On May 29, 2017—Memorial Day—the Most Reverend Timothy Broglio, JCD, archbishop for the Military Services, announced that the United States Armed Forces might soon have a patron saint. After a four-year inquiry, the archdiocese had formally submitted Father Vincent Capodanno’s cause for sainthood to the Vatican.
In Queens, New York, Father Mark Bristol ’11 couldn’t have been happier.
A convert to the faith at the age of 16, Bristol considered joining a religious order after high school but instead decided to serve his country in the Navy. While stationed in Gaeta, Italy, he began attending Mass at a local parish, where he soon noticed an Italian family taking notice of him.
“One day they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to our house, because we have a beautiful shrine to Americans,’” recalls Father Bristol, now parochial vicar at St. Anastasia in Queens. “There they showed me all these pictures of senators and presidents and admirals. Then they took me into this one room and showed me a picture of a priest, where they said, ‘This is our cousin. His name is Vincent Capodanno, and he is going to become a saint soon.’”
By no coincidence, a week after meeting Father Capodanno’s relatives, Bristol was attending a discernment retreat when he came across Grunt Padre, a 2000 biography of Father Capodanno. In it, Bristol read about the man many Catholics in the military call their intercessor.
The son of Italian immigrants, Father Capodanno was already a Mary-knoll missionary priest when he discovered his “vocation within a vocation” to be a Navy chaplain in 1964. Arriving in Vietnam with the Marine Corps during Holy Week in 1966, he immediately distinguished himself by attending to the physical and spiritual needs of his men on the frontlines. Despite serving a year in Vietnam, he signed up for a second tour in 1967. It was on September 4 of that year that he died heroically in combat, braving small arms and mortar fire to deliver first aid and give last rites to his dying Marines.
Struck by the selfless love Father Capodanno showed for his Marines, Bristol continued to visit Father Capodanno’s extended family, who would provide a source of constant friendship and encouragement as he discerned a vocation to the priesthood. Even after he left Italy—returning to America to study at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the Priestly Discernment Program in 2007—he continued to keep in touch with those who had known Father Capodanno.
Originally from Brooklyn, Bristol established a relationship with Father Capodanno’s brother, James, while attending St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers. It was through James, who passed away in 2014, that Father Bristol received permission to use Father Capodanno’s chalice at his ordination Mass on June 4, 2016.
Currently co-sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of Military Services, Father Bristol will return to shepherd his flock in the Navy in 2019. But even though he currently serves civilians, he enthusiastically models his ministry after Father Capodanno’s.
“People were touched most by his style of ministry,” says Father Bristol. “He became one with his sheep, with his flock. He ate with them; he traveled with them; he laughed with them. His soldiers felt like he was approachable, and they could come to him in their time of need. That’s what I try to be as a priest in my home parish—to be one with the people.”
As for Father Capodanno’s canonization, Father Bristol, like thousands of other Americans, believes it’s only a matter of time. For the time being, he hopes—and prays—the “Grunt Padre’s” legacy and intercession will inspire more young men like him.
“It will be a great testament to the military and the priesthood,” says Father Bristol. “My biggest prayer is it will inspire more vocations to the priesthood and more young men to serve as military chaplains.”