“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:23-24).”
Those words from Sunday’s Lenten Gospel moved me to recall the life of one of my favorite priests, Fr. Vincent Capodanno. Born on Staten Island in 1929, Vincent was, by the world’s standards, a rather shy and unremarkable young man. Nonetheless, he loved the Lord and resolved to become a Catholic priest. Fr. Vincent entered the Maryknoll missionary society and for seven years served the people of western Taiwan. In 1965, as American participation in the Vietnam War was increasing, Fr. Vincent enlisted in the Navy as a priest chaplain. Assigned to the Marine Corps, Chaplain Capodanno arrived in Vietnam during Holy Week of 1966. His work with the Marines there resulted in a tremendous respect and admiration from the men toward their spiritual father. Because he did what they did and went where they went – even into combat zones – the Marines called Capodanno, “The Grunt Padre.” His readiness to love and sacrifice for those men reached its fulfillment on September 4, 1967.
Knowing that battle was imminent, Fr. Vincent joined a battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment as they travelled by helicopter into the Que Son Valley. When the fierce fighting began, Capodanno was on one side of a small hill, a place of relative safety, but he could clearly hear the cries of wounded and dying Marines coming from the opposite side. Oblivious to his own safety, he ran, under fire, over the hill and onto the battlefield. Moving from Marine to Marine, he gave medical assistance and offered the sacraments to those who were dying. Witnesses recalled their chaplain speaking such words as, “Have faith. Jesus is the truth and the life,” and, “God is with us all this day.” Severely wounded by mortar fire, his right hand nearly severed, he refused to leave the field and continued to aid the wounded and dying. Spotting a wounded corpsman, he made a heroic dash to save the man from enemy fire, but as he arrived, the burst of machine gun killed the chaplain instantly. Fr. Capodanno died in an effort to give life to another.
Our Lord and Savior also died so that another could have life. That other person is me. That other person is you. Jesus, the grain of wheat which produces much fruit, shielded us from death by dying on the cross. He took the bullet on our behalf. He paid the price for our sins. We live, only because he has died.
Like Fr. Vincent Capodanno, and especially in imitation of our Lord, we too are called to live for others, to sacrifice our own desires for those of others. If we live just for ourselves, when the day of judgment comes, we will have just ourselves. That’s not much of a prize. But if we live for others, when the end comes, not only will we receive ourselves, but we will also receive the fellowship of all the saints and the friendship of our Lord forever. We, as our Savior, will be grains of wheat which have produced much fruit. And that is a prize worth dying for.
Be assured of my prayers,