Category Archives: Monsignor Williams

Triage In The Confessional: How M.A.S.H. Helped Me to Relate to the Divine Physician

As a kid growing up in the seventies, I watched more than a few episodes of M.A.S.H. Still young and inexperienced, my understanding of the war it portrayed was minimal. But with only a dozen or so channels to choose from, I regularly settled in front of our little screen and watched the hit show (catching just a fraction of the jokes and thankfully even less of the innuendo).
I remember well the regular scenes announcing the incoming choppers. The sweet voice of Radar and the whirr of helicopter blades still resonate in my consciousness.The characters would exit their leisure scenes and make the frenzied dash to the OR. Next came the line-up of hospital gurneys, broken bodies and tension-breaking dialogue as the characters feigned the chore of putting men back together.

WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER
as Father Mulcahy from tvbanter.net
Probably because I am a cradle Catholic, I had an affinity for Father Mulcahy. His character seemed so gentle, sweet, honest and wholesome in contrast to the ever flirtatous nurses and lonely husbands. I had a frame of reference with which to identify with him. Of course, one couldn’t watch the series without forming an attachment to the character of Hawkeye. That compassionate, comedic soldier/surgeon, with his heart pinned to his sleeve, made war seem endurable.
MASH Goodbye.jpg
Alan Alda from Goodbye, Farewell and Amen
It was 1983 and I was twelve years old, the night they played the final Farewell episode. Alone in my bedroom, sprawled out on the brown, carpeted floor I turned the circular dial a few clicks to the right and tuned in to say goodbye. That episode was like none prior and it left me with the sour taste of the reality behind the props and make-believe sets. For the first time, I began to digest the horror of war and the very real toll it takes on the human psyche. To this day, I can’t shake some of the scenes I saw that night.
Last year at around this same time in Advent, we were sitting in church. Mass having just been celebrated, Monsignor Williams was announcing the upcoming events on the calendar when he invited us all to a penance service. Ever eloquent, his description began to shape an image which harkened back to my M.A.S.H. memories. Monsignor explained that the church was the great hospital, open to all the broken and wounded (every.single.one.of.us). The penance service would host a small army of skilled healers (5-6 priests) who would set up triage stations (confessionals) throughout the building.
Images flooded in as he spoke. I thought about how sin breaks us like bones snapping under heavy artillery; how our anger and unfaithfulness rip holes in our relationships leaving behind bits of imbedded shrapnel.Visions of those young television characters stacked on stretchers crossed my mind as I considered our weakness when it comes to temptations. How many purposes of amendment do we make only to fall like rag dolls when the inevitable ambush of seduction comes. Like the sweaty, dirt smudged, bloodied figures I’d watched on M.A.S.H., we live our day to day lives stained by our transgressions.
However, while those skilled actors only pretended to put their patients back together, Monsignor was offering us real life first-aid. His triage stations could wash away the muck and mend the fractures. The skill level of the individual surgeons/priests wasn’t the determining factor in this hospital. The Divine Physician, through the hands of the confessional ministers, had the supernatural ability to bind up and resuscitate even the most desperate patients.
Not long after I watched the Farewell episode, my time in forced triage lines ended. At the time, I hadn’t made these connections and my only experiences with confession stemmed from the obligatory sessions the nuns orchestrated once a month. I remember standing shoulder to shoulder among my grade school peers, but I don’t have any recollection of any adults seeking help. Based on my experience, graduation from Catholic grammar school appeared synonymous with freedom from the confessional.
I shudder now to think about my years needlessly spent dragging myself around like a member of the walking dead, a wounded person enslaved by my own pride and ignorance. Thankfully, the grace of God finally managed to seep into the cracks of my hardened heart such that I felt that stirring desire to return like the prodigal son. I can’t even imagine what could have been the result of my eternal soul if I’d chosen to remain in my state of mortal sin.
As for my own children, I am trying hard to offer them a more complete understanding of our needs to be rebuilt constantly. We try to make a monthly habit (all of us) of heading to the confessional; however, it goes a bit further when they see not only their peers, but people of all ages and stages freely lined up for healing. No one is immune from the contagion of sin (even more so we adults). The bi-annual penance services in our diocese afford us that extra opportunity to witness the church in action in this broader capacity. Even without my M.A.S.H. references to draw from, it is a vision to behold long lines of familiar faces silently awaiting their turn to spill out their sorrows and sins and receive the outpouring of Christ’s absolution.
Indeed, the Father Mulcahy character was often depicted as tending to the spiritual needs of the dying which was certainly necessary. Monsignor and his fellow priests also have the duty to lead contrite hearts home from their deathbed, but it’s too bad Hawkeye’s character wasn’t regularly seen sitting in head-bowed posture beside a purple-stoled Father Mulcahy. The script for that scene wouldn’t have needed a single word of dialogue. Just imagine what a powerful and enduring statement such an image could have impressed on a whole generation.

