In the "Dear sis" episode of M*A*S*H, the frustrated Catholic chaplain at the military hospital camp near the Korean front lines writes a candid letter to his sister, a nun.
"I'm almost desperate to be useful, sis," writes Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy. "No one comes to confession. I have no one to grant absolution to, no one to give comfort to, no one who even wants to bend my ear for 10 minutes."
Later, a patient attacks a nurse and slugs the priest. By reflex, Mulcahy -- a former Catholic-school boxing coach -- punches back. The gentle chaplain is despondent afterwards and doubts that he is making a difference.
"I'm Christ's representative," he tells a surgeon. "Suffer the little children to come unto me. Do unto others. ... I'm not supposed to just say that stuff, I'm supposed to do it."
The actor behind this unique character was William Christopher, who from 1972-83 portrayed one of the most sympathetic priests in pop-culture history.
Here's the bottom line, according to Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves as a permanent Catholic deacon in Brooklyn: "For a time, he played the most visible Catholic priest on American television -- arguably the most recognizable man of the cloth since Archbishop Fulton Sheen."
Christopher, 84, died of cancer on December 31 and is survived by his wife of 60 years and their two sons. His M*A*S*H co-stars hailed him as a professional who -- to an unusual degree -- disappeared into this singular role in a show that, in reruns, remains popular with millions.
Alan Alda tweeted: "His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren't acted. They were Bill."
Loretta Swit released a statement calling him "TV's quintessential padre" and added: "Our dear Bill and his goodness are a great argument for there being a heaven. … It was the most perfect casting ever known. He was probably responsible for more people coming back to the church."
Few viewers realized that Christopher grew up in a devout Methodist home in Evanston, Ill. He graduated from Wesleyan University, where he learned Greek. His great-grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and some family members thought Christopher would be ordained.
"I wish my grandmother had lived to see me play Father Mulcahy. I think it would probably have made her happy in a funny sort of way," Christopher told me in 1983, as he prepared for a M*A*S*H sequel.
To prepare for his signature role, Christopher interviewed priests to "help get the tone right." Finally, he created a Los Angeles-area panel of priests to help him deal with questions about how a Jesuit would have handled some rites, and tricky war-zone issues, in the era before the Second Vatican Council.
The goal was to show respect for the priesthood, while avoiding what he called "embarrassed priest situations and celibacy jokes." It was especially sobering to learn how to handle rushed deathbed confessions and Last Rites.
"I tried to humanize Mulcahy as much as possible, although I knew there was a certain danger there since he is a priest. But I felt there was an even greater danger if we let him turn into a stereotype," he explained.
In the M*A*S*H finale, a shell blast leaves Mulcahy deaf. Struggling with depression, he urgently prays: "Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I've devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?"
The chaplain faced doubts, but never lost faith and he kept growing. In the classic "Mulcahy's War" episode, he slips away to the front in an attempt to understand the combat experiences of soldiers. He ends up performing an emergency tracheotomy, using a pocketknife and a ballpoint pen.
This is, said Christopher, a "priest who had been to war and and been changed by it -- forever. … What I learned was that all priests are shaped by their experiences. They live for other people. That's the reality I am trying to help viewers understand."
While Donald Trump's crusade to win the White House was the top story of 2016, journalists in the Religion News Association saluted the brash billionaire's opponents by giving their top honor to the Muslim parents who made headlines by denouncing him.
Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, shared the Religion Newsmaker of the Year honor. The Khans made a dramatic Democratic National Convention appearance to proclaim that Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country would be unconstitutional.
The RNA description of the annual poll's No. 1 story stressed that Trump received "strong support from white Christians, especially evangelicals. … Many were alarmed by his vilifying Muslims and illegal immigrants and his backing from white supremacists. GOP keeps majorities in Congress."
The No. 2 story continued: "Post-election assaults and vandalism target Muslims and other minorities. Some assailants cite Donald Trump's victory as validation. Critics denounce the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House strategist over his ties to white supremacists." News related to Trump appeared in three other RNA Top 10 stories.
While white evangelical votes were crucial, I would have stressed two other religion trends linked to Trump's stunning win.
The first was captured in a mid-summer Christianity Today headline that, citing Pew Research Center polling, stated, "Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump." Pew found that more than half of white evangelicals were upset about 2016 White House options and said their aim was to defeat Hillary Clinton, not support Trump.
