Last Saturday, I staffed a table at the Pioneer Carnival, the main "resource fair" for incoming students at the University of Denver. It is one of the last events of the orientation week, and provides an opportunity for student organizations, local businesses and various campus offices to talk with students, and to invite them to become involved. It's always a noisy, organized-chaos, sort of event. And it's a lot of fun.
When students com up to my table, one of the questions they often ask, evenafter staring at the table cover and all the brochures, is "What's this club do?" I explain that I'm the University Chaplain, and that I oversee religious life on the campus, and help students make connections with the religious groups of their choice/interest. Sometimes, they'll mention a particular group, and I'll point the way. Other times, I'll get a follow-up a question: "What's a chaplain?" And that's a question I often get, even away from resource fairs; I was asked it at a religious student group meeting this week! And, so, since I get asked it often enough, I thought I'd take a few moments, at the beginning of this academic year to answer it. But, to do it, I'll have to get all historical.
In the 4th century of our era, the story goes, a Roman soldier named Martin (from the city of Tours) found himself face-to-face with a beggar outside the city gates of Amiens. It was a cold day, and Martin noted that the beggar had little to keep himself warm. Out of compassion, the soldier cut his own cloak in half, and gave half to the beggar. That night Martin had a dream in which Jesus was wearing the cloak that Martin had given the beggar.
That cloak -- in some version of the story, it had been made whole by the time Martin awoke from the dream -- became a sacred relic and was sometimes carried into battle by the Merovingian kings. The priest who cared for the cloak (in Latin, cappa) was called the cappelanu. Military priests then all became referred to as cappelani, or in French, chapelains . . . chaplains. Similarly, the small churches built to house the relic were called cappela (or "little cloak"). Later, even after the churches no longer contained the cloak, they retained the name capella or "chapel". The clergy person in charge of the "chapel" retained the title "chaplain."
So, one could say that, since I have charge of the University's Evans Chapel, I have the title "Chaplain". But I, and other chaplains, also fill other roles, and here will quote from a description found on the Hartford Seminary's website describing an Islamic chaplaincy:
A chaplain is a professional who offers spiritual advice and care in a specific institutional context, such as a military unit or a college campus, hospital or prison. Although chaplains often provide religious services for members of their own faith communities, the main role of a chaplain is to facilitate or accommodate the religious needs of all individuals in the institution in which he or she is working. Chaplains often serve as experts on ethics to their colleagues and employers, providing insight to such diverse issues as organ transplantation, just-warfare, and public policy. Professional chaplains do not displace local religious leaders, but fill the special requirements involved in intense institutional environments.
That seems to be a pretty good description of much of what I do (although I'm not so sure I'd claim the distinction of being an "expert on ethics"!). On the other hand, sometimes in answer to the question "What's a chaplain?", I often answer by saying, "Well, I something of a cross between Fr. Mulcahey on M.A.S.H and a medieval court jester*." That often elicits a smile of understanding.
What I would ultimately hope, however, is that I, and other chaplains, faithfully execute the care and hospitality represented by Martin's torn cloak.
*A "jester", not so much as being a funny, foolish, figure, but as one given the right, or responsibility, of speaking truth to power.