3 Things We Can Learn from Father Mulcahy
You were a good man, Father Mulcahy.
You were a 1st Lieutenant and later a Captain, a Catholic priest sent to minister to soldiers of all faiths at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean Conflict of 1950-1953.
Of course, you were real only in the television sense of real. Like Archie Bunker is real. Like Ponch from CHiPs is real.
Yet you were deftly brought to life for 11 seasons of M*A*S*H by actor William Christopher. Christopher died of cancer at age 84 at his home in Pasadena, California, on the final day of December, 2016.
It was the year that saw the passing of far too many of the world’s luminaries. Elie Wiesel. John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Harper Lee. Muhammad Ali. Nancy Reagan. Prince. Alan Thicke. Arnold Palmer. Gene Wilder. Leonard Cohen. Gordie Howe. Morley Safer. Merle Haggard. Garry Shandling. Ken Howard. David Bowie. So many more.
How fitting—your death, Father Mulcahy, marked the sad end of a very sad year. (Sorry, we have a very hard time remembering to call you William Christopher.)
You started your career in M*A*S*H* as a supporting player. A bit part. Your actor’s name wasn’t even shown on the opening credits of the TV show until Season Four.
A different actor, Rene Auberjonois, played you in the original 1970 M*A*S*H movie, (based on the 1968 novel by the same name) and another actor, George Morgan, played you in pilot episode of the TV series, which debuted in 1972. Tough task at the outset—to morph these other faces and personalities into yours.
But Morgan wasn’t quirky enough, the show’s producers decided. Thus Christopher was quickly cast, and Christopher slowly became you.
You had Christopher’s quiet scrappiness on your side. You had verve and inner strength and tremendous potential for growth as a character.
When M*A*S*H ended in 1983, the last episode drew in a staggering 106 million viewers, making it the most-watched finale of any television series.
By then, you were one of the show’s stars.
What can we learn from you today, Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy?
1. Your words were few, but your presence
As a chaplain you were tasked with caring for others. Yet you seldom dispensed advice, you never moralized, and your words were few.
Instead, your presence did the real talking.
The wisecracking surgeon Trapper John McIntyre received a care package from home along with a photograph of his two young daughters.
Depressed, and desperately missing his family, Trapper started drinking and vowed to go AWOL. Desertion is a treasonable offense, yet Trapper insisted he had to get home to see his children. We felt that pain along with the doctor. We know what it’s like to be separated from people we love.
Just before leaving, Trapper lingered over the piano in the camp’s bar. He threw back another whiskey while playing a jumbled and cacophonic tune on the keys. You sat next to him. We sat poised on our couches, waiting to hear what wisdom you’d offer.
“Trapper,” you asked. “Don’t you think that’s quite enough?”
“Twenty thousand miles from home,” Trapper muttered. “Not to have them around. Not to share their growing up.” He pointed to you and added, “Just wait, Father …. Wait until you have children.”
We all chuckled.
You fidgeted with the cross around your neck, stumbling over your next words. No overt wisdom ever came. No great speechifying. No fine consolation. At first, if felt like an anemic moment. The writers let you down. It was simply the end of a joke; nothing more.
Yet if we looked closely enough, we could see or at least feel surprising wisdom in the scene. Unanticipated layers of insight.
In the rough-and-tumble of your friend’s life, you were simply “there.”
You hadn’t backed away. You hadn’t walked out the side door. In a tremendously bewildering, frustrating, and angering situation for your friend, you stayed put.
What’s so wise about that?
Author Douglas Kaire writes:
When a friend is going through trial or pain, we can be quick to offer solutions without pausing to weather a season of silence and tears.
We want them to be fixed quickly. It is usually more difficult to trust God with the pain of others than it is to trust Him with our own pain.
But trust we must, for we are not called to fix others, but to bear their burdens.
That’s what you did in the bar.
2. You wrestled with the complexities of life, and we wrestled along with you.
Right and wrong exist, yet the line between the two can become blurry. Particularly when life’s pressure is on. Particularly in times of pain, chaos, or frustration. We wonder what to do.
What frustrated you most were conditions at the local orphanage.
You vented to Hawkeye and BJ: “That place is falling apart! They don’t have enough heating fuel. They don’t have enough food. They don’t even have a decent roof over their heads!”
Just then, Klinger rushed over with a news bulletin. A famous Olympic runner had been assigned to the 4077th. You said “who cares,” and walked away, while Klinger, Hawkeye, and BJ made plans to bet against a nearby rival outfit, the 8063rd, in a race between the two runners. The other unit had a great runner in their midst—Earl “the Jackrabbit” LaMasters—and grudges between the two outfits ran deep.
Unfortunately for the 4077th, the famous Olympic runner never showed up. The 4077th couldn’t back out of the bet and save face. So you agreed to step in.
Race day arrived. The starting gun fired, and your opponent the Jackrabbit immediately sprinted ahead. Mile after mile went by, but the Jackrabbit wasn’t even sweaty. Bemused at your efforts, he often stopped and waited for you to catch up. He never even looked winded. The race was a sure thing.
But as the finish line neared, the Jackrabbit showed a new, strange fatigue. He slowed, the tape in sight, and you gave it your all, sprinting ahead to take the lead.
