I have sung this a thousand times since childhood, around the campfire, at vigils, even once at an evening memorial service. It’s as familiar as my own skin.
Yet when I think of it, I don’t think of the vigil or the campfire or the memorial service. I think of M*A*S*H.
In particular, the episode “Dear Sis” – where Father Mulcahy writes a letter to his sister, ‘the Sister’, about how ineffective he feels as pastor to this rag tag flock of medical personnel stuck half a world away in a war they don’t understand. He talks about watching the doctors and nurses saving lives, helping the injured, making a difference, yet all he can do is offer last rites and perhaps a bit of comfort.
Yet what he doesn’t realize – until the end – that small gestures of kindness and his simple presence among these busy, overworked, scared people bring them comfort, connection, a sense of their humanity, and most of all, moments of peace.
At the end of the episode, Hawkeye raises a glass to the priest and encourages the group to sing this song. “‘Dona Nobis Pacem.’ I can translate it for you,” he jokes. “No need,” replies Father Mulcahy, a sly smile on his face. And then they begin singing.
Dona nobis pacem, pacem;
dona nobis pacem.
The image of these people, wearing fatigues and showing fatigue, trying to capture a moment of Christmas spirit, and asking for peace…well, it knocks me out every time. The care these people show for their chaplain and each other speaks volumes of the work this simple priest accomplishes by his very presence among them.
You may find a million better versions, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more emotionally powerful one.
Give us peace, indeed.