Election Night plot twists also showed that Clinton lost because she lacked support from Rust Belt working-class Democrats, many from Catholic, labor-union homes that twice backed President Barack Obama.
The RNA Top 10 selections did not include items linked to bitter battles over religious liberty, Obama White House orders on transgender rights or the Supreme Court opening caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. These issues were crucial in producing the strong Election Day turnout by religious conservatives.
Here's my take on the rest of the RNA Top 10:
(3) With strong support from religious activists, Standing Rock Sioux members protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they say will foul water and sacred lands.
(4) Creating new tensions with doctrinal conservatives, Pope Francis seeks -- in the apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" -- a vague, pastoral approach to Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. He leads a symbolic Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border and tells reporters that Trump is not acting in a "Christian" manner, when calling for a wall on that border.
(5) At least 4,600 migrants are killed in shipwrecks while fleeing conflicts fueled by radicalized forms of Islam in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The crisis fuels tensions across Europe, including immigration policy debates before England's Brexit vote.
(6) Terrorists linked to, or inspired by, the Islamic State kill scores of civilians at airports in Istanbul and Brussels, at various German sites and in Nice, France. A terrorist killed 86 people in Nice by driving a truck through a seaside holiday crowd. Also, a suicide bomber killed 25 Copts -- mostly women and children -- during a Dec. 11 attack on worship in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, near Cairo's main cathedral.
(7) Some scholars hail the "end of white Christian America" and surveys keep showing growing secularism in the American population. Nevertheless, the former provide decisive votes for Republicans while the left-leaning "Nones," the "religiously unaffiliated," fail to provide crucial votes for Democrats.
(8) Backed by strong clergy support, #BlackLivesMatter protests continue after more police shootings of African-Americans. Religious leaders of all kinds play a prominent role in uniting communities after deadly attacks on police officers.
(9) Although white evangelicals voted Trump by a 4-1 margin, their leaders split sharply -- especially in the Southern Baptist Convention. Many evangelicals of color opposed Trump, although exit polls hinted at surprising support from Latino evangelicals. Supporters cited his pledges to oppose abortion, while opponents stressed character issues and his statements on race and immigration.
(10) Claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, gunman Omar Mateen kills 49 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Homegrown terrorists injure dozens at a Minnesota mall, The Ohio State University and at New York-area targets.
The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.
Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.
"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.
The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."
That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?
Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.
This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar. Most modern Christians are not used to thinking that way, said Seay.
"The key is that the liturgical calendar calls us into the story of Jesus," he said. "If you don't take that seriously, you'll skip parts of the story. You'll skip Good Friday and rush to Easter. You'll skip Pentecost altogether. You'll rush to Christmas and then collapse. … We need this discipline. We need ways to control our modern biases."
For some people that may mean skipping some early- and mid-December office and school parties, said Seay. It may mean creating online sites (Hello Pinterest) dedicated to hands-on, less expensive, decorations and gifts. For clergy, it may mean daring to schedule Christmas parties and concerts during the actual 12 days of Christmas.
Some people may want to start with digital mixes of traditional Advent music for their cars, stereos and smartphones, said Alexi Sargeant, an editor at the interfaith journal First Things in New York. He keeps adding chants and hymns -- from Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox sources -- to an online "Advent Playlist" for those seeking ways to save Christmas music for the Christmas season.
These songs are lovely, but most include images both hopeful and sobering -- like the biblical events that led to Christmas. Consider one favorite, "Creator of the Stars of Night," he said. The lyrics include: "Jesu, Redeemer, save us all, and hear Thy servants when they call. … O Thou Whose coming is with dread, to judge and doom the quick and dead, preserve us, while we dwell below, from every insult of the foe."
The bottom line, said Sargeant, is that Americans don't want to have to wait for anything. This means that even the most dedicated of modern Christians may struggle when it comes to preparing for the "explosion of joy that is Christmas" with what, for many centuries, was Advent's season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
"It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to rush on to get to Christmas, because it's a truly great and glorious feast," he said. "But the church keeps reminding us that Christmas is not something that we are automatically ready for. We need to go on a journey with Mary and Joseph to get ready for Christmas. That's a serious message and, quite frankly, we may not want to hear it."
It was a blunt, personal comment, the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.
The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends -- period.
Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition," who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," noted theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's life in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading, in shelves of books, an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his December 8th death at the age of 85.
"Here was a guy who -- until his mid '40s -- had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," said Seamands. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."
In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s he plunged into Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."
As he dug into early church writings, from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy."
