Requiescat In Pace: William Christopher

Tuesday, January 3, AD 2017

“But I’m not Catholic Father.”

“None of us are perfect my son!”

Father John Patrick Mulcahy to a patient in an episode of the MASH television show.

 

During my misspent youth I wasted too many hours watching the old MASH sitcom set during the Korean War in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  I really didn’t even like the show, especially after Alan Alda transformed the character of Hawkeye Pierce into an insufferable liberal know it all, but back in the seventies television loomed larger than it does now, being about the only home electronic entertainment available, and as long as people were awake the TV sets were on.  One part of the show that I did like was the character of Father John Patrick Mulcahy, the unit chaplain, played by actor William Christopher who passed away on New Years Eve.  I was annoyed that Mulcahy didn’t get more screen time and that he sometimes came across as something of a weak sister, not at all like the actual priests I knew who had served as chaplains in the military.  Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts has done some digging about Christopher and his battle to give a more realistic treatment to the priest he portrayed:

 

 

As if 2016 needed one more victim, only hours before the year ended, William Christopher died.  To fans of the TV series MASH, he was the quintessential television padre.

It’s worth noting that Christopher was also an early advocate for autism.  This came from his own child’s condition.  Dustin Hoffman stayed with him to research his role in Rain Man.

As an actor, Mr. Christopher didn’t often revisit the TV series that made him famous.  Part of it was the frustration he had as an actor.  He replaced the original actor for the part of Fr. Mulcahy because, according to the producers, Christopher had a ‘quirky’ way about him.  Initially he was a sideline character, a third tier without being listed on the opening credits.

As an actor, and as a person with bills to pay, he wanted his character to be more.  He researched by going to local Catholic churches and talking to army chaplains.  He did what he could to make his character, a Catholic chaplain, more believable.  But his main adversaries were Alan Alda and the writers.  Being generally non-religious and dismissive, if not outright hostile, toward religion, the writers had nothing to give to the character Christopher played.

In the interviews he did give over the years, he talked about the struggles he had making the role three dimensional.  A big obstacle was in openly non-religious Alda.  During development of the series, Alda came to play a bigger and bigger role in the show’s creative direction.  During that time, Alda came up with the character of Dr. Sidney Freedman, an army psychiatrist who would help unpack some of the psychological traumas of war.

Christopher protested.  That’s what a chaplain is for.  Alda and the writers didn’t listen.  They couldn’t conceive of a religious figure being anything other than fodder for jokes.  The low point for Christopher came early on.  In a particular episode, the camp was alerted to Major Margaret Houlihan’s tent, only to find her and Frank Burns together.  The running gag was that they were having an ongoing affair they believed was secret, when everyone knew.  Fr. Mulcahy , however, was supposed to show up and deliver the line: “What could they be doing in there?”

Christopher howled.  He said it was almost degrading to think an army chaplain, or anyone, would be so stupid.  The writers stood their ground.  They insisted he deliver the line.  Christopher acquiesced, but at shooting time, he added an eye roll.  If you see the episode, you see him do it.  In other words, the good chaplain knew darn well what they were doing.  It was a big turning point according to Christopher.  He realized he played a religious character surrounded by writers and producers who had nothing but contempt for religion.

Over the years, he fought to get more meaningful stories.  Finally, they agreed to center more on his character.  In one episode, he and corporal O’Reilly had to bring a seriously wounded soldier back from the front line aid station.  On the way, the soldier began choking because his tongue had swollen.  Using the radio, the surgeons guided Fr. Mulcahy through an improvised tracheotomy.  Good, but not good enough. As Christopher said, it could have been anyone, and it had nothing to do with the religious nature of his role.

Finally he began to get his way.  As the later episodes became less comedy and more drama, he used that fact to get roles delving into the spiritual, and his own character’s ability to minister accordingly.  The role of Sidney Freedman diminished in later years as Christopher demonstrated that psychological training is part and parcel for chaplains in the army.  They didn’t have to call Seoul for counseling and psychological help, they had someone there already.

But he didn’t try to make his character into a superman.  He looked at the flaws that come with religious service as well.  The later episodes aren’t usually considered the best, being heavy handed and preachy.  But there are some gems, especially where developing the characters of Fr. Mulcahy or Charles Winchester are concerned.