With only three steps to go, the Jackrabbit still breathing on your tail, you screeched to a halt and yelled to your outfit: “I’ll cross the finish line on one condition—that all the proceeds be donated to the orphanage! We don’t have much time—either donate it or lose it!”
Your outfit quickly agreed, and you crossed the line—victorious.
Only later did you fess up, but only to your closest friends.
“I could see by the way the Jackrabbit was toying with me, I didn’t have a prayer,” you said. “So, every time he let me get within earshot, I made conversation. Oh, I talked about this and that. The weather. About how the rain would leak through the roof and drench those freezing, starving orphans. You know, just your average chit chat. So … he, uh, agreed to throw the race.”
Dear Father Mulcahy, your actions invited us to weigh in on a complex question—at least in our minds—because in our real world every day we wrestle with right and wrong. A greater good was served at the expense of the full truth. Was that right? Or wrong?
Should a priest lie to throw a race, so he can give the proceeds to orphans?
We can grasp the enormity of this textbook philosophical query, and perhaps the next time we are faced with ethical blurriness and wonder what to do, we will consider your actions. Although perhaps not.
Either way, you didn’t dictate morality to us. You wrestled with the complexities of life, and you allowed us to wrestle along with you. No conclusions, you just came alongside us in the wrestling match.
3. You fulfilled your purpose by immersing yourself in a messy world and offering hope.
As a priest, you were a regular guy, Father. You were an amateur boxer. You played cards. You threw back a drink every now and then with the gang.
We identified with your jokes. Your earthiness. Your homespun demeanor.
We liked how you played the piano, how you wore your Loyola sweatshirt. How Colonel Potter called you by his own affectionate nickname for you—“Padre”—and how you lightheartedly referred to your one sibling, Kathy, a nun, as “my sister the Sister.”
We liked how, in your priestly quest for righteousness, you never tried to separate yourself from the people around you. You were never standoffish. Instead, you went where people needed you most—even when it wasn’t safe.
The medical staff asked you to talk to a young soldier named Danny. He wanted out of combat so badly he’d shot himself in the foot.
In bitterness, Danny admitted what he’d done. Four of his buddies had been killed, and he couldn’t take the war anymore. When you gently protested his actions, Danny challenged you to go up to the line for yourself to see what combat was like. Until that happened, Danny vowed he wouldn’t listen to anything you had to say.
So you asked Colonel Potter to be sent to the line. “I feel useless around here,” you said. “The men don’t need my words of comfort when they’re safe and being taken care of. They need comfort up there—where they’re wet and cold and facing bullets.”
Colonel Potter shook his head. “Father, you’ve got the toughest job in camp. And there’s not much glory in it, like there is for the surgeons and nurses. But you’re the one who really holds things together. You should be proud.”
But you didn’t heed the colonel’s words—or his order. Radar and another soldier, Igor, were sent up to a frontline aid station to rescue a soldier who needed surgery. Before they left camp, you quickly dismissed Igor and snuck into his place in the jeep as it headed out.
Artillery blasts shook the aid station. You and Radar found the wounded soldier, placed him on his litter and secured it to the jeep, then started heading back to the 4077th. Still amidst heavy shelling, the wounded soldier started choking. His tongue had swollen and was blocking the airway. He couldn’t breathe.
Radar stopped the jeep, grabbed the radio, and called the 4077th while you tended to the soldier. On the radio, Hawkeye walked you, step-by-step, through an emergency tracheotomy. You found a sharp pocketknife, sterilized the man’s neck with alcohol, made a hole at the base of his throat, and inserted a hollow dropper from a bottle of eye drops—all while artillery blasts ka-boomed nearby.
In the end, you saved the man’s life.
“Amen,” you said simply, while taping gauze around the man’s throat.
Later, back at the bar in camp, you apologized to the Colonel for disobeying his order, and the offense was forgiven.
Hawkeye stood nearby. “You know, Father,” Hawkeye said. “The first time I operated I was scared stiff. And there weren’t any bombs going off around me either. I can imagine what it was like for you.”
“No Hawkeye, you can’t,” you said with a quiet nod. “You had to be there.”
Your last years
When M*A*S*H ended in 1983, you, Klinger, and Colonel Potter went on to play on CBS’s AfterMASH, a show about your postwar adventures stateside.
But AfterMASH was plagued by innumerable problems, critics declared. Your new show’s timeslot was tinkered with, so viewers had problems finding you. Finally, overly-ambitious TV executives pitted you against the all-powerful A-Team.
It proved your death blow. As solid as the three of you were, you couldn’t compete against a crack commando unit comprised of Mr. T, the Face, Howling Mad Murdock, and Lieutenant-Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith.
AfterMASH was canceled halfway through its second season.
As a final kick to your gut, TV Guide in 2002 listed AfterMASH as the seventh-worst TV series in the history of television.
Don’t let the haters get you down, Father Mulcahy.
You continue to shine brightly in the syndication of M*A*S*H. On DVD and Blu-ray and streaming video. On special Veterans Day broadcasts on cable TV. And you continue to live on in our hearts.
William Christopher, thank you for bringing such an astute and compassionate character to life.
Father Mulcahy, you will be missed.
Question: What admirable qualities did you see in the character of Father Mulcahy?