Diocesan News

Father Capodanno’s Cause for Sainthood Slows Down, But Still Going

Maryknoll Father Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain, died while serving with the Marines in Vietnam. (Photo: Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, via CNS)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A battlefield commander’s radio message pierced the frenzied bustle at 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 the strategic rice-producing Quế Sơn Valley of 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 surmised 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.”

Father Capodanno wore the same gear as Marines on patrol, including this helmet. (Photo: Father Capodanno Guild)

Phillips, a lifelong Catholic, attended St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in East Flatbush. 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. Father Capodanno 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 would learn 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 as a saint.

However, members of the Father Capodanno Guild recently were 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 to Pope Francis. For example, 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 said. “I mean, 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, USA, is the “petitioner” of the sainthood cause. Archbishop Timothy Broglio was unavailable for comment, but he issued a statement noting that 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 [Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican],” Archbishop Broglio said.

Further context is offered by Msgr. Robert Sarno, a Brooklyn native who is now retired after 38 years as an official with the Dicastery.

Maryknoll Father Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is pictured in an undated photo. Nearly 55 years ago, he died while putting himself between a wounded Navy corpsman and fatal enemy gunfire. (CNS file photo)

He confirmed that the cause of sainthood for Father Capodanno is very much alive. He explained the Theological Consultants have three options for their recommendations or votes: affirmative, negative, or suspensive.

“This clearly was not a negative vote,” Msgr. 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 Theological Consultants’ concerns are:

** Father Capodanno’s ‘positio’ — which is essentially 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.

** As a Maryknoll missionary, the priest expressed dissatisfaction with his assignment to Hong Kong, an indication of disobedience.

** Maryknoll did not pursue this cause for sainthood.

** Father Capodanno’s fastidious appearance could be a sign of sinful pride.

** Venerating someone from the military may not be appropriate for the Church while wars persist in the world.

Msgr. Sarno addressed each of the concerns. (See “Points of Contention” below.)

He noted that all but one could be handled easily by the postulator, who advocates for the cause before the Dicastery, much like a lawyer in a legal proceeding.

According to Msgr. Sarno, the 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. 

Msgr. Sarno reminded 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 monsignor 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.

Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is pictured ministering in the field in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers)

Such cases might fall outside the strict definitions of the two traditional paths to sainthood. Those are “martyr” or the category of “confessor,” under which the Vatican scrutinizes and verifies one’s faith life displaying “heroic virtue.”

But 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,” Msgr. Sarno said. “The other three or four questions can be answered very simply, like in about five pages.” 

Phillips and Stanley said they’ll continue the cause, no matter how long it takes. Catholics in Staten Island and the Diocese of Brooklyn can help, they said, by praying for the cause. For example, they are confident that at least one miracle needed for canonization is in hand, so they urged prayers for the second.

“Remember,” Stanley said, “we’re dealing with Rome, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Phillips said, “I’m not surprised that there will be hiccups along the way like this. But I believe so strongly that Father Capodanno is a saint, and it’s just going to take time for the Church … to come to the same conclusion.”


Msgr. Robert Sarno offered interpretations of some of the concerns raised by the Theological Consultants to support the suspension of Father Vincent Capodanno’s cause for sainthood:

Maryknoll and the Cause

Father Capodanno was a Maryknoll missionary in Taiwan and Hong Kong before he joined the Navy. His biographies point out that he objected to the Hong Kong posting because he felt he had much more to accomplish in Taiwan.

The consultants, however, question why Maryknoll did not support the cause when it began several years ago. Msgr. Sarno noted that Maryknoll had gone many years without supporting the sainthood causes of people from its community.

That recently changed, however, and a good example of that is Maryknoll support of Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio’s opening of the cause for Bishop Francis Ford, Msgr. Sarno said.

“Maryknoll is now supporting our efforts,” said Vice Adm. (Retired) Stephen Stanley, board chairman for the Father Capodanno Guild.


Disobedience Indicated

The consultants posited that Father Capodanno’s dissatisfaction with the posting to Hong Kong as a Maryknoll missionary indicated disobedience. 

“Well, did he go to Hong Kong after Taiwan? He did,” responded Msgr. Sarno. “Anyone could have objections. That doesn’t make him unholy. This is another easy objection to answer.”

Stanley noted that it was in Hong Kong where Father Capodanno met U.S. service members who inspired him to be a chaplain in Vietnam.

“He discerned his call to go help them,” the retired admiral said. “And he obediently requested permission to transfer to the military.”



Father Capodanno traded his collar for a necktie when he became a Navy chaplain during the Vietnam War. (Photo: Father Capodanno Guild)

The consultants noted that Father Capodanno reportedly was fastidious about his appearance, an indication of sinful pride. Many argue that a naval officer must adhere to strict grooming standards, something with which Msgr. Sarno agrees. He added that officers are expected to set good examples.

“That concern shows a lack of knowledge of military life and training,” he said. “Remember, all military chaplains have officer status. They’re not expected by the military brass to be one of the boys.”


Venerating Service members

Msgr. Sarno said the question of venerating soldiers is a longtime concern of the Church, particularly for those who killed other people in battle.

“But that traditional objection about people in the military does not at all apply to Vincent Capodanno,” he said. “Here was someone who was taking care of people, not to enable them to go back out and kill, but rather to save them spiritually in case they should die.”

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