WASHINGTON — Since Catholics make up a full quarter of the U.S. military, it stands to reason that many have paid the ultimate price in their service to the country.
Catholics have a reputation for bravery, according to the archbishop of the Archdiocese for Military Services, which includes under its spiritual umbrella all military personnel.
“They’ve been known for their valiant service and their fidelity,” said Archbishop Thomas Broglio. “I think that’s very much to their credit.”
This became starkly evident in a moving White House ceremony in April, when the parents of Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor received the Medal of Honor from the hands of President Bush.
Monsoor served in Ramadi, Iraq, and was killed when he fell on a live grenade to save the lives of his comrades in September 2006.
According to the U.S. Navy website, Monsoor “attended Mass devotionally before operations.” He was the third person to be awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq.
Judy McCloskey, founder of CatholicMil.org, a website devoted to helping Catholics in military life, reflected on Monsoor’s sacrifice. For Catholics, she said, “sacrifice is never understood to be a waste, but is always considered priceless, so central to our faith is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”
In his Great Jubilee 2000 address to the military, Pope John Paul II commended the role of the military services and added: “I would like to offer a tribute to your many friends who have paid with their lives for fidelity to their mission. Forgetting themselves and despising danger, they rendered the community a priceless service. Today, during the Eucharistic celebration, we entrust them to the Lord with gratitude and admiration.”
There are 294 Catholic chaplains on active duty in all branches of the military, all over the world, according to Msgr. Ronald Newland of the Military Archdiocese. That means getting to Mass in combat zones is difficult and often impossible, a major concern for Sgt. Joseph Richard III, a Catholic from Louisiana who was killed in action April 14 in Baghdad.
Richard “re-found his fervor for the faith when he went into the Army. He would lead his little unit in prayer before they went out for their battles. I had asked my friends in Regnum Christi [the apostolate of movement of the Legion of Christ congregation] to pray for his safety,” said his sister, Carmen Billedeaux of Lafayette, La.
Now she thanks God for unanswered prayers. Her friends prayed for her brother’s safety or quick death without suffering, but he lived 30 minutes with his body torn open by shrapnel.
“But then I was so grateful,” she said. He “lived long enough to receive the sacrament of last rites from the priest. God answered our prayers to keep him from harm by making sure that he had the opportunity to leave here in his graces and free from sin,” his sister said.
Pope John Paul II, the son of a military officer, said in 1999, “The military world, now and in the past, often appears as a vehicle of evangelization and a privileged place for reaching the height of holiness: I am thinking of the centurions of the Gospel, I am thinking of the first martyred soldiers and all who throughout history, by serving their sovereign land, learned how to become soldiers and witnesses of the one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
For the Monsoor and Richard families, this is the first Memorial Day after their loved ones’ deaths. But this time of year will always bring back memories for the family of Father Timothy Vakoc.
It was soon after Memorial Day in 2004 that the Army chaplain was injured by a roadside explosion in Iraq. It was the 12th anniversary of his ordination, and he was returning to base after celebrating Mass.
Father Vakoc sustained a brain injury and was left paralyzed and unable to speak. Since then, the Minnesota priest has undergone many medical procedures and extensive therapy and is today finally able to attend Mass once again. Father Vakoc still cannot celebrate the liturgy, but makes slow, steady progress to that end.
He is one of a long line of heroic chaplains that also includes Father Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain killed in Vietnam in 1967. Not only was Father Capodanno awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery in combat, but the Maryknoll priest is also being considered for sainthood. Archbishop Broglio’s predecessor as military ordinary, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, initiated the cause for beatification and canonization in May 2006.
“I have verified the widespread reputation of sanctity enjoyed by the late Rev. Capodanno,” Archbishop O’Brien wrote in the official cause declaration.
The priest is now known as a servant of God and the next step will be beatification — if a bona fide miracle can be attributed to his intercession. Archbishop Broglio said that “a probable miracle” has been discovered and is awaiting medical verification.
“He was an extraordinary man in terms of his devotion to the soldiers on the front lines. Father Capodanno showed absolute disdain for his own security, as long as he could attend to the soldiers,” Archbishop Broglio said.
If the priest-chaplain is canonized, it will come as no surprise to the many who worship in the dozens of chapels named after him. There are also streets, buildings, memorials and even a Navy warship named after Father Capodanno.
Paul A. Barra writes from Reidville, South Carolina.