I buried my 2nd cousin a few weeks back. She was only 28. Since she was nine years old she had battled a variety of diseases, beginning with juvenile diabetes. Then at 16 she caught some other ailment and at 23 she developed cancer. Last December she had a liver transplant and all went well for a few months. But then things began to deteriorat. The doctors did all they could but they could never get Erin well enough to survive another transplant. Erin’s family are devout Catholics and I watched them struggle with their faith during these last few months, so at Erin’s funeral I though I would take a few moments to remind all of us of some of the fundamentals of our Catholic beliefs.I’ve been a Catholic my whole life, all of 64 years. Every Sunday for 60 of those years I’ve stood up there with the congregation and "rattled" off the Nicene Creed on our way to the first collection. I reminded my family of the closing phrases of the Creed…I believe in the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting! I figure over the 60 or so years I said this at least 3,000 times, or I "rattled" it off on the way to the collection. In fact, even today I have difficulty keeping up with the congregation; they are so far ahead of me!
But we are people who believe in the resurrection, in life everlasting, in the communion of saints. Life here is just a journey. It’s not our destination. We were created to be with Him who loves us with a love we will never comprehend. We will see our loved ones again, in His kingdom.
Allow me to change gears a bit. In Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland there’s a simple grave in the churchyard of the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church. This church is the only one dedicated to a layman. Daniel O’Connell is known as the "Liberator" in Ireland and every Irish kid knows the story. At any rate, buried in that grave is Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Monsignor O’Flaherty is a hero of mine and they made a movie about him some years ago. The movie is called "The Scarlet and the Black" Why do I tell you this on a day when we gather to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for the life of Father Vince Capodanno? Because some day I want to meet Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and some day I want to meet Father Vince Capodanno.
Not far from here there’s a magnificent 492-foot long monument that bears the names of over 50,000 casualties of the Vietnam War. I visited it several years ago while I was still on active duty with the Air Force. I was TDY here for some conference or other and I had some time on my hands. I wandered down the Mall and came upon the Vietnam Memorial. As you know, wedged in between the panels are letters, cards, testimonials from family members, colleagues etc. They will tear at your heart.
I had heard about Father Vince Capodanno and I looked for his name. It’s on panel 25E, line 95. I wondered about this man for a while, and then headed back to the comfort of whatever Air Force base I was stationed at then. I never realized that a few years later I would be an auxiliary bishop at the Archdiocese for the Military Services and we would be considering the saintliness of this Marine chaplain.
In 1992 Father Dan Mode, a priest of the Arlington diocese was working on his Master’s thesis on Father Capodanno. Folks who looked his thesis suggested he write a book. The thesis became a book called "The Grunt Padre" and it is an excellent introduction to the life of a man whose cause for sainthood was introduced by the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA in May 2007.
A few words, if I may, about a man who embodied the words of Jesus in Chapter 15 of John’s gospel…"no greater love does a man have than to lay down his life for his friends." 1949 was a pivotal year for the young insurance man from Staten Island. He and a close friend went on a retreat. He finally reveals his struggle with a vocation and his desire to become a priest, not just any priest, mind you, but a Maryknoll Missionary, no doubt a result of exposure to the Maryknoll magazine "The Field Afar"
He embarked on nine years of preparation, during which he struggled with Latin and probably a few other subjects as well. He may even have been a "two point oh and go" kind of guy like someone else I know! Following his nine years of preparation he is ordained a priest and Maryknoll sends him to Taiwan. We are honored this evening to have with us Father Don Dolan, his pastor for six months in Taiwan. Father Capodanno struggles with the Hakka dialect, is a reasonably effective missionary but, according to some accounts, tangles with his superiors and is rewarded with an assignment to Hong Kong, the Air Force equivalent might be Minot Air Force Base! However, the assignment becomes the catalyst for a vocation crisis.
Again, not unlike someone else I know, he petitions his superiors to be allowed to return to Taiwan. But no one appears to be listening. Again and again he petitions, to no avail. Then, out of the blue there’s this telegram to his superiors requesting permission to join the United States Navy and serve with the Marines!
I’m not sure what was really going through the minds of his superiors in New York, but the Maryknoll Fathers release Father Capodanno to the Navy! Perhaps, they felt "he’ll be the Navy’s problem for a while"
It’s funny, but God works in marvelous and often incomprehensible ways. It was on Friday the 13th 1965 that Vince Capodanno was released to the Navy! For many years I have maintained that the chaplain service is a vocation within a vocation and on Friday the 13th 1965 Vince Capodanno began a journey that continues here today.