In one, Fr. Mulcahy is all aflutter.  His superior, Cardinal Reardon, is in the country on inspection.  Mulcahy fears that he is irrelevant in the camp, and that the camp is awash in decadence and immorality.  This is driven home by several scenes showing everyone acting as they will, without considering Mulcahy ‘s dilemma.

Meanwhile, a young Patrick Swayze plays a soldier who has just been told he has leukemia.  Alda’s character Hawkeye is devastated by having to deliver the news.  The day comes and Mulcahy’s superior arrives, only to find gambling, sleeping around, tomfoolery and licentiousness of all types, much to the chagrin of Mulcahy and camp commander Colonel Potter. Mulcahy storms into the mess tent and sits by Hawkeye, letting loose his frustration about how unfairly he’s being treated.  Nobody in the camp cares about what he is going through!  Hawkeye only politely listens.  Getting no response, Mulcahy lashes out at Hawkeye for being so dismissive.  That’s when Hawkeye explains the leukemia situation.

The morning then comes for the big service.  Everyone is going to hear Cardinal Reardon, but Fr. Mulcahy is supposed to introduce him.  The entire camp turns out in a show of support.  They do care after all.  But no Mulcahy.  Panicking, they look around and find him, sitting at the edge of Patrick Swayzes’ bed, the two comforting each other.  Mulcahy is unshaven and still in his bathrobe.  Quickly they rush to the mess tent where everyone, including the cardinal, is gathered.

What follows is one of the greatest sermons I’ve ever seen in any fictional account of religion, ever.

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PopeWatch: Pacifism

Tuesday, January 3, AD 2017

 

 

Pope Francis gave his usual paean to pacifism in his message for World Peace Day.  In his message he made this statement:

Nor can we forget the eventful decade that ended with the fall of Communist regimes in Europe.  The Christian communities made their own contribution by their insistent prayer and courageous action.  Particularly influential were the ministry and teaching of Saint John Paul II.  Reflecting on the events of 1989 in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus, my predecessor highlighted the fact that momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about “by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice”.   This peaceful political transition was made possible in part “by the non-violent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth”.  Pope John Paul went on to say: “May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes and war in international ones”. 

 

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Daffey Thoughts on 2016

Monday, January 2, AD 2017

 

Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts has some observations about 2016, the year in which the improbable frequently became probable:

 

 

  • Never, ever underestimate Donald Trump
  • Arrogance is a bad strategy
  • Insulting millions of registered voters is not the best response to a candidate who insults millions of non-voters
  • Bipartisanship is not accomplished by blaming everyone else
  • There is a fine line between journalism and propaganda
  • Pretending that problems don’t exist won’t convince those who are suffering as a result of those problems
  • If you pop champagne corks because experts assure you that no matter what, your side will win by the Electoral College, then don’t cry about how unfair it is when your side loses by the Electoral College. It’s unbecoming.
  • Surrounding yourself with yes-men doesn’t help
  • A nation has a right to demand higher standards from its president, it has no right to demand different standards
  • If the latest scientific conclusions are always what I want to hear, someone’s doing something wrong
  • ‘Do unto others as long as you don’t do unto me’ is not the Golden Rule
  • Expediency does not lend itself to moral outrage
  • Truth is not based on a majority
  • Working with people involves working with people, not saying you’re working with people
  • When everything is going for you, it’s still not wise to overplay your hand
  • If you cry wolf too many times for too many years, people won’t listen even when they admit they see a wolf
  • People don’t always align with partisan assumptions
  • People pay attention, even when you don’t want them to
  • If education is just a means to an end, it’s probably not the best education
  • The problem with saying ‘That idiot’s mean because he called me stupid’ should be obvious
  • It’s pointless to ignore the past in the Internet age

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Hilarious: The New York Times Attacks Bannon for Being Too Catholic

Monday, January 2, AD 2017

Oh this is just too funny.  The New York Times on December 30, ran a story on Trump’s advisor Stephen K. Bannon, in which they attack him for being, gasp, a conservative Catholic:

A week after Stephen K. Bannon helped engineer the populist revolt that led to Donald J. Trump’s election, Buzzfeed unearthed a recording of him speaking to a Vatican conference of conservative Catholics in 2014.

In his presentation, Mr. Bannon, then the head of the hard-right website Breitbart News and now Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, called on the “church militant” to fight a global war against a “new barbarity” of “Islamic fascism” and international financial elites, with 2,500 years of Western civilization at risk.

