Of all the unforgettable characters from M*A*S*H 4077, one of the most important characters is Reverend Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, Chaplain, United States Army. A most courageous and kind person, a character full of intestinal fortitude, with a deep desire to help the living, and a solid right hook when needed. Father Mulcahy has always been a hero of mine, and I wanted to explain why, as a tribute to both the character and the actor William Christopher.
“This isn’t one of my sermons. I expect you to listen.”
Humility is not a weakness!
Of all the attributes of Father Mulcahy, his humility always shines through. From his unfailing kindness to seeing the best potential anyone can have, to representing the best of what the Chaplains Corps means, William Christopher, as Father Mulcahy, produces flawlessly the sentiment that humility is a strength, a desirable, needed strength. Consider the episode where Father Mulcahy belts the unruly and demanding lieutenant in the jaw, the episode where Father Mulcahy rides in a helicopter as a counterweight or the episode where Klinger and Major Burns get into it over a scarf, and Father Mulcahy talks Klinger into giving him a grenade. Never do you see Father Mulcahy backing down, giving up, or losing sight of the potential goodness of a person.
Father Mulcahy struggles with the US Army’s ineptitude to promote him to Captain in a couple of episodes. Even as he struggles, you see Father Mulcahy learn invaluable lessons, teach kindness, forthrightness, and compassion, and diligence, and reliance upon the strength that only comes through commitment to something greater than oneself. Father Mulcahy’s strength is one of the glues that held M*A*S*H as a TV show together for as long as it ran. Why; because Father Mulcahy was genuinely genuine!
Consider the episode where Father Mulcahy sits down with Colonel Potter shortly after Klinger takes over for Radar as company clerk. Who else could have talked Colonel Potter down without talking down to Colonel Potter and allowed Colonel Potter the opportunity to act without disrespecting his rank and position? Who else could counsel Major Houlihan, chastise Captains Pierce, Honeycutt, and Trapper John, hold Major Burns’ feet to the fires of accountability, and seamlessly interface between the enlisted and officers? Nobody! Better still, Father Mulcahy did all this while epitomizing the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If.”
By Rudyard Kipling
(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except for the Will, which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
From an interview with William Christopher, we find that Father Mulcahy was not just a character played but a person in reality.
How did you and Barbara survive the many disappointments caused by failed interventions when Ned was young? For example, the assessment of one doctor that he was “retarded,” and nothing could be done other than to “take him home and love him.”
We regarded this particular guy as a young psychologist who may not even have finished his studies. Maybe he was still in his early practice, a student who hadn’t earned his doctorate yet. In any case, we felt he was in the wrong field. We thought he couldn’t possibly know us and advise us to just accept a limited life for our son…. But we both believed that people make mistakes.
Humor is a Prerequisite Quality
Father Mulcahy always used humor to express himself.
“Major Winchester was a blessing. May the good LORD never bless me with him again!”
Some of the funniest lines in M*A*S*H belong to Father Mulcahy, and unless you are listening closely, they are often missed for the banter between the central characters. Consider the episode where the company sings the M*A*S*H version of “Gee Ma; I wanna go home.”
“A chaplain in the Army
Has a collar on his neck,
If you don’t listen to him
You’ll all wind up in heck.”
Humor plays an incredible role in facing traumatic situations and coming through, not unscathed but mentally capable, confident, and more able to achieve. Father Mulcahy teaches us this lesson in spades, with dignity, class, and a ripping sense of humor.
Father Francis Mulcahy:
“Try to be compassionate. Remember, even one of our saints received a Dear John letter.”
Don’t be passive – Be Active – Work Hard
There is a story about how William Christopher got sick with Hepatitis, and the show’s producers wanted to remove Father Mulcahy’s role entirely. Instead, Alan Alda went to bat for William Christopher, changed the scripts, and wrote Father Mulcahy’s sickness into the show to keep Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H. Why would Alan Alda do something like this for a co-star? There are several reasons; Alan Alda was a good person. William Christopher was a good person. But William Christopher was always working hard; he was not supposed to carry litters and all the other stuff he was always doing in the background. William Christopher set a standard of behavior that modeled what a chaplain was supposed to do, and military chaplains copied his behaviors, mannerisms, behaviors, attitudes, and work philosophies.
Consider this for a moment; military chaplains learned how to be chaplains by watching a fictional character, imitating a US Army unit on a Hollywood set. Reality has been changed to emulate fiction because fiction better reflects how people should act in reality. I was not the only chaplains assistant who measured his chaplain by Father Mulcahy. It is gratifying to know that many chaplains in the military have measured themselves against Father Mulcahy, found themselves wanting, and then worked to improve how they responded.
Name an episode where Father Mulcahy is not working, and I will show you an episode of M*A*S*H that was never made. Father Mulcahy was always available, always cheerful, and constantly engaged in a good cause, as he himself said, “to be helpful to the living.” Carrying towels, standing in for a nurse, providing an extra set of hands in surgery, comforting a patient, nurse, soldier, patient, always there, always caring. One of the most poignant episodes is when the Bishop of the Catholic church is coming for a visit, but a soldier wants to give blood for his buddy, and he finds out he has leukemia, and Father Mulcahy spends all night, not on his sermon, but talking to this young wounded soldier. Take a page from Father Mulcahy; working hard is not going to kill you. Engage!
Father Francis Mulcahy:
[Wearing a dress] While I was showering, someone stole my robe and left me this… this… house frock!
Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger:
Better not take it off, Father, or you’ll be a defrocked priest!
How would you like to get last rites, [raises his fists] and a few lefts?
Standing for your Convictions is Mandatory
“How dare you! You seek refuge in this house of the Lord when it serves your purpose. Then when it’s no longer convenient, you desecrate it by pointing a deadly weapon at another human being. Private, a faith of convenience is a hollow faith.”
The episode this quote comes from is where the mess tent is being used for services, fresh eggs had been donated, and a soldier comes in seeking ecclesiastical refuge and is AWOL from his unit. This episode has always been a favorite of mine; it has come back in times of stress and trial when the harder right and the easier wrong conflict, and I have the choice to make about which to follow. Father Mulcahy always chooses the moral high ground, the harder right, instead of the easier wrong, and the lessons he taught through living are not easily forgotten or pushed aside. I might not be as practiced in the execution of living the harder right, but I cannot choose the easier wrong, and that makes all the difference.
“Klinger, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, but you take the cake.”
© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
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