Keepers of the Cloak

Do you know how chaplains got their name? It started with a 4th century Roman soldier turned monk called Martin. Many legends surround his life but unlike other holy men throughout history, he had a biographer called Sulpicius who carefully documented his life and ministry. According to the story, Martin the soldier was riding into the city of Amiens in Gaul (France today) when he saw a poorly dressed beggar shivering by the side of the road. Seeing this, Martin cut his cloak in half and gave it to the man.

That night Martin saw a dream of the beggar with the piece of his cloak over his shoulders but the beggar was Jesus who turned to the angels and said ‘Here is Martin, the Roman solider – he has clothed me.’

This vision of Jesus as the beggar transformed Martin, convincing him that he should give his life serving the poor and neglected around him. Martin became a monk and travelling preacher, eventually (and reluctantly) becoming bishop of the city of Tours. The man we know as Saint Martin of Tours went on to have an interesting and fruitful ministry until his death in 397 A.D. but the story of his cloak outlived the saint himself.

The half kept by St. Martin became a sacred relic at the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours and was visited by the faithful. It was carried into battle by kings and highly revered. The priest who cared for the cappella (‘little cloak’) was called the cappellanu, and eventually all priests who served in the military were called cappellani. The English word ‘chaplain’ originated from these medieval Latin words cappella and capellanus, meaning ‘custodian (or keeper) of the cloak’.

Chaplains today, at Harbour Light and worldwide, believe that we inherited the mission to carry the cloak of kindness and generosity as we faithfully strive to serve clients and staff around us. However, the testimony of St. Martin of Tours and ultimately that of Jesus, remind us that nothing we can give- our time and our efforts, a listening ear or the talents God has given us-can compare with what God has given us:Himself and His sacrifice on the cross.

Thanks for letting us serve you,

–Chaplain John Polkki

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