By Beth Griffin
MARYKNOLL, N.Y. (CNS) – Fifty years after he put himself between a wounded Marine and fatal enemy gunfire, the story of Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno’s faith and sacrifice is being retold in a new movie.
His memory is cherished by those who knew him, his cause for canonization is promoted by those with whom he served and a new generation of young Catholics in his old neighborhood has come to know the Staten Island native.
Father Capodanno’s story may reach its largest audience yet when “Called and Chosen,” a 90-minute movie of his life, premiered earlier this year on EWTN.
The priest was serving a second tour of duty in Vietnam as a Navy chaplain ministering to Marines when he was wounded during a North Vietnamese ambush in the Que Son Valley Sept. 4, 1967.
Despite his injuries, he went to the aid of a fellow corpsman who was pinned down by an enemy machine gunner. While he administered medical and spiritual attention, the unarmed chaplain was struck by 27 bullets and died at age 38.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, in addition to the Purple Heart, Navy Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star.
“He was an amazing man. You couldn’t talk to him and ever forget it,” George J. Phillips told Catholic News Service. Phillips, a retired Marine Corps captain, was with the chaplain’s Marines unit and “on the knoll when Father Capodanno was killed.”
He is chairman of the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild, an association established in 2013 to promote the chaplain’s cause for canonization.
Father Capodanno was born in New York in 1929, the 10th child of Italian immigrants. He was ordained a Maryknoll missioner in 1958 and served in Taiwan and Hong Kong before asking permission from his religious superiors to join the Navy Chaplain Corps. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the spring of 1966 and went to Vietnam.
“He always referred to us as ‘my Marines,’” and he lived, ate and slept in the same conditions as the men, Phillips said.
“At the end of his first tour, Father Capodanno still saw the need for his work with ‘his Marines’ and asked for an extension through the Christmas holidays,” Phillips said.
In 2002, Father Capodanno’s sainthood cause was officially opened, giving him the title of “servant of God.” In 2004, initial documentation was submitted to Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
In 2013, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services presided over the formal renewal of the opening of the cause and announced at that time that the newly established Father Vincent Capodanno Guild would serve as the petitioner.
The archdiocesan phase of the cause was closed this past May at an annual memorial Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The findings of the local tribunal were sent to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes for review.
The idea for a movie about Father Capodanno’s life came from the guild, according to Phillips. “We wanted to tell his whole story, from growing up as a child of dedicated, practicing Catholics, through his high school and college years, to his priesthood and Vietnam experience,” Phillips said. The guild partnered with EWTN to produce and distribute the film, which Phillips said cost approximately $750,000.
James Kelty was chosen to produce, write, direct and edit the movie. Since 2010, Kelty has produced docudramas for EWTN about Sts. Isaac Jogues, Junipero Serra and Kateri Tekakwitha, among others.
Kelty said he started with a lot of archival photos and a few minutes of Marines video and determined the most compelling way to tell the story was to intersperse interviews with family members and former Marines with dramatizations of key events in Father Capodanno’s life.
This included re-enacting battle scenes from Vietnam at the Sanna Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, and filming parishioners at St. Bridget Chinese Catholic Church in Los Angeles.
Actor James Hutson portrays Father Capodanno as an adult. Kelty identified him through a traditional audition process. Damien Ferreira plays the priest as a young boy; Kelty discovered him while leading a pilgrimage tour along the Father Junipero Serra Trail.