While most listeners probably overlooked the term “church militant,” knowledgeable Catholics would have recognized it as a concept deeply embedded in the church’s teaching. Moreover, they would have noticed that Mr. Bannon had taken the term out of context, invoking it in a call for cultural and military conflict rather than for spiritual warfare, particularly within one’s soul, its longstanding connotation.

As the Trump administration prepares to take office, the use of Church Militant theology has gone well beyond its religious meaning and has taken on a political resonance. To fully grasp what “church militant” means in this highly politicized atmosphere, it helps to examine the broader movement and the role of a traditionalist Catholic website called — to no surprise — ChurchMilitant.com.

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Saint Bernard on the Holy Name of Mary

Sunday, January 1, AD 2017

“And the Virgin’s name was Mary. Let us speak a little about this name, which signifies star of the sea, and which so well befits the Virgin Mother. Rightly is She likened to a star; for as a star emits its ray without being dimmed, so the Virgin brought forth Her Son without receiving any injury – the ray takes nothing from the brightness of the star, nor the Son from His Mother’s integrity. This is the noble star risen out of Jacob, whose ray illumines the whole earth, gives warmth rather to souls than to bodies, cherishing virtues, withering vices. Mary, I say, is that bright and incomparable star, whom we need to see raised above this vast sea, shining by Her merits, and giving us light by Her example.

Oh! whosoever thou art that seest thyself, amid the tides of this world, tossed about by storms and tempests rather than walking on the land, turn not thine eyes away from the shining of this star if thou wouldst not be overwhelmed by the hurricane. If squalls of temptations arise, or thou fall upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star, call upon Mary. If thou art tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, detraction or envy, look to the star, call upon Mary. If anger or avarice or the desires of the flesh dash against the ship of thy soul, turn thine eyes towards Mary. If, troubled by the enormity of thy crimes, ashamed of thy guilty conscience, terrified by dread of the judgment, thou beginnest to sink into the gulf of sadness or the abyss of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let Her be ever on thy lips, ever in thy heart; and the better to obtain the help of Her prayers, imitate the example of Her life. Following Her, thou strayest not; invoking Her, thou despairest not; thinking of Her, thou wanderest not; upheld by Her, thou fallest not; shielded by Her, thou fearest not; guided by Her, thou growest not weary; favored by Her, thou reachest the goal. And thus dost thou experience in thyself how good is that saying: And the Virgin’s name was Mary.”

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How the West Was Won

Saturday, December 31, AD 2016

Western Wagons

They went with axe and rifle, when the trail was still to blaze,
They went with wife and children, in the prairie-schooner days,
With banjo and with frying pan—Susanna, don’t you cry!
For I’m off to California to get rich out there or die!

We’ve broken land and cleared it, but we’re tired of where we are.
They say that wild Nebraska is a better place by far.
There’s gold in far Wyoming, there’s black earth in Ioway,
So pack up the kids and blankets, for we’re moving out today!

The cowards never started and the weak died on the road,
And all across the continent the endless campfires glowed.
We’d taken land and settled but a traveler passed by—
And we’re going West tomorrow—Lordy , never ask us why!

We’re going West tomorrow, where the promises can’t fail.
O’er the hills in legions, boys, and crowd the dusty trail!
We shall starve and freeze and suffer. We shall die, and tame the lands.
But we’re going West tomorrow, with our fortune in our hands.

Stephen Vincent Benet

Something for a New  Year weekend.  The theme  song from the movie How the West Was Won (1962).  The death of Debbie Reynolds drew my attention to this film, which featured her in a starring role.  The film itself is an uneven work, but it has a magnificent score which captures something of the spirit of the pioneers.    The settlement of the West, from the Appalachians to the Pacific, is perhaps the defining event in the history of our nation and it receives too little historical comment.  Thomas Jefferson thought it would take one hundred generations to settle the land beyond the Mississippi.  Instead, from the ending of the American Revolution to the census of 1890 which proclaimed that the frontier no longer existed, barely five generations had passed, and there were a handful of Americans at the end still living who had lived through almost all of it.  This epic tale is perhaps too large for the historians and thus today I have picked out two poems written by Stephen Vincent Benet that convey a small fragment of the passion, grandeur, tragedy and wonder  of it all.

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Silence, Faith and Courage

Friday, December 30, AD 2016

“Like my Master, I shall die upon the cross. Like him, a lance will pierce my heart so that my blood and my love can flow out upon the land and sanctify it to his name.”