Convicted by the Gospel of Jesus, Chaplain Vince Capodanno wanted to be where the action was, wanted to serve with the Marines. A fellow Marine Chaplain Eli Takesian says it best "He just wanted to be with the Grunts. He was more a Marine than anything else!"
Described by those who knew him well as "soft-spoken, thin and wiry, ascetic, humble and thoughtful" the Grunts saw Christ when they saw "Vinnie" Capodanno. So on 4 September 1967 Chaplain Vince Capodanno was where he wanted to be, at the base of a knoll, in the midst of a firefight, with his beloved Marines. He had badgered his superiors to be allowed to accompany them that morning. He was determined to do what he was there to do; he was not going to let the enemy interfere with his business. And his business, as he saw it, was to bring comfort to his Grunts, to reassure them that "someone will be here to help you soon."
Sometimes running through hails of bullets and other times crawling in the mud he dragged wounded Marines to safety, knelt by the sides of others bringing them the comfort of the Sacraments and anointing them as they died on the field of battle.
Wounded twice that day, he gave his gas mask to a choking Marine who had lost his. He had done enough already that day, but that was not Vince Capodanno. A short distance away a Marine medic "Doc" Leal was wounded. The padre got over to him and as Father "Vinnie" supported the wounded medic a Viet Cong machine gun opened up and killed them both.
A few minutes later the radio crackled with "3/5 Number 21 is KIA." Number 21 is the code for "Chaplain." The Grunt Padre had been called home
What can we learn from the life of this heroic priest? A few quotes from Father Dan Mode’s book "The Grunt Padre"…His only resolve was to do the will of God. He tried as hard as he could to share in the struggles and sufferings of the men to whom he ministered. His was a ministry of love and personal concern. His duty to God, service to his Marines overshadowed any personal fear. When things got tough, Father Capodanno always showed up!
The will of God was paramount in his life. He knew his people! He loved his people! He was there for them! He spent himself for his Grunts!
Once asked to comment at a memorial service, Father Capodanno said the following "God loved them or they would never have been born. God called them when they were most prepared to go. Do not let their names become empty memories."
This evening, I feel the need to make a few small changes to Father Capodanno’s words… God loved him or he would never have been born! God called him when he was most prepared to go. Do not let his name become an empty memory.
I want to meet this man! And so should you!
Take a gun away from Hitler, take tanks away from Stalin and let these men stand on their own moral responsibility with no other power to command than their honesty, their love of truth, and their purity of heart, and see how long they could command. Our Lord has commanded obedience from the world for 20 centuries with no other weapon than a defenseless cross...... But take terror away from Red leaders and they could not command men for four seconds.
Our nation is at war- a reality not lost upon the men and women of Northern Virginia, home to military bases, civlian support, defense industry and the Pentagon. One the ocassion of this remembrance of the tragedy, I wish to thank the members of our Armed Services currently serving our country throughout the world. Your committment to protecting this great nation in so many ways mirrors the selfless sacrifice of our Savior, who died for us. As your brothers and sisters, we cannot fail to recognize your generosity.
I urge the faithful not to forget the events of September 11, 2001, and to pray that we might rediscover the spirit of unity, sacrifice, and prayer which marked the immediate aftermath, while at the same time seeking from God an end to terrorism and violent death throughout the world. May the God of mercy grant fullness of life in His eternal presence to all those who died on September 11th and give all of us who remain the support of His strengthening grace as we journy homeward to Him!
(In 2001).... we witnessed the terrorist attacks against the sanctity of human life and the common good, and we must defend these goods in a manner which is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Appeasement has never shown itself to be the friend of peace; therefore, we must act in a just manner to confront the evil of terrorism so that the world my be a safe and peaceful place for generations to come.
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I look upon the spiritual life of the soldier as even more important than his physical equipment. The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul sustains him; if not he cannot be relied upon and he will fail himself, his commander, and his country in the end. It’s morale and I mean spiritual morale, which wins the victory ultimately. And that type of morale can only come out of a soldier who knows God and who has the spirit of religious fervor in his soul.
--Gen. George C. Marshall
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