As the year was winding down, 2016 claimed one last celebrity victim. William Christopher, 84, who played the beloved Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, died peacefully and without pain at his Pasadena home on the morning of New Year’s Eve. Originally intended to be a minor character, Father Mulcahy eventually became a series regular. Although William Christopher was not a Catholic in real life, his portrayal of a Catholic military chaplain taught the world about the beauty of the Priesthood.
Priests Are Humans, Too
In the episode “Dear Sis,” Father Mulcahy tries to calm down a wounded soldier who is waiting to be treated. The soldier responds by punching the chaplain. In a rare moment of losing his temper, Mulcahy, a former boxing coach, punches the soldier. He immediately regrets his actions and feel tremendous guilt. “I’m supposed to be Christ’s representative,” he says to Hawkeye.
This moment stands out because it shows the human side of a priest. Too often, we forget priests are human beings as well and make mistakes just like we do. They, too, need compassion and forgiveness.
Many people believe priests are stuffy, serious individuals who have no tolerance for jokes, but the reality is much different. Many priests have fantastic senses of humor.
Father Mulcahy had one of the best wits in the 4077. In the classic episode “Five O’Clock Charlie,” a visiting general’s jeep drives wildly into camp and clips Father Mulcahy’s backside. General Clayton jumps out and says, “Sorry padre!” To which the chaplain replies, “That’s all right, General. I’ll just turn the other cheek.”
The Priesthood Is a Thankless Job
The aforementioned “Dear Sis” episode centers on Father Mulcahy writing a letter to his “sister, the sister,” where he tells her of his struggle to feel useful in the camp. He sees the good the doctors do; their work has noticeable benefits. On Sundays, hardly anyone comes to Mass or any of the services he offers for people of other faiths.
How often do we ignore the great sacrifices priests make for their flock? Do we take the time to let priests know their work is appreciated? If we ignore our parish priest the way the 4077 MASH ignored Father Mulcahy, it can be hazardous to their mental health.
Jack of All Trades
Father Mulcahy prays for those who lost their lives, hears confessions, says Mass, and tends to the spiritual needs of all soldiers. However, Mulcahy is often called upon to do other tasks. He helps with surgery by moving patients in and out of the O.R. and occasionally serving as an emergency nurse. During an outbreak of food poisoning, Mulcahy is requested to help with the laundry. In “Mulcahy’s War,” he gives a soldier an emergency tracheotomy. Whatever the unit needs, Father Mulcahy is ready to step in and help.
A few weeks ago, I was walking out of Mass on a snowy morning and saw someone shoveling the sidewalk. As i walked past, he looked up and greeted me. I was shocked to see it was our parochial vicar shoveling the sidewalk. He spent eight years in the seminary, and the parish has him shoveling sidewalks! Like Father Mulcahy, my parish priest is willing to do whatever is needed, regardless of how menial the task.
There Is Something Special About Priests
Most characters on M*A*S*H are not Catholic, but they all treated Father Mulcahy with respect. Hardly anyone sees him as a spiritual father, but they recognize within him something special. The way Mulcahy is treated displays the uniqueness and dignity of the Priesthood.
They Ease the Burdens of Others
Despite his concerns about feeling useless, Mulcahy is one of the most important members of the 4077. His presence lightens the mood when a broken projector ruins movie night. He leads the camp in songs and laughs along with everyone during the “Father Mulcahy Sound Alike Contest.” When Major Charles Emerson Winchester III was assigned to the 4077, Mulcahy arranged to have his childhood toboggan hat sent to him. During the goodbyes in the final episode, Winchester tells him, “Well, goodbye, Father. I must say you’ve made this hellhole a trifle less unbearable.”
Thanks for the Memories, William Christopher!
The above anecdotes do not even begin to cover the many wonderful scenes William Christopher brought to life on the screen in his role as Father Mulcahy. Many other moments brought smiles to our faces and tears to our eyes.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord