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NEW YORK (CNS) -- Maryknoll Father Vincent Capodanno (1929-1967) may not be a household name, even among Catholics. "The Field Afar," an independently produced documentary, aims to make his inspiring life story better known.
Engaging and well-crafted, the one-hour film will be airing on various ABC-TV affiliates through January 2020. Viewers can go to https://www.thefieldafar.com/abc-broadcast to find air times in their region.
Written and directed by Tim Moriarty and Jake Ehrlich, and narrated by Moriarty, "The Field Afar" charts the priest's life from his Italian American roots on Staten Island, New York, to his life as a missionary in Taiwan and Hong Kong and his work, most famously, as a Navy chaplain in the Vietnam War.
The directors make good use of some wonderfully vivid still photographs, the subject's letters and extensive and powerful archival war footage. Interviews with family members, fellow priests, historians and, most especially, Marines who served with the chaplain during the war also help them shape Father Capodanno's narrative.
Growing up among a large family where food and fellowship were always bountiful formed the future clergyman. But the death of his father, Vincent, when his namesake was only 10 devastated the boy. His cousin, Al Lambert, speculates this loss may have influenced the 19-year-old Vincent's decision to become a missionary in 1949 as opposed to a parish priest.
His inspiration may have come from Maryknoll's magazine, from the then-title of which the documentary takes its name. The publication, as Maryknoll Brother John Blazo notes, was meant to inspire enthusiasm in young people for a challenging and adventurous life as a member of America's first missionary order, which had been established in 1911.
Father Capodanno's first posting in Taiwan, which lasted six years, went well. But the priest chafed when he was he transferred to the order's language school in Hong Kong in 1965. He saw it as a demotion. Losing weight and diagnosed with anxiety, Father Capodanno asked to work with the military vicariate (what is today the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services), and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Navy at Christmastime 1965.
He was initially assigned to the Marines' 1st Battalion, 7th Division, based in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. The documentary's most striking and affecting testimonies about Father Capodanno come from retired Marines, now in their 70s, to whom he ministered in-country.
Leo Rosetta acknowledges the chaplain didn't have a "bubbly personality." Nonetheless, "there was something magnetic about him," George Phillips says.
"You felt better when he was around," Jim Hamfeldt adds. "He understood what 19- and 20-year-old Marines were thinking."
Unlike other chaplains, Father Capodanno accompanied the men on their dangerous missions. On Sept. 4, 1967, while tending to wounded marines in the Que Son Valley, without a gun or any cover, as Lambert says, the chaplain was shot 27 times in the back by an enemy machine-gunner.
Father Capodanno was, fellow Maryknoller Father John Cioppa says, "the definition of a martyr." The "Grunt Padre," as he was known, was posthumously awarded the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, in 1968. His cause for canonization was officially opened in 2002.
Replete with unsparing war imagery, "The Field Afar" is not for kids. For adults and teens, on the other hand, it will prove both informative and edifying.
Moriarty and Ehrlich certainly make the case that Father Capodanno embodied the C.S. Lewis epigram that frames the documentary: "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.