The Origins of Chaplaincy


The Origins of Chaplaincy

Wednesday the 11th of November is the feast of St Martin de Tours, the first chaplain! Below is an extract from Fr David O’Malley’s book ‘School Ethos and Chaplaincy’, available from Don Bosco Publications and on Amazon

“The story of chaplaincy begins at the gate to the city of Amiens in 337 CE. Martin, a young soldier in the Roman army, was walking into the city during a bitterly cold winter. The crowds were hurrying past a half-naked beggar who was close to death. Martin, unpaid and having only his military uniform, stopped and looked at the man who gazed back at him expectantly, with hand outstretched. After a slight hesitation, Martin took out his sword and then removed his cloak and sliced it through the middle giving one half to the man and using the other half to cover himself again.

Some bystanders laughed at him and the ridiculous way he looked, wearing only half a cloak. But other bystanders felt ashamed that this poor soldier, from his poverty, had helped the beggar and made a difference, whilst they with money in their pockets, hand ignored the beggar completely, walking away when challenged by Martin’s actions.

Later that night Martin had a dream, he saw a vision of Christ himself wearing the half a cloak and saying to others Look at the cloak that Martin gave me today, and he only a poor soldier and a lay man too. The dream so affected Martin that he tried to leave the army and in 339 CE he was released into civilian life. From there he went on to work for the poor and increase awareness of the presence of God in ordinary people. He created a number of communities and became a church leader. He died at Tours in 397 CE.

His cloak , or half a cloak, became a precious object in military and royal circles. It became a spiritual symbol for the whole community. The cloak was used in the taking of oaths and was carried into battle and came to symbolise all that was best in humanity, a symbol of the spiritual dignity of each person and a powerful reminder of the need to seek God in ordinary things. The cloak was called a cappella – a cape. It was kept in a tent or in a building that came to be called a cappella, or chapel. The person assigned to look after this sacred relic was called the capellano or chaplain. The chaplain would control access to the sacred symbol and organise prayers and ceremonies for the community to celebrate the spirituality it signified. These were the first people to be called chaplains. They began firstly in the army, then in royal courts, later in hospitals and more recently in education

The story highlights some key features of chaplaincy:

  • It was inspired by a lay person’s act of listening and serving the needy.
  • It is based around the God-given dignity of each person in the community.
  • It is a form of service that challenges others to think about their own lives.
  • It involved safeguarding and celebrating the spiritual treasures of a community.
  • It is a ministry rooted in prayer and reflection on Jesus and the Gospels.

St Martin of Tours’ symbolic act casts a long shadow across Church history, reaching the second Vatican Council and our own multi-cultural  world. It touches all forms of chaplaincy in health, military and educational settings and points to the unique combination of religion, reflection and service all focused on a specific group’s needs at a particular time and place.”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.