The Word Among Us

September 2017 Issue

A Missionary Never Stops Working

Father Vincent Capodanno radiated Christ in a combat zone.

By: Fr. Daniel Mode

A Missionary Never Stops Working: Father Vincent Capodanno radiated Christ in a combat zone. by Fr. Daniel Mode

If kryptonite was Superman’s great vulnerability, Fr. Vincent Capodanno’s was a strong attachment to orderliness and presentation. It took decades for him to let God’s will for his life supersede these habits, but as he did, God gave him more messy and rugged work to do.

His life—as well as his death on a Vietnam battlefield—proves that a grain of wheat must indeed descend to the ground in order to bear fruit (John 12:24).

The Aspiration to Sacrifice. Vincent Capodanno was born in 1929, months before the start of the Great Depression. The youngest of nine children in a close-knit Italian-American family, he was raised on Staten Island in New York. He grew up in an era of patriotism, and it was with great pride that he saw his three older brothers leave home to serve in the military during World War II.

As a young boy, Vincent wanted to be a doctor. Although his grades didn’t stand out, he was meticulous—his classmates voted him “best dressed” and “best looking.” This attentiveness to detail undergirded his spiritual life too. On the days he went to Mass before school, he would carry a boiled egg in his pocket so that he could keep the Communion fast. After high school, “Vince” continued going to daily Mass while taking classes at Fordham University. His devotion to God culminated in the spring of 1949, when he went on a retreat at a parish in Manhattan. There he told a friend that he felt called to the priesthood.

From early on, the valor of missionary life seemed to draw Vincent. He read the popular Catholic magazine Field Afar, which published stories of missionaries bringing Christ to remote places. When he applied to become a priest with the Foreign Mission Society of America (the Maryknolls), Vincent understood that this path could mean hard physical labor and long separation from family and friends. But he said, “Any personal sacrifice . . . will be compensated for by the fact that I am serving God.” After he was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1958, he had the chance to put these words to the test. His first assignment was mountainous Taiwan.

Disarray in the Mission Field. Fr. Capodanno was sent to serve a population of Hakka Chinese people in the Taiwanese village of Tunglo. It was an odd choice because he was neither a gifted language learner nor someone accustomed to crude environs. By nature a spic-and-span priest who preferred his shoes to remain clean, he struggled to adapt to the rustic conditions. What’s more, unlike his time in seminary, day-to-day life in Tunglo was unstructured. It required priests to bring a creative and adaptable approach to catechesis and mission work. But God took his willingness to serve and began to help him build pastoral relationships in Tunglo and other townships.

Capodanno began to develop the pastoral skill of listening intently—in some cases because he couldn’t understand the person speaking. He sought guidance from a spiritual book given to him at ordination: Radiating Christ. “Souls are won by words, they are won by example, but above all they are won by sacrifice,” he read. So Capodanno kept working at his Hakka Chinese for six years in Taiwan with the expectation that he would continue ministering there for many more years.

It came as a surprise and a deep disappointment when his superiors told him he was reassigned to a private boys school in urban Hong Kong. They felt he needed to live in an easier environment, but he felt that his service to the Hakka was finally producing results. Even as he moved to Hong Kong, Capodanno mailed several letters asking for permission to return to Taiwan, so that his years of adapting to the Hakka language and culture would not be wasted.

When his requests were rejected, it felt like a personal defeat. But Capodanno believed God wanted him to continue challenging himself, not merely consign himself to an easier posting. In prayer, he sought the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about where to serve next. He soon cabled his bishop with a new request. Since he could not be in Taiwan, he asked to join the Chaplain Corps, caring for the Marines serving in the Vietnam War. He felt convicted that the men going into battle needed the presence of a priest.

“I’m just there with them.” It was the most unlikely assignment his friends pictured him wanting—even more demanding than Taiwan. It went against his white-glove personality, at least as his friends and superiors perceived it. Marines, known as “grunts,” had a reputation for being battle worn and gritty, not neat and clean.

