, he explained, are only “consultative.”
“The body only makes a recommendation” to the sainthood dicastery, he said.
Msgr. Robert Sarno, a Brooklyn native who is now retired after 38 years as an official with the dicastery, confirmed the cause of sainthood for Father Capodanno is very much alive. He said the theological consultants have three options for their recommendations or votes: affirmative, negative or “suspensive.”
“This clearly was not a negative vote,” Sarno said. “If it were a negative vote, then that would be very serious, and then there could be an appeal. But if it’s a suspended vote, there is no such thing as an appeal. The cause is still going along. It’s just that the consultors feel that there are some issues to be considered more deeply.”
The consultants’ concerns are: Father Capodanno’s “positio” — a formal brief arguing for canonization — focuses on the last year of his life, which does not provide a full picture of the “virtuous life” standard.
They also note that as a Maryknoll missionary, the priest expressed dissatisfaction with his assignment to Hong Kong, an indication of disobedience and the order did not pursue his sainthood cause.
Other concerns were that the priest’s fastidious appearance could be a sign of sinful pride; and venerating someone from the military may not be appropriate for the church while wars persist in the world.
Sarno said all but one of the concerns could be handled easily by the postulator, who advocates for the cause before the dicastery.
He said one stickler is in the positio, where the argument for Father Capodanno reportedly showed little record of spiritual growth in the year leading to his death.
Sarno stressed that in 2017, Pope Francis established a third path to sainthood called the “offering of life.” Father Capodanno’s cause is the first to be considered under this criteria, the priest said.
“So, in a certain sense, this is new territory,” he said. “The consultants are feeling their way.”
The new path is for people who died prematurely by offering their lives for the love of God and neighbor — just as Father Capodanno did in the moments leading to his death.
Such cases might fall outside the strict definitions of the two traditional paths to sainthood of “martyr” or the category of “confessor,” under which the Vatican scrutinizes and verifies one’s faith life displaying “heroic virtue.”
The newest category also requires proof of a “virtuous life” and a single year does not tell the whole story.
“I think that objection is valid,” Msgr. Sarno said. “They have to prove a virtuous life. And you can’t do that in the last year, so that needs to be filled in.” He said one way that could be remedied would be to “prepare a supplementary positio and concentrate on proving Father Capodanno lived a virtuous life.”
“It’s not a big deal, but it’s a serious deal,” Sarno said. “The other three or four questions can be answered very simply.”
“Remember,” Stanley said, “we’re dealing with Rome, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“I understand we will have the opportunity to rebut the recommendation,” Mary Preece, vice postulator of the cause, told Catholic News Service from her home in Virginia. “More information about Father Capodanno’s virtuous life have come to my attention.”
“We will be able to restate our rationale,” Preece added. “It’s disappointing, … but I’m not at the point of despair. We will persevere.”
Just when that rebuttal will come is “a very good question,” Preece told CNS. “Our postulator is a canon lawyer in Rome. Rome is closed in August, We are hoping that Dr. (Nicola) Gori will be available with his opinions in the very near future.”
Gori, she said, is also postulator for the sainthood cause of Blessed Carlo Acutis, the Italian teen who had set out to build a database of all known eucharistic miracles before he died in 2006.
Despite the uncertainty now surrounding Father Capodanno’s cause, an annual memorial Mass for the priest is still scheduled to be celebrated Sept. 6 in Washington, with Broglio as celebrant. Another annual memorial Mass for the priest will take place Sept. 4 at the Father Capodanno Chapel at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.
Miller is a senior reporter for The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese. Contributing to this story was Mark Pattison in Washington.