Guest Columnists

A Tribute to Father Mulcahy

by Tony Rossi


William Christopher passed away on Dec. 31, 2016, but he became a weekly presence in people’s living rooms during the 1970s and ’80s playing Army chaplain Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy on the TV series “MASH,” which followed the comedic and tragic goings-on amongst doctors and nurses during the Korean War.

Father Mulcahy’s moral and spiritual grounding made an already-great show that much better, and Christopher’s gentle, down-to-earth performance deserves credit for that.

Embodied Commandments

Father Mulcahy can be seen as a wonderful role model for priests. While he may not have imparted heavy theology lessons, he embodied the big two commandments of loving God and loving your neighbor. The soldiers around him weren’t all Catholic, but they respected his wisdom and beliefs.

In the episode “Dear Sis,” Radar asks Father Mulcahy to give a blessing over the phone to his mother in Iowa. Actually, the blessing is for the family cow, who is about to give birth. Radar asks if the priest can do the blessing “in Methodist.” Father Mulcahy humbly and humorously responds, “I’m a piano player, Radar. I’ll transpose.”

The impact of Father Mulcahy’s humor can’t be underestimated. Priests perform an important job wherever they are, and they need to take their work seriously. But in terms of getting parishioners to like and trust them, it’s also important that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Father Mulcahy had that quality down pat.

When Colonel Potter asks him if the nuns at the nearby orphanage have room for a young pregnant woman, the priest responds, “The first rule of orphanages and Irish families is, ‘There’s always room for one more.’”

In that episode, the more serious side of Father Mulcahy is also revealed. When he discovers that the unborn child is the product of an American father and a Korean mother, he explains that mixed race children in Korea become “outcasts. Little boys have been emasculated…and little girls, killed outright. … Her only hope would be sanctuary in one of the old Catholic missions. …The monks will keep her cloistered, educate her, and in 15 or 20 years … perhaps they can get her out of Korea.”

Col. Potter points out that it “doesn’t sound like much of a life.” Father Mulcahy agrees, but adds, “It’s the best we can do.” Like real-life priests, Father Mulcahy realized that not all problems have happy resolutions. Sometimes the best you can do is the best you can do.

The “MASH” series finale, entitled “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” was filled with poignant moments. One of the finest is when Col. Potter tells Father Mulcahy, “Francis, you’ve been a godsend.”

The priest responds, “When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, ‘No thanks, I’ve done mine.’”

I don’t think “MASH” has ever been off the air since it wrapped up in 1983, so Father Mulcahy’s example – and William Christopher’s performance – can still entertain and enlighten us today because they are timeless. A kind and humble man of God living in a diverse society where hardship runs rampant is always relatable.

Unconscious Effect

Seeing that on TV every week or every day can have an unconscious effect on viewers. It can make us respect the career (or vocation, in this case) the character represents. And maybe, we might even find ourselves reflecting that character’s best qualities in our own lives.

That’s the kind of acting legacy that William Christopher leaves behind. For that, his fans – and the God he represented on television – can be eternally grateful.

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