But Fr. Capodanno’s zeal was rewarded with an assignment in the war zone, and he reported for duty in the spring of 1966 with the Seventh Marine Regiment in Vietnam. He soon endeared himself to the soldiers under his care. It was clear that he wanted to be one of them. “I am just there with them,” he wrote. “I walk with them and sit with them; I eat with them and sleep in the holes with them, and I talk with them.” That wasn’t all though. He also accompanied the men on dangerous missions.

While he traveled with combat units, he circulated among the men as they hiked. He encouraged and prayed with the Marines. When one was wounded, he would bend over and say something like, “The medics are coming—hold tight. May God our Father watch over you, my brother.” When someone was killed in action, he would whisper the Act of Contrition in his ear. “God will hear it,” he told his aides, “and then he will forgive all their sins.” There amidst the horrors of the war zone, his perfectionism was being refined into the simple presence of Christ.

Radiating Christ in a Combat Zone. Although bravery was required in combat, Chaplain Capodanno didn’t lose his sensitive touch when it came to the Marines’ human needs. One day he noticed a young Marine wearing sandals around base camp while his unit was out fighting. He asked what was wrong. The frustrated Marine said his feet were too large to fit into standard boots. Fr. Capodanno personally intervened. He requested that the Marine be granted leave in Hong Kong and that a pair of boots be tailor-made for him.

Through such dedication to his Marines in matters both great and small, Chaplain Capodanno received the title of an insider: “Grunt Padre.” The closer he got to his grunts, the closer he felt to Christ. He was so much at home serving the Marines that he asked to extend his assignment past the typical twelve-month rotation in a war zone. Amazingly, he received permission to serve for an unprecedented seventeen months in Vietnam. Throughout the long months in this strange and violent setting, Fr. Capodanno underwent a noticeable change. It was as if Jesus radiated through him more and more. As he tended to the Marines, his own needs and preferences all but disappeared, and his whole purpose became ministering with greater kindness and dedication. A fellow hospital chaplain remembers seeing Chaplain Capodanno respond to severe injuries. “The patient would be surrounded by doctors and corpsmen, and I would see the chaplain’s hand quickly pass through the mob and anoint the person.”

The Final Witness. On September 4, 1967, Fr. Capodanno made his final offering for his Marines. The American troops had been outnumbered five to one in the Que Son Valley. Capodanno rode a helicopter to the scene of the battle so that he could minister to the wounded and dying. Landing in a hail of bullets, he sprang into action. He immediately began offering first aid and the Anointing of the Sick to the wounded on the battlefield. He carried a radio operator to the safety of the command post and sacrificed his gas mask to another Marine who had lost his.

As the battle grew more intense, Capodanno ran to the aid of a wounded corpsman. On the way, he was caught by an enemy machine gunner. Barraged by bullets, he fell to the ground and died quickly. The Marine who recovered his body said that Fr. Capodanno was holding his Bible and smiling, his eyelids closed as if in prayer.

A Missionary Never Stops Working. That was a half century ago, but Fr. Capodanno’s missionary work hasn’t slowed down. People inspired by his story have dedicated chapels, ships, streets, and artwork to his memory. In May of 2006, the Church declared him a Servant of God. Since then, people have reported conversions, physical healings, and vocations to the priesthood through Fr. Capodanno’s intercession.

In one particularly dramatic case, a high school football player with cancer began to pray for healing through Fr. Capodanno’s intercession. The young man had already had one operation and was facing chemotherapy. Five weeks later, at a checkup, CT scans revealed that his tumors had disappeared. The boy has had no relapses. He appears to have been completely cured. If validated by the Church’s investigation, this miracle could propel Fr. Capodanno to beatification.

All this happened because a fastidious and cautious man surrendered himself to the Lord and followed where he led. By his example and through his intercession, may we all overcome our greatest weaknesses so that we can radiate Christ more and more.

Fr. Daniel Mode is a navy chaplain and the postulator for the canonization cause of Fr. Vincent Capodanno.