In a 2012 interview with Good News magazine, Oden explained: "My basic question early on in the 1970s was, is the Resurrection really just an idea or is it a fact of history? … Did this Jesus rise from the dead? Not symbolically, not just as a fragile memory of the earliest Christian rememberers, not just as an ever-questionable matter of fallible human remembering, but did Jesus actually rise from the dead. And finally, I did believe. And that changed my life."
At that point, he decided that to move forward he would have to go backwards and start over. In an interview I did with Oden in 1994, he referred to a passage in the book "The Great Divorce," by the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
"I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road," wrote Lewis. "A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on."
By encountering the saints and martyrs of the first five centuries of Christianity, Oden told me, "I met God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit."
This shift in perspective led to the three volumes of his 1,400-page "Systematic Theology," four volumes on the teachings of Methodist founder John Wesley, several books on early African Christianity and, producing howls of protest on the Methodist left, a manifesto on modern seminaries and ecclesiastical bureaucracies called "Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements." Among his many other works, he served as editor of "The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture," a 29-volume set introducing modern readers to writers in the early church.
On many occasions after his intellectual conversion, Oden described a pleasant dream in which he saw his own tombstone and the inscription read: "He made no new contribution to theology."
This was the central irony of Oden's life, stated Seamands. While many academic colleagues believed that he had "committed academic suicide," Oden went on to become a key player in global dialogues among traditional Protestants, Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. One strategic partner was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
"We can safely say that Oden's books will never go out of date -- because they already are, from a modern point of view," said Seamands. "His works are timeless, because of his conviction that he should focus on truths that were ancient and eternal."
When they set out to find growing mainline churches, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt did the logical thing -- they asked leaders of four key Canadian denominations to list their successful congregations.
It didn't take long, however, to spot a major problem as the researchers contacted these Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran parishes.
"Few, if any, of the congregations these denomination's leaders named were actually growing," said Haskell, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Branford, Ontario. "A few had experienced a little bit of growth in one or two years in the past, but for the most part they were holding steady, at best, or actually in steady declines."
To find thriving congregations in these historic denominations, Haskell and Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, had to hunt on their own. By word of mouth, they followed tips from pastors and lay leaders to other growing mainline churches.
The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox -- especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural -- than in typical mainline congregations. These churches were thriving on the doctrinal fringes of shrinking institutions.
"The people running these old, established denominations didn't actually know much about their own growing churches," said Haskell, reached by telephone. "Either that or they didn't want to admit which churches were growing."
The researchers stated their conclusions in the title -- "Theology Matters" -- of a peer-reviewed article in the current Review of Religious Research. In all, they plan five academic papers built on their studies of clergy and laypeople in nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario, a region Haskell called church friendly, in the context of modern Canada.
Focusing on 2003-2013, the researchers defined "decline" as an average loss of 2 percent of church attendees a year. "Growing" churches were gaining people in the pews at a rate of 2 percent or more.
Haskell said leaders of doctrinally progressive churches tend to believe that "strong convictions are what matter and it really doesn't matter what those convictions are. That is not what we see in the numbers, after our research. What we see is that growing churches hold more firmly to basics of traditional Christianity, including being more diligent about things like prayer, Bible reading and evangelism."
Crucial findings in this study showed that, in growing churches, pastors tend to be more conservative than the people in their pews. In declining congregations, pastors are usually more theologically liberal than their people. For example:
* Clergy in growing churches affirmed, by an overwhelming 93 percent, that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb, while 56 percent of clergy in declining churches agreed. Among laypeople, this divide was 83 percent vs. 67 percent.
* In growing churches, 46 percent of clergy strongly affirmed, and nearly 31 percent moderately affirmed, this statement: "Only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life." Zero pastors in declining churches affirmed that statement and 6 percent moderately agreed.
* In growing congregations, 100 percent of the clergy said it's crucial to "encourage non-Christians to become Christians," while only 50 percent of pastors in declining churches agreed.
* In declining churches, 44 percent of pastors agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers," compared with 100 percent of clergy in growing congregations.
There were other patterns worthy of future study, said Haskell. Growing churches were much younger, with two-thirds of their members under the age of 60, while two-thirds of those attending declining churches were over 60. Families in growing churches also had more children. Finally, growing mainline churches were finding their new members among outsiders -- people who say going to church is new for them -- at the same rate, about 12 percent, as growing evangelical Protestant churches.
