A Chaplain's Chaplain

PETER DUFFY

As a young chaplain candidate in the U.S. Navy in the late 1980s, the Rev. Daniel L. Mode became captivated by the story of a Roman Catholic priest who was killed at age 38 while ministering to U.S. Marines in 1967.

Rev. Vincent R. Capodanno
1929-1967

Over the next several years, Father Mode immersed himself in the life of the Rev. Vincent R. Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary from Staten Island, N.Y., who spent 16 months traveling from battlefield to battlefield in Vietnam. What began as Father Mode's master's thesis at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., turned into a book called The Grunt Padre, published in 2000.

Working with an organization called Catholics in the Military, Father Mode used the research in his book to initiate a "cause for canonization" application to Rome. In 2006, Father Capodanno was declared a "Servant of God," the first step in the journey to sainthood. The Vatican named Father Mode as "postulator," or promoter of the cause, and a tribunal was established to interview witnesses to Father Capodanno's life. One authenticated miracle will qualify the Vietnam War chaplain for beatification; a second for sainthood.

Father Mode, who is 42, does not advocate for his hero's holiness from behind a desk in a diocesan headquarters somewhere. Rather, he is following Father Capodanno's example, serving as a Navy chaplain in a war zone. He has been on active duty for three years now, including 20 months in Afghanistan.

"I can identify with him more," Father Mode says by telephone from the USS Harry S. Truman, a Naval aircraft carrier now stationed in the Persian Gulf. "I've been in a cold, dirty, cramped Humvee for hours on end. It has brought a realism to my study of his life."

Father Mode is one of 300 active-duty Catholic chaplains in the U.S. military, responsible for tending to the 375,000 Catholic service personnel. "I need about 500 more," quips Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A.

Catholic chaplains have been part of the U.S. military since the Rev. Adam Marshall, S.J., was commissioned as a Navy officer in 1824, serving on the USS North Carolina. Although two chaplains now have been formally nominated for sainthood — along with Father Capodanno, there is the Rev. Emil J. Kapaun, who was killed in Korea in 1951 — the most famous Catholic chaplains are probably two others: the Rev. Francis Duffy of "The Fighting 69th," played by Pat O'Brien in the 1940 film about World War I, and the fictional Father Mulcahy of the M*A*S*H TV series.

While the modern Catholic Church has been reluctant to support armed conflict in all but the most exceptional circumstances — "War no more, war never again!" Pope Paul VI famously cried at the United Nations in 1965 — the church has always taken seriously its duty to care for the souls of fighting men and women. The Vatican's opposition to the Iraq war, Archbishop Broglio says, "does not change the responsibility that we have to attend to soldiers who are engaged in war." The same principle applied during the Vietnam War, when the Vatican made repeated attempts to halt the conflict.


"If a company was going out, he would just slip into their midst and he'd be gone before you knew it," says Tony Grimm, a captain who was assigned by his battalion commander to keep track of the priest.


From his post on the USS Truman, Father Mode told me that few chaplains were better at relating to the average grunt in war than Father Capodanno, a thin, soft-spoken winner of the Bronze Star and the Medal of Honor. The New Yorker is remembered for his keen listening ability, his to-the-point homilies and his expressive eyes. "They were gentle eyes, hurting eyes, compassionate eyes — eyes that had seen an awful lot, eyes that would embrace you," said Eli Takesian, a Presbyterian chaplain who served alongside him.

Father Capodanno was renowned for his willingness to be among Marines in the heat of combat. "If a company was going out, he would just slip into their midst and he'd be gone before you knew it," says Tony Grimm, a captain who was assigned by his battalion commander to keep track of the priest.

On Sept. 4, 1967, the men of M or "Mike" Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, fought a vicious battle with North Vietnamese Army regulars in the Que Son Valley, 30 miles south of Da Nang. Throughout the day, Father Capodanno administered last rites, delivered medical care and dragged injured Marines to safety — even after he was twice struck by gunfire in his hand and shoulder.

Ray Harton, who at the time of the battle had been in Vietnam for three months and who now lives in Carrollton, Ga., was one of the last Marines to see Father Capodanno alive. He himself was injured in the battle, having been shot in the left arm. He recalls the peace that came over him as he heard the priest's voice: "Stay calm, Marine. Someone will be here to help. God is with all of us this day." Father Capodanno then dashed to tend to another wounded corpsman — and was fatally cut down by machine-gun fire.

Father Mode is trying hard to ensure that Father Capodanno's heroic service in Vietnam is properly recognized and remembered. His efforts, by extension, call attention to the service of many, many other chaplains, including those still ministering under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fr. Mode tells the story of
Fr. Capodanno.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Peter Duffy. "Charity by Proxy." The Wall Street Journal (March 7, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Duffy is the author of The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal



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