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Monday, July 21, 2014

Men of Iron: A Portrait of the Preconciliar Catholic Priest

By:   Connie Bagnoli
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Fr. V. Capodanno, Naval/Marine Chaplain, Catholic Hero Fr. V. Capodanno, Naval/Marine Chaplain, Catholic Hero

There is a simple tombstone in St. Peter’s Cemetery in West Brighton, Staten Island, New York. It does not stand apart in a specially designated area, nor is it adorned in any way to distinguish this gravesite from the countless others in that consecrated ground. The humble headstone is engraved with the family name Capodanno. Along with his beloved mother and father, this is the final resting place of the mortal remains of a faithful Servant of God who had the valiant, sacrificial heart of a priest, truly another Christ. His name is Father Vincent Robert Capodanno. The inspiring story of Father Capodanno speaks louder than any grand or splendid monument.

The Capodanno Family

Like millions of courageous immigrants before him, Vincent Capodanno, Sr., of Gaeta, Italy, left the security and comfort of his family and homeland in 1901 at the age of sixteen in hopeful anticipation of the American dream. Through perseverance, hard work and faith in God, Vincent established himself in the New World, working as a ship caulker at New York Harbor.


At the age of 22, he married Rachel Basile, a second generation American with roots in Sorrento, Italy. In 1908, the young couple moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island, where they ran a small vegetable store as a second income to help support their growing and active family. Vincent and Rachel had ten children, one of whom died shortly after birth. Their last child was born on February 13, 1929. They named him Vincent Robert Capodanno, Jr.

The Capodanno children grew up in a warm, loving family, cherishing their Catholic faith. Attendance at Holy Mass was at the core of the profoundly religious atmosphere in this Italian-American home. Along with his older brothers and sisters, Vincent followed the English translation of the Mass in his Missal, while surrounded by the mysticism of the Tridentine Latin Rite.

The joy and peacefulness of this bustling, happy family ended on young Vincent’s tenth birthday. Only 53 years old, Vincent Sr., beloved husband and father, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while working on a barge on the Hudson River. With no opportunity for loving good-byes, he died that same day at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. The year was 1939, the world was on the brink of war, and the stunned and grieving young widow was left with the daunting task of providing material, emotional and spiritual care for her heartbroken children. Fortified by their Catholic faith, Rachel and the children helped one another survive this unexpected and tragic loss.

Answering the Call

By outward appearances, Vincent’s adolescent years may not have seemed very different from the average teenager growing up in this era. There was, however, definitely something special in the heart and mind of this young man. While he attended the local public schools and participated in athletic and social activities, a regular part of his day was to attend daily Mass and receive Holy Communion. Because these were the days of fasting from midnight, Vincent often carried with him something to eat as a simple breakfast.

It was in the spring of 1949, while making a retreat at a parish Church, that Vincent confided to his friend, William Richter, that he believed he had a vocation to the priesthood. This announcement stunned William, who became even more startled when Vincent said he thought his friend also had a vocation. In later years, Father Richter admitted that this was his defining moment which led him to enter the Maryknoll seminary.

The decision to enter the Maryknoll seminary was not as easy for Mrs. Capodanno as it was for Vincent. However, the normal cares and concerns for her son were put aside when she recognized his ardent zeal and desire for the Holy Priesthood. Vincent clearly understood the sacrifices required as a missionary priest in a foreign land while being separated from his family and friends at home. This was reflected on his application for the seminary: “My efforts will be devoted for the people I am serving. Their lives, both troubles and joys, will be my life. Any personal sacrifice I may have to make will be compensated for by the fact that I am serving God.” Throughout his priesthood, these profound words were engraved on his heart.

Alter Christus—Another Christ

Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Christ gives the power of the priesthood and the grace needed to fulfill the awesome responsibilities of the consecrated life. The Sacrament imprints on the soul an indelible mark, called a “character”, that can never be lost or taken away. A man who has been ordained to the Holy Priesthood is united in a special way to the “High Priest”, Christ Himself. A duly ordained priest is, in fact, Alter Christus, another Christ.

On Saturday, June 14, 1958, along with 48 others, Vincent Capodanno received this indelible mark from Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, at the Maryknoll Seminary’s Mary, Queen of the Apostles Chapel in Ossining, New York. After nine years of vigorous study and formation, the entire Capodanno family, overwhelmed by joy and gratitude, tearfully witnessed the beautiful and moving rite of ordination. By the laying on of hands and the power of the Holy Ghost, this devout and determined young man was now Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest, destined to be “Alter Christus” in foreign lands. Wherever this destiny leads, his cherished family will always be in his thoughts and prayers as he raises the silver chalice inscribed with “From Mom, in Memory of Pop”.

The Field Afar

The history of Maryknoll dates back to the turn of the century when two dedicated priests, Father Thomas Frederick Price and Father James Anthony Walsh, dreamed of founding an American missionary seminary. To achieve this end, Father Walsh hoped to generate interest and support by editing a publication “The Field Afar”.  