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Stepping Through Our Doors to Minister to Those on the Outside

With a ten month old at hip, I’d taken up my usual place at the rear of the sanctuary so as to distance my noise-maker from the attentive audience. It was Pentecost Sunday, the Church’s birthday, and Monsignor was traversing the aisles between pews. A pine branch in place of the aspergillum, he was dotting his parishioners with holy water blessings.
He seemed to take an extra long time, weaving through the maze of pews, all the while dipping and flicking that broken, wet branch. Just when I thought he’d direct his path towards me, he turned again done another row. Of course, paying attention to the details and taking extra care in sacred matters wasn’t surprising, this was Monsignor Williams after all. And while not exactly as dismissive of time as St. Pio of Pietrecina (who was known to celebrate three hour long Masses), he wasn’t in the habit of curtailing the Lord’s Holy Sacrifice in order to satisfy forty-five minute man-made quotas either.


At long last, Monsignor and his faithful altar servant strode back in my direction. Positioned several feet behind the last row, I prayed the sprinkled blessings would reach little Pio and me. Then, to my amazement, Father not only hit my target, but he brushed passed and pushed open the heavy, wooden doors behind me which led to the community room. While most priests might have contained their ministry to inside of the sanctuary space, he recognized there were sheep beyond the confines and, like the Good Shepherd, he sought them out.

Keeping in mind this pastor, who (only weeks away from “retirement”) struggles with the physical challenges of an aging body, I was struck by this living testimony of the gospel. Typically, those of us resigned to the far corners of the building (i.e. basements, corridors and cry rooms) have to take up our cross and, like the land-locked crowds facing Jesus’ boat, be satisfied with the grace that come through speakers and TV screens.
Watching Monsignor meet his parishioners where they were, I thought about the importance of stepping outside of our comfort zones, of being Jesus’s hands and feet beyond the beaten paths of our ordinary, comfortable travels.
A few friends of mine have children with special needs and they routinely face the challenges of not only meeting their daily needs, but of dealing with the misunderstandings and harsh criticisms of bystanders. Understandably, I admit my own irritation when I encounter some wild child running amok in the superstore while a parent stares mindlessly at a smart phone or the unconsoled wailing of a toddler (who isn’t being removed) during the Mass readings. And it is true that parents do need to discipline appropriately and occasionally remove disruptions. But with that being said, those parents and children are no less in need and perhaps might be more so in need of Christ’s presence.
One particular Sunday, I heard a bit of a ruckus as Mass was being offered. Shifting my gaze sideways to the other side of the sanctuary rear, I watched a weary mother trying in earnest to juggle two little girls by herself. I could read the frustration on her face as she fed the more rambunctious of the petite darlings Cheerios and pushed a sippy cup her way. As the littlest one twirled, I saw the mama take to the kneeler and close her eyes. I imagine she was praying for peace or perhaps, like I have so many times, laying out her sorrows and begging for her sacrifice to be enough.
At some point in the Mass exodus she disappeared and so I never had the chance to introduce myself. But I overheard a conversation of which her children were the topic. The noise had not gone unheard and fellow parishioners were voicing their displeasure.
Sadly, they weren’t privy to the lone mother’s struggle that morning. They hadn’t seen her solo-parenting arrival nor watched her face contort in vexation as she longed to soak in the Word, but was instead focused on keeping her girls’ winces to a dull roar.
Laying aside the cry room debate and the Mass isn’t a picnic argument, I think the problem is that we so often want to stay inside the parameters of our self-designated space. We can so easily discount those who are on the “outside.”
About eight years ago we belonged to this wonderful, tiny parish of mostly retired couples. As the parents of six with another on the way, we stood out (I mean really because we barely managed to cram into a pew). No doubt our family may have brought some before absent disruptions, but rather than eye our brood with suspicion we were adopted and assimilated. Our children breathed some youthful life in to the church and we learned to be better parents under the tutelage of our more mature peer.
The grandmothers of St. Catherine’s were quick to grasp a small, wandering hand or invite a fidgeting Brelinsky to sit beside them. They remembered well the difficulties of parenting their own and so easily slipped on our “shoes.” And our children sensed the camaraderie, they recognized that mom and dad were not flying solo, but that we were all members of the Body.
Like Monsignor, the members of that parish didn’t restrict Jesus’ reach. They took the time to meet us, know us and minister to us. They could have stayed planted in their “designated” pews and kept close company with established friends, rather than widen their circle and include us. My family would have suffered for it because while God would draw us far from that location (due to a necessary move) less than two years later the graces we received continue to this day.
I wish I had had the chance to encourage that frazzled mother, to offer her a compliment and a warm smile. To show her that Jesus does indeed want the little children around His table. I wish more people took the time to connect with the parents of special needs kids. To recall their inherit dignity and extend compassion and mercy their way.
In this age of pseudo-social kinship, we are failing all too often to make legitimate connections. We need to press open the doors and meet people where they are. Get to know one another, identify with our common ground and minister to one another’s needs, so that some day no one will be left outside.