The historical and traditional beginnings of the military chaplain date back to the fourth century and a soldier named St. Martin of Tours. As the story is told, he encountered a shivering beggar on a cold winter night. Without any money in his pockets, but determined to help, he took off his cloak and slashed it with his sword to give half of it to the beggar.
Later that night he saw a vision in which Jesus Christ was wearing the half-cloak. As a result of this vision he became a follower of Jesus and was baptized into the Church. Ultimately he left the army to devote his life in service to the Church and ultimately became the patron saint of the French kings of the Middle Ages.
As a result of his status as a leading servant, St. Martin’s cloak or cappella was carried into battle by the kings as a banner signifying “the presence of God.” But since the cappella was a sacred relic of the church, a priest always accompanied the cloak as it care-taker. This keeper of the cloak, or cappellanus, also tended the king’s religious needs, and from his office the role of the “chaplain” was derived. Over time, wherever St. Martin’s capella was “housed” also become a place of worship known as the “chapel.”
This story gives us a clue to the essential nature of the chaplaincy, as we know it today. The cappellanus (chaplain) was a member of one institution — a priest of the church serving in another institution — the king’s army. Definitions of the chaplaincy seldom take sufficient account of this institutional duality. Chaplains are unique in the military as the only group of officers whose primary identification is with a nonmilitary institution. But they are also unique in the church, as the only large group of clergy who are commissioned officers in a military institution. It has been well said, “A chaplain has one foot in heaven and the other in a combat boot.”
This story also provides us with a present day metaphor for what faith-based followership looks like in our society. Our cloak, our capella can either be given away sacrificially to others whom we encounter along our journey or it can be used as a an accessory for hiding and self-protection. Hopefully always the former.