On June 18, 1911, after going through proper channels, Fathers Price and Walsh were given full approval to establish Maryknoll by Pope Pius X, a future canonized saint, who believed the Church must never abandon Her mission to evangelize the one, true Church, founded by Christ on the Rock of Peter. Two holy priests, with contrasting personalities, sharing one passion accomplished their goal to obey Our Lord’s command to “teach all nations.”

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grunt padreOnly a few months after his ordination, Father Capodanno and five other Maryknoll priests set out for “the field afar”—a fourteen-day journey from Los Angeles to the Orient, where he would begin his first assignment in Taiwan, an assignment which would last six years. The challenges of the missionary priest are many, including adapting to new languages, cultures, customs, and unfamiliar environments.

It is a hard and difficult life with the reward of knowing you are working in the vineyard of the Lord. Father’s greatest sacrifice and sorrow during this time was learning of the death of his dear mother. Unable to leave Taiwan in obedience to his superiors, he consoled his family with these words: “For us, we have the many beautiful memories of Mom to sustain us until that time when we all, Mom and Pop and all of us, are united permanently in Heaven.”

The Grunt Padre Who Radiated Christ

On August 13, 1965, after various assignments in the Orient, Father Capodanno received permission from the Bishop to enlist in the Navy with the intention of serving as Chaplain in the US Marine Corps in Vietnam. Only a few days later, Father arrived in Honolulu to begin the process of receiving his commission.

On December 28, 1965, he was sworn in as Lieutenant Capodanno. During Holy Week of April 1966, after proper training and due process, he stepped onto the soil of Vietnam, a brutalized and war-torn country. This was his new missionary field, administering the sacraments to his fellow Marines, providing spiritual and emotional comfort to all in his regiment regardless of race or creed. Father Capodanno, fondly named “The Grunt Padre”, took upon himself the sufferings and sorrows of the 7th Marine Regiment, south of Da Nang.

The Grunt Marines were primarily enlisted young men, many just out of high school, who believed in the anti-Communist cause of freedom and were willing to fight and die for it. Father Vincent, their pastor, confessor, father and friend, chose to bunk with them, hike with them, eat what they ate, sleep where they slept and follow them unarmed into fierce battles and heavy gunfire to administer medical aid to the wounded, Extreme Unction to the dying and a final blessing to those who gave all.

Regardless of his rank and position, he was truly “one of them” in every sense. Just knowing he was there gave his fellow “grunts” morale support, comfort and consolation. Father would often walk among his men handing out St. Christopher medals with reassuring words: “God is with us all day, soldier.” Is it any wonder that so many, regardless of rank, position, faith or creed, who looked into the eyes of this humble priest, walked away with the profound feeling that they had gazed into the eyes of Christ?

It is the Catholic chaplain in this and every war which brings to the men and women in the armed forces the greatest gift this side of Heaven—the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Whether Holy Mass is celebrated on a rudely constructed table or the hood of a jeep in the midst of a battlefield, the altar of sacrifice is respectfully and piously prepared as it would in any grand cathedral. Is there a more overwhelming sight than battle-weary soldiers, far from home and family, kneeling with bowed heads in reverence and gratitude as they prepare to receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ from the consecrated hands of their beloved Chaplain?

No Greater Love

Father Vincent Capodanno 1Father Capodanno’s service as Chaplain in Vietnam continued with only temporary respites for short visits back home and a brief retreat in Manila. During these times, it was apparent that Father’s heart and mind never left his comrades facing horror and death in the fields of Vietnam.

In spite of repeated requests for an extension of duty, Father was due to arrive in the states by early December, 1967. He was willing to forego a 30-day leave so that he could be with his troops during Christmas. In August, 1967, Father was transferred to the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, but he never missed an opportunity to board a helicopter to check on his men in other units.

Only a few months before his scheduled departure, the 3rd Battalion Marines were engaged in very heavy ground warfare. The horrific sounds of war could be heard from Father’s post which afforded relative safety, but a good shepherd does not flee when his flock is in danger. Heartfelt testimonies of witnesses on this bloody battlefield gave tearful accounts of their beloved Chaplain ministering to the wounded, administering Last Rites, giving assistance in any way, sometimes only with words of faith and encouragement.

Ignoring his own severe wounds, Father Capodanno, unarmed and disregarding his own safety, ran to the aid of a mortally wounded corpsman when he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. On September 4, 1967, at age 38, the mission of The Grunt Padre had been accomplished. His bullet-riddled body was laid to rest where his sorrowful family could gaze, reflect and pray. While various inspiring monuments have been erected, memorials dedicated, and profound tributes given to Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, it is this humble gravesite in St. Peter’s Cemetery which is the final resting place of a faithful Servant of God with the heart of a priest and eyes that radiated the love of Christ.

Lieutenant Father Vincent Robert Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

The Roman Catholic Church has officially declared Father Capodanno “Servant of God” and the Cause for Canonization was opened on May 19, 2002. Father Daniel Mode is Postulator for this Cause

Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Pray for us

God Bless and Protect the Men and Women of the Armed Forces, Our Veterans, and Our Chaplains

(Primary resource and recommended reading: “The Grunt Padre” by Father Daniel Mode)



Last modified on Monday, July 21, 2014