Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy died yesterday. He was not a real character. He was a character in MASH a TV series that ran over a decade, and made all of us think about what war was really about, the damage that it does to all involved, and what it means to be a priest (or a pastor) in an impossible situation. The person who died was the actor who played him the entire series.
Father Mulcahy was a Jesuit. He starts out in the series (and the movie) as a somewhat inept, somewhat naive, somewhat irrelevant character. Yet, he receives a certain honor from all the characters, even in the early episodes, because of his commitment to be where people are suffering. He was pictures as a bit of a buffoon, but as the series developed, he slowly became something other. No, he never did get away from his bumbling. In one series of episodes, he even questioned his priestly calling and was quite attracted to a nurse. But, though the series leaves unclear whether he had a brief fling, in the end, he makes the decision to remain a priest and to remain following Christ. By the end of the series, Father Mulcahy is fully a part of the cast, and fully a priest worth emulating.
In a show that at times over-reached in its attempts to moralize, Father Mulcahy never became didactic or sanctimonious. Yes, he was sometimes pious, but he lived his piety in a sincere sense of vocation. He was genuine. He was real. Like very few actors before him (Bing Crosby comes to mind), Christopher’s Father Mulcahy became for Catholic and non-Catholic viewers alike the ideal of what a priest should be. This is an enormous responsibility, a burden that perhaps approaches that of a real priest, and the fact that Christopher wasn’t even Catholic makes his achievement even more remarkable. He did what only the finest actors can ever do; he became Father Mulcahy. — https://georgiabulletin.org/commentary/2015/03/father-mulcahy-of-mash-portrayed-priestly-ideal/
He is there for Hawkeye at the end, when the breakdown comes. He loses his hearing due to a bomb exploding too close, but makes the decision to go to work as a priest among the deaf, hoping that he can still be useful that way. As people need advice, we can almost see him grow into his ministry and the Fr. Mulcahy that we see at the end of the war is nowhere near close to being the Fr. Mulcahy that is portrayed in the original movie, and in the first couple of TV seasons of MASH. The Mulcahy that goes home to the USA has become a saint through the suffering he has experienced. He becomes a saint as he watches others deal with their pain and suffering. He becomes a saint as he sees young men die, and young surgeons having to deal with mass death and destruction.
Fr. Mulcahy shows us what can happen when Hollywood deals with a character in an honest fashion. He began originally as a side character, who reflected Hollywood’s version of Christianity. He was a bumbler who did not appear to truly see reality. But, the funny thing is that over the 11 seasons of MASH, the writers had to deal more and more with what a Catholic Christian would go through in a war of that type. They must have been tempted to keep him as a cartoon character. But, there was a certain honesty in MASH. They knew that a cartoon character would not survive. And, it is true, the cartoon Fr. Mulcahy did not survive. Instead, he became part of the story. And his presence elevated suffering from merely being a side-effect of the bad decisions made by politicians to something that is wrong/evil/not-supposed-to-happen, but that Christians can speak into, that God can work with, so that the evil of suffering is transformed into a depth of character that was never present in the original Fr. Mulcahy, nor in Hawkeye, nor in many of the people to whom Fr. Mulcahy ministered.
Yes, the cartoon Fr. Mulcahy became an image of what a priest should be like. He was still imperfect at the end, but he was also noble. He becomes an example to priests–and to others–of what it means to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. He sinned; he was forgiven; he became a saintly person.
We will miss you Fr. Mulcahy.