The old man and the cats…

MASH Revisited:

The Matter of Mulcahy

(Not Season 1’s Mulcahy; but actually is Season 1’s Mulcahy)

Many years ago, when I was in high school in the 1980s, the Catholic League riled me. You see, my primary memory of the Catholic League in high school was its consistent denunciations of the television version of MASH, based on its portrayal of Father Mulcahy, the Catholic chaplain of the 4077th MASH unit as “weak” and “indecisive”.  

As a fan of the show even as a student, this seemed to me an absurd misreading of the character portrayed in the series. And, even though we are only in season 1 in this rewatch–and not even halfway through season 1–I want to challenge that reading of the series. Because I think that the critics were wrong from as early on our rewatch as season 1.

But let’s begin where the critics have a point.

In the original film, religion takes something of a beating, including through Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns,and (to a lesser extent) Rene Auberjonois’s Father Mulcahy. In the film, Mulcahy is affable good natured, but, yes, a little weak, and a little easily imposed on (watch Donald Sutherland fast-talk him into presiding over a “Last Supper” for the suicidal dentist.)

The problem is, none of this really carries over into William Christopher’s portrayal of the priest. Take this first shank of Season 1. We have met Father Mulcahy three times: In the pilot, played by George Morgan (the celibate priest wins the trip to Tokyo with Lt. Maria “Dish” Schneider); we see Christopher’s Mulcahy in “Requiem for a Lightweight” in which he s sensibly skeptical of Trapper John’s winning a fair fight; and we see him in “Cowboy,” demonstrating a respect for faiths other than his own.

Let’s dwell on it a moment. On seeing that a wounded soldier on the operating table is named “Goldstein,” Mulcahy asks “Think he’d mind?”

Now, I had forgotten this moment entirely–I haven’t seen the show in 30 years. So I expected Mulcahy to offer a Catholic prayer, almost certainly (for the period) in Latin. Instead, he recites, gently, and with meaning: 

Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah,
Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim
[names]. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.

It’s a lovely moment, because it’s so understated. Mulcahy doesn’t just refuse to impose his faith tradition on the wounded Jewish soldier–he knows how to pray for Goldstein in his own tradition. This means Mulcahy cared enough for non-Catholic–indeed, non-Christian wounded, to learn to care for them by having studied and memorized prayers outside his own tradition. In “Cowboy,” we see Mulcahy drawing on that preparation, caring for the patient by meeting him where he is–the first rule of good pastoral care, as I was taught in my diaconal training. 

Yes, Mulcahy isn’t quite the character we’ll get to know much better in later seasons. But even now, he is not the easily led figure from the film. He’s a wry, ex-CYO boxing coach with enough scholarly chops to have looked beyond his own perspective, and one who knows that he is called to be a chaplain for all, not just his own co-religionists. 

Not bad for a first draft.

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