Category Archives: penance service

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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