Remembering and Giving Thanks on Memorial Day

Father Vincent Capodanno in field

Fr. Capodanno in field

When people come to visit our nation’s capital, many go to Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to those brave men and women who worked to defend our nation, including giving the last full measure of their devotion in the service of security and freedom. “Where did they find the strength necessary to do their duty to the full, other than in total adherence to the professed ideals?”  asked Saint John Paul II when, during the Jubilee Year of 2000, he honored members of the military, especially those who had given their lives.  “Many of them believed in Christ,” he explained, “and his words illumined their existence and gave an exemplary value to their sacrifice. They made the Gospel their code of conduct.”

Every day, the women and men in our armed forces fight against violence and the disruptive forces of evil.  As Saint John Paul said, “you are called to defend the weak, to protect the honest, to foster the peaceful coexistence of peoples. The role of the sentinel, who scans the horizon to avert danger and promote justice and peace everywhere, befits each of you.”  We can rightly say to them who have worked to safeguard peace and protect life, blessed are the peacemakers.

Every person who has served to defend us, most particularly those who have made the supreme sacrifice, deserves our gratitude and prayers.  In addition to Arlington Cemetery, another of the places that visitors often go is down to the Mall, to the memorials for the veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, where many people can be found reading the names of the men and women who died and the places they served, laying flowers and offering a humble prayer for them.  One of the names on the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is Father Vincent Capodanno, who was declared a “Servant of God” in 2006 following the opening of his cause for canonization in 2002.

As a young priest with the Catholic Foreign Mission Society, better known as the Maryknolls, Father Capodanno heard the call to minister to the troops in our military and he joined the Navy Chaplain Corps.  After receiving his commission, Father Capodanno was assigned to a battalion in Vietnam and gained a reputation for always being there, for always taking care of his Marines.  He established libraries, organized outreach programs for local villagers and he spent hours reassuring the weary, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions and instructing converts.

It was during his second tour that Father Capodanno demonstrated the greatest love by laying down his life for his friends (cf. John 15:13).  On September 4, 1967, a fierce battle began where the Marines were greatly outnumbered.  Early in the day, the man nicknamed “the Grunt Padre” suffered a gunshot wound that shattered his hand, but he refused to be evacuated.  Later, “a mortar landed near him and left his right arm in shreds hanging from his side. Once again, he was patched up and once again he refused evacuation,” reported one witness. “There he was, moving slowly from wounded to dead to wounded using his left arm to support his right as he gave absolution or Last Rites” when he saw a fallen and wounded corpsman in the line of fire.  As he ran out to minister to him, Father Capodanno was killed by a burst of machine gun fire.

In 1969, Father Capodanno was awarded the Medal of Honor, one of five Catholic chaplains to be so esteemed since the Civil War.  Meanwhile, chapels throughout the world have been established bearing his name, as well as the Navy ship USS Cappodanno, which received a papal blessing from Saint John Paul in 1981.

On this Memorial Day, we remember and prayerfully give thanks for Servant of God Father Vincent Capodanno and for all those valiant men and women who have shown us the way of selfless service, even up to the ultimate sacrifice.  They inspire us all to do our part to protect and care for others, which helps bring true peace to our world.

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