Saint Paul Miki, statement before his martyrdom in 1597 in Japan

 

Bishop Barron has a good hard look at  Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endo about two Jesuit missionaries who apostatized in Seventeenth century Japan:

The next day, in the presence of Christians being horrifically tortured, hung upside down inside a pit filled with excrement, he is given the opportunity, once more, to step on a depiction of the face of Christ. At the height of his anguish, resisting from the depth of his heart, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself, finally breaking the divine silence, telling him to trample on the image. When he does so, a cock crows in the distance. In the wake of his apostasy, he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, becoming a ward of the state, a well-fed, well-provided for philosopher, regularly called upon to step on a Christian image and formally renounce his Christian faith. He takes a Japanese name and a Japanese wife and lives out many long years in Japan before his death at the age of 64 and his burial in a Buddhist ceremony.

What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors? 

My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright. Revisit Ferreira’s speech to Rodrigues about the supposedly simplistic Christianity of the Japanese laity if you doubt me on this score. I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives. Whereas the specially trained Ferreira and Rodrigues became paid lackeys of a tyrannical government, those simple folk remained a thorn in the side of the tyranny. 

I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.  So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.

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Installation Scene From Becket

Thursday, December 29, AD 2016

 

If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed high priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.

Saint Thomas Becket

 

In honor of the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, a reminder of the history of Catholic England, when Catholics were willing to stand against the State if need be to protect the Honor of God.   Becket (1964), although inheriting the historical howlers that existed in the play, and were known by the playwright Jean Anouilh who wisely preferred a poetic story to prosaic fact,  (Becket was Norman not Saxon, Henry II was not a crowned juvenile delinquent, the armor, as is usual in medieval epics, is all wrong for the period, etc.), this classic film helped awaken in me a desire to learn about the history of the Church.  With masterful performances by Richard Burton as “the holy blessed martyr” and Peter O’Toole as Henry II, the film brought alive to me as a child the high Middle Ages.  The installation sequence brought home to me the important role of ceremony, tradition and symbolism in our Faith, a lesson I have never forgotten.

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Predictions 2017

Thursday, December 29, AD 2016

 

 

Well, here I stroll once again in where angels fear to tread and make my predictions for 2017:

1. President Trump will issue a pardon to Hillary Clinton.

2. Isis will be eliminated from Iraq.

3. There will be more than one assassination attempt against President Trump, each unsuccessful.

4. Pope Francis will attempt to excommunicate one or more of the Cardinals who oppose him.

5. There will be a major confrontation between Trump and Putin, and Putin will back down.

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Exeunt Thomas Sowell

Wednesday, December 28, AD 2016

Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who “speak truth to power” but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.

Thomas Sowell

 

 

Economist Thomas Sowell has decided to call it a day as a columnist at age 86. An understandable decision but a regrettable one. In a time when lunacy was often regarded as sound policy, Doctor Sowell has been a voice of consistent reason.

Tyler O’Neil at PJ Media has assembled 14 quotes from Sowell as a bitter sweet tribute to what we have enjoyed and to what we will be missing:
1. “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

2. “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”

3. “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

4. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

5. “Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”

6. “The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is: he confuses it with feeling.”

7. “Despite a voluminous and often fervent literature on ‘income distribution,’ the cold fact is that most income is not distributed: It is earned.”

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Predictions of Times Past

Wednesday, December 28, AD 2016

 

Time for me to look at my predictions for this year and to dine on a bit of crow:

1. The GOP national ticket will consist of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but I am uncertain as to which of them will be the nominee for President.

The correct answer of course was neither.

2. By the time of the conventions Donald Trump will be a spent force.  He will run third party in the fall with a Democrat in the second slot.  He will draw about seven percent of the vote, and his votes will come from both parties.

That is certainly a large piece of crow to consume!

3. Clinton will win the Democrat nomination, unless health problems force her to retire from the race.  Bernie Sanders will bolt the convention and run third party, drawing about two percent of the vote.

Not too shabby, especially concerning the health issue.  Bernie Sanders was a good soldier for the Democrats, but the Green candidate did take about 1% of the vote right out of Clinton’s hide.

4. The Republicans will win the presidential race.

Bingo!

5. The Republicans will retain control of both Houses of Congress.

On target.

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Cold Winter of Unbelief

Wednesday, December 28, AD 2016

Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.

“Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers”; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.

 St. Augustine

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