"It's hard to avoid what we see in the numbers," said Haskell, who described himself as a "rather nontraditional believer" who teaches in a state university. "If you believe that Jesus is THE path to the best life in this life, and eternal life in the next, then you're going to practice your faith differently than someone who believes that all religions are basically the same. … As it turns out, doctrines really do have consequences."
After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.
Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."
Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.
"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.
"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.
"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. … I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."
The star who played the movie's protagonist -- George Bailey, who sacrifices his dreams to provide for family and friends -- described that worldview in an interview included in "The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book."
"You've got to go back to the value that Frank puts on life, on work, on responsibility and on genuine family togetherness," said Jimmy Stewart. "Those are the values he has and he has them very strong. Love of country, love of God -- he's tremendously strong on those. And he's able to get them up on the screen without preaching."
The film was initially considered a flop, in part because of the dark, even angry scenes in its story arc, with Bailey ending up on a bridge considering suicide because of a business scandal. Even after a whimsical guardian angel is sent to his aid, Bailey faces horrifying visions of what the world would have been like if he had never been born.
"It's a Wonderful Life" achieved classic status after decades of Christmas TV exposure. But one thing never changed. Critics initially called it "Capra-corn" and, if anything, some critics have become even more venomous.
Thus, the 1946 New York Times review called the movie a "figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes." A 2008 Times essay called it a "terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams … of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife."
In his autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," Capra stressed that his film "wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati" and defended it in explicitly biblical terms.
This was, he wrote, a "film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, 'Heads up, fella.' … A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores."
It's all there in first frames of "It's a Wonderful Life," as the hero's friends and loved ones are heard whispering prayers during his crisis.
"I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father."
"Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend Mr. Bailey."
"Help my son George tonight."
"He never thinks about himself, God, that's why he's in trouble."
"Please, God. Something's the matter with Daddy."
The stars twinkle and the powers of heaven act.
"This is a movie about faith, family, sacrifice and redemption," said Greydanus. "But there's a bigger picture here and that's the intercession of the saints. … George Bailey really had a wonderful life and all of the people he touched call out on his behalf. Their prayers are heard and God sends help. …
"There's nothing cynical and ironic about it. That's why this movie still connects with people."
When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.
While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.
First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.
"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."
Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed, again, Florida's claims that it isn't required to offer kosher meals in state prisons. Currently, 35 states and the federal government provide "religious diets" to prisoners.
"Our nation's prisons are not less safe because Jewish prisoners can have an acceptable religious diet. We would argue exactly the opposite," said Blomberg. "Our prisons are safer when people of different faiths are treated with respect and are allowed to follow their beliefs and there is no evidence out there to the contrary."
Religious-liberty disputes have, of course, been making headlines in recent years. In some cases, broad coalitions -- with activists on left and right -- have won significant victories linked to worship and visual symbols linked to faith.
For example, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas won the right to grow a short beard, in keeping with this faith. Native Americans have fought against federal laws forbidding them to possess eagle feathers, which are used in their sacred rites. A Sikh believer at the IRS won the right to carry a small ceremonial knife in federal buildings. The "kirpan" is one of five sacred symbols Sikhs strive to wear at all times.
It helps, in the Florida cases, that most of the prisoners requesting kosher foods are active in traditional faiths -- Judaism, Islam and the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- that have clearly defined and often ancient dietary laws.
"There's no requirement that you show that your faith is old and has specific requirements, but that does help show the court sincerity and consistency," said Blomberg, in a telephone interview. "Sincerity is important. When many faithful prisoners are denied a religious diet, they don't eat food that violates their faith -- they go hungry."
However, religious groups that once stood united when defending the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act have clashed in cases pitting religious liberty against what some now call "sexual liberty." While many support the rights of prisoners to follow the teachings of historic faiths, these coalitions have splintered when discussing the rights of public officials and business owners to follow ancient doctrines about marriage and sexuality.
Then there is the ongoing case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that has clashed with the White House over Obamacare mandates.
The First Amendment principles are supposed to be the same, inside prison walls and in the public square, argued Blomberg.
"The most powerful government in the world doesn't need to force nuns to provide contraceptives and other forms of birth control in the health-care plans they offer to people who work in their ministries," he said. "Our government has plenty of other ways to deliver these services to those people -- other than forcing nuns to violate the teachings of their faith. …
"There is space enough in our culture to allow different people with different beliefs to live peaceably in the same land. We really think most Americans would agree with that statement."