I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say
and that there be no divisions among you.
— Paul to the Corinthians, today’s second reading
Our Holy Father likes to talk about the church as a “field hospital”: a place where hurting people can come to be healed. As someone who spent several years watching M*A*S*H on TV, I like the image; but I take it a step further as well. To pick up on Saint Paul’s message today, ask yourself: What good is a field hospital if the staff is too self-absorbed to help the patients? What good would the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital have been to all those wounded soldiers if there were no Hawkeye, Max, Trapper John, B.J. Hunnicut, Nurse Houlihan, Radar, Corporal Klinger, and all the rest ready to care for them? The hospital staff all had their hangups and their interpersonal issues, but when the ‘choppers or the jeeps came in with the stretchers, everybody forgot their little problems and did the jobs they were there for.
Saint Paul wants his congregation at Corinth to be like that. He knows they’re far from perfect, but he also knows that (through him) the Risen Christ has given the congregation a job to do: They are to embody the Risen Christ by how they live together and by how they care for those who come to them. If they’re bickering and arguing about things, they won’t do their job.
A very wise old pastor I served under used to ask, when a person came to him with a gripe, “How important is this in the light of Christ’s final coming in glory?” It wasn’t pleasant to hear (as I did more than a few times), but it set the right framework: Most things that get under our skin don’t really matter in the larger picture. (In fact, the things that bother us commonly say more about us than they do about the world outside us – wisdom known to spiritual guides and therapists, but hard to take to heart when something is upsetting us. But that’s for another column.)
These weeks are the season of Ordinary Time. As I wrote last week, “ordinary” has the same root as “orderly,” and in this season the church’s liturgy focuses our attention on the well-ordered life as the foundation for effective discipleship. No small part of ordering our life is making sure that, when it comes to matters of parish life, we ask the right question: Not, “What’s in it for me?” (or, “Do I like it?”), but rather: “How can I help?” We’re here to do Christ’s work, not to massage our egos.
How we think about our role matters. If you find the image of M*A*S*H helpful, make it a parallel to your role in the parish: Are you more like one of the wounded being brought in, or has God put you here as a healer for others? (If you don’t think you can help people to heal, remember that the surgeons could do their job only because all the other staff did theirs as well. You may not be able to be a lector or a catechist unless God gave you those gifts: but you can be welcoming; you can affirm others who are doing other jobs; and you can tidy the pew before you leave church. And you can make countless other small but vital contributions to the Holy Work. Such things matter.)
I started writing this column before New Year’s; before I finished it I saw notice of the death of William Christopher, the actor who played the chaplain in M*A*S*H, Fr. Mulcahy. His passing reminded me of a scene in which Sidney (the psychiatrist) says to Hawkeye (a surgeon): “When you lose one, you lose a body, when I lose one, I lose a mind.” And Fr. Mulcahy adds, “When I lose one, I lose a soul.” Together, we’re meant to be in the business of not losing souls. Until next week, peace.
1 For those of you unaware of M*A*S*H, it was about a Korean-war Mobile Army Surgical Hospital staffed by an unlikely crew of surgeons, nurses, and support personnel, and the wounded soldiers brought there for care. First a book then a movie, the tv series ran 1972-83. It was widely supposed to be an acid commentary on the madness of the Vietnam War.