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The Grunt Padre: A Holy Week Journey Toward Sainthood

As a Lieutenant in the U. S. Navy Chaplain Corps, Father Vincent Capodanno finally reached a much-anticipated goal, arriving in Vietnam during Holy Week, 1966. While he couldn’t know it at the time, stepping onto Vietnamese soil initiated his journey to his own personal passion, his own way of the cross, at the same time that the Passion of Jesus was being commemorated.

Vietnam: the name evokes powerful images – evening news battle scenes, casualty lists mounting into many thousands. For this Catholic priest, a Vietnam battlefield became the arena where his vocation played itself out to the highest possible degree.

Vincent Robert Capodanno, Jr., was born on Staten Island, New York, on February 13, 1929, the tenth and last child of Vincent, Sr., and Rachel. Theirs was an Italian-American Catholic family, intensely devoted, loving, open-hearted, hospitable. Vincent learned values of hard work, ethnic pride, and stalwart faith in God. This faith was tested severely when Vincent, Sr. died suddenly, on young Vincent’s tenth birthday, leaving Rachel to assume responsibility for her large family.

World War II saw three Capodanno sons in uniform. Vincent attended grade school and then high school during the war years, developing a deep patriotism that would evidence itself strongly later in his life.

Photo courtesy of the Father Capodanno Guild

Handsome, personable, and clean-cut, Vincent enjoyed extracurricular activities. Setting him apart from his classmates was his habit of attending weekday Mass before school. After graduation, he took a clerical job to contribute to family finances while attending night classes at Fordham University.

During this time, the 20-year old made a retreat during which his call to the priesthood became irresistible. Vincent was drawn to the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, or Maryknoll, whose missioners labored in far-flung global locations.

As Father Daniel Mode, author of the biography of Father Capodanno entitled The Grunt Padre, put it, “To live Christ Jesus was the greatest desire of Father Vincent’s heart. From the start, he was attracted to Maryknoll because he saw in the life of the missionary the fullest realization of this desire.”

Vincent’s seminary years culminated with his ordination by Francis Cardinal Spellman on June 14, 1958. As a Maryknoll missionary, Father Capodanno was assigned to a remote mountain district of Taiwan. Some who knew him must have wondered how Father Vincent – meticulous in appearance, a lover of cleanliness and order – would fare in such primitive circumstances.

Father Vincent, struggling to master the extremely difficult Hakka dialect, began his active ministry. Besides celebrating Mass and sacraments in remote villages, Father gave instruction to native catechists and distributed necessary food and medicines. During this six-year period, as a fellow missioner marveled, the fastidious priest somehow also managed to keep his shoes shined!

Reassigned to teach at his Order’s school in Hong Kong, Father Vincent soon discerned that his heart lay elsewhere. In the summer of 1965, the Vietnam War intensifying, he received permission to join the U. S. Navy Chaplain Corps. Father added a stipulation, one with portentous ramifications for his future: to minister to our Marines serving in Vietnam.

Fr. Capodanno (L) standing with an unnamed Marine in front of a chapel constructed by marines at Chu Lai, Vietnam, probably in 1966 (exact date uncertain). Photo courtesy of the Father Capodanno Guild.

From the outset of his 1966 Holy Week arrival, Father Capodanno’s approach to his duties with the 7th and 5th Marine Regiments was quite different from that of most chaplains. His overwhelming desire was to live with the Marines – devoid of comforts, eating and sleeping with them, carrying a heavy pack, marching through weather extremes (fastidiousness forgotten). Being one with them meant placing himself repeatedly in terrifying situations; where his Marines were in trouble, he was needed most. His mere presence during operations was a source of inspiration and courage for them.

On the spiritual front, standard practice was for Father to helicopter-hop between locations to celebrate Mass multiple times, a minimum of fifteen per week by his own accounting. On request and as conditions allowed, he gave instruction to anyone desiring to convert to the Catholic faith.

Never one to keep to the rear when the going got rough, Father Vincent accompanied his “grunts” (a term for enlisted infantry Marines) on one mission after another, ministering to them during heated enemy encounters. He gave counsel, heard confessions, dispensed rosaries and Saint Christopher medals, and in the heat of battle was heard to urge, “Stay calm, Marine. God is with us all this day.” He anointed countless young men, many mortally wounded. His was the last voice they would hear on earth, gently reassuring them of God’s love and the promise of resurrection.

Also notable were the many smaller ways Father Vincent found to help make Marines’ lives more bearable. He shared his books, food, and ever-present cigarettes, kept his tent open for late-night talks, and solicited donors to send edible treats and gifts year-round. And all too often, he wrote moving letters of condolence to families of the fallen.

The “Grunt Padre” was a man perfectly suited to his difficult task – approachable, selfless, humble, calm under fire, and totally dedicated to his Marines. So great was Father Vincent’s commitment that he requested a 6-month extension of his tour of duty. His grunts returned the devotion of their “Grunt Padre” in kind, recognizing in him many qualities mindful of Jesus Himself.

On September 4, 1967, Father Capodanno accompanied Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, responding to a frantic call for reinforcements. As usual, he gave general absolution and distributed Holy Communion. Throughout the fierce battle, his Marines greatly outnumbered, Father traveled from one area to another through relentless enemy fire, giving comfort, pulling the wounded to safety, and anointing the dying.

Finally, Father Vincent heard a wounded corpsman’s agonized cry for help. Knowing the proximity of an enemy machine gun, and ignoring his own multiple wounds, Father placed his body between the machine gun and the wounded corpsman. Both were killed instantly.

Father Capodanno received numerous commendations for courage under fire, including the prestigious Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously. Various memorials to him exist in several countries. None of these would have mattered to him. The Grunt Padre demonstrated his selfless, all-consuming love, first for his Lord Jesus Christ and then for his Marines. He served both with all he had to give.

In 2006, the Catholic Church declared Father Vincent Capodanno a Servant of God, the first step on his new mission – to sainthood.

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The Grunt Padre by Father Daniel L. Mode, CMJ Marian Publishers, 2000 Called and Chosen, DVD; contact Father Capodanno Guild website The Grunt Padre in Vietnam, DVD based on The Grunt Padre by Father Daniel L. Mode

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Theresa Cavicchio is married to a former 3/5 Marine Vietnam veteran. She and her husband Joseph are working with the Father Capodanno Guild to spread the word about this holy priest and to encourage prayers for his canonization.