R.I.P. William Christopher, whose Father Mulcahy character speaks to the here and now.


In the main, I view celebrity culture as bunk, a convenient way of distracting lemmings from the real issues in their world. Modern social media culture didn’t invent this phenomenon, which in America probably dates from the advent of Hollywood, although it surely exacerbates it (sorry, Shane).

Yes, lots of famous musicians, actors and athletes died last year. So did lots of ordinary people in places like Syria. Granted, these unfortunate victims of war by proxy weren’t beloved icons of our collective Western youth, which was free and easy compared with that experienced by most people in the world.

Having said all this, naturally I find it disconcerting when musicians (especially) and artists pass on. Business leaders and politicians, far less so. My parents raised me to appreciate big band music, the foremost practitioners of which were in their sixties when I was a kid. Most of them were gone by the time I was 30, and I felt as sad about Duke Ellington’s or Count Basie’s death as many readers have recently about George Michael or Carrie Fisher.

I’m not a complete curmudgeon. Close, but not entirely.

On the final day of 2016, it was announced that the actor William Christopher had died. By all accounts, he was a stand-up guy, but of course we know him though his vocation. Christopher played many roles, and yet he’ll be remembered as Father Mulcahy on the long-running television series M*A*S*H, the last episode of which aired 34 years ago this coming March.

Christopher’s small role grew as the series progressed, and I believe the character speaks strongly to the emerging zeitgeist.

As chaplain attached to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, Father Mulcahy’s personal Roman Catholic orientation, while bedrock, was secondary to his job of ministering to all comers — and maintaining good humor in the face of the secularist’s escapist bacchanal.

Fr. Mulcahy: There’s someone you want me to talk to?
Hawkeye: Yeah, I got kind of an unusual case for you, Father.
[Mulcahy sees the dog]
Fr. Mulcahy: Oh, my! What denomination is he?
Hawkeye: He’s a German shepherd; I guess that makes him a Lutheran.

Radar: [Father Mulcahey is about to bless Radar’s cow in Iowa over the phone] Do you think you can do it in Methodist?
Father Francis Mulcahy: I’m a piano player, Radar. I’ll transpose.

Apart from training in boxing at seminary school, Father Mulcahy was not adequately prepared for the violent situation he was thrust into. He adapted gradually to the routine of war, first the crushing boredom of camp life, alternating suddenly with frenetic activity once the shooting began yet again. Over time, he made himself useful.

Father Mulcahy: [offering to go through the local black market, for needed medicines] You’d be surprised what a priest can get away with.

Father Mulcahy’s example was invaluable, not specifically because of his religious bearing, which was taken for granted, but because he was a fundamentally decent man in a fundamentally indecent setting, trying his best to be helpful and generally succeeding, even without medical credentials or a weapon.

Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce: You’re not eating, Father. You know something I don’t know?
Father Mulcahy: Something’s troubling me.
Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce: Think of me as your mother, Father.
Father Mulcahy: May I make a confession?
Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce: As long as you don’t use any real names.
Father Mulcahy: For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings – Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean, you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes… most of the time… I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing any good or not.
Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce: I used to have a professor in med school who always said, “God cures the patients, but the doctor takes the fee.”
Father Mulcahy: Do you think that’s true?
Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce: I’m able to do a lot of things in surgery that I’m not really good enough to do.
Father Mulcahy: Thanks, Hawkeye.

If I am to stick by this reference to maintaining one’s decency amid indecency, it will strike many Americans as axiomatic in a fundamentalist sense: Think Moral Majority, though to me it was neither moral nor a majority.

As an atheist, I won’t go there, except to say that beginning very soon, actions I personally regard as indecent will be escalating — not all of them emanating from one or the other political party, but most coming from the Republican side of the aisle. Take your pick: Civil liberties, social security, the affordable care act, the environment, and a laundry list of other hot button issues.

It’s gospel, and Father Mulcahy’s fictional example is about to become relevant in real life, with lightning speed. How to remain decent while fighting indecency? How to do it when it’s not even clear what “fighting” means in this new context? If I knew the answers, I’d share them.

Rather, I suspect we’re all Father Mulcahy now, faced with the necessity of improvising during the coming baptism of fire.

Rest in peace, William Christopher.

Father Francis Mulcahy: [Trapper, drunk, is sitting at the piano at the O Club] Is something bothering you, Trapper?
Army Capt. “Trapper John” McIntyre: I’m not Catholic, Father.
Father Francis Mulcahy: Well, all in good time… Which is more that I can say about your piano playing.