The ministry of a Chaplain

Published by Community Chaplain on

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Yesterday whilst talking to a good friend in the community, we got onto the subject of Chaplaincy Services and what Chaplains do.

 I realised  that many people don’t know the background or history of the Chaplain or the “Office of the Chaplain” It is such an interesting story about how the ‘Capellanus’ developed. There are various versions of how the Ministry of the Chaplain came about, here are some of them (with their respective sources.)

The term ‘Chaplain’ comes to us from a fourth century legend about Martin of Tours. St. Martin of Tours, was a member of the Roman Army wand born about 316 AD in Pannonia, a roman province that includes modern Hungary.

“The life of St Martin of Tours, who is credited as the founder of Christian chaplaincy, provides a direct source for understanding hospitality as it relates to chaplaincy today.”

“Martin was forced to join the army at fifteen. The Roman army apparently had a law that required sons of veterans to serve in the military. Martin’s father had been a Roman soldier, but Martin wanted to become a Christian monk. He was assigned to a ceremonial cavalry unit that protected the emperor and rarely saw combat. Like his father, he became an officer and eventually was assigned to garrison duty in Gaul (present-day France).”


Approximately, at the age of 21 one very cold day he passed the gates of Amiens in Gaul (France today) and saw a man freezing on the side of the road.

Martin was moved with compassion after seeing and hearing the pleas of the beggar being ignored by several other horse-riders riding past, he decided to help.

Martin had little himself, so he took the one valuable possession he owned- his cape and cut it in half. He kept half as his own shelter from the cold and gave the other half to the beggar.

That night, as the story goes, Martin had a vision in which he came to understand that the beggar himself was none other that Christ Himself. The vision shook Martin to the core.

“One day Martin was on garrison duty in Gaul when he noticed a beggar, freezing in the cold. No one seemed to be helping him. So Martin, moved with compassion, went to his aid. He took off his thick army cloak and cut it in two with his sword. One piece he wrapped around the beggar and the other he kept for himself. That night Martin had a dream in which he saw the beggar with the piece of his cloak on his shoulders. But in his dream the beggar was Jesus. This vision of Christ as the beggar transformed Martin, convincing him to give his life in service to the poor and neglected in society, as a monk.”

Finally, he was able to leave the army to take up his calling. His reputation grew quickly. The clarity of his conversion drove him to serve the poor and enabled him to resist any self-glorification. He saw the face of Jesus in all he met and had no desire but to serve.


“Martin’s activism for the poor and love of people was matched by his commitment to solitude and prayer. He developed regional spiritual communities as places of hospitality for anyone, regardless of their background, who sought direction or sanctuary.”

He instituted the practice, which continues today, of the bishop making pastoral visits to each of his communities at least once a year. This visitation was significant at a time when authorities, who lived in the towns and cities, often neglected country people.

After that experience he decided to return back to the Christian faith and was baptized by Bishop St.Hillary.

Over time, after the death of St Martin de Tours, the remaining half of St. Martins “cape” became a relic and an object of value as a reminder of the event. According to Sulpicius Severus, the biographer of St Martin:

“Martin was buried at his request in the Cemetery of the Poor. The Frankish Kings kept Martin’s half of the cloak as a relic. The guardian of this cloak became known as the ‘Capellanus’, in Latin, which through use in old French, then English, became ‘chaplain’. The place of keeping was known as the chapel”

The cape (Latin cappa) was kept in a special container made for it. The container was called the cappella. Thus, we get the name Chapel-the place where the robe of Christ is shared- not kept. The keeper of the cape was known as the Cappellanus- the keeper (or guardian) of the cape.

The Cappellanus, is where we get the word Chaplain- for Chaplains who share God’s love and care with those in need wherever people are, most especially in a military organization or structure, hospital school or service organization or in the community.

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 Capellanus, 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.”

There are various versions of how the legend of the Capellanus formed, and how the ministry of the Capellanus developed. What should be remembered, is that the ministry of the Chaplain emphasizes guardianship of the message and love of Christ. To offer to communities and organizations Faith, Hope and Love. To encourage hospitality and to stand for justice.

“The hospitality of St Martin changed the lives of the people he met. To sustain their transformed lives, he encouraged them to form communities of hospitality.”

When St Martin was unwillingly ordained into the office of Bishop of de Tours, he did so as a lay person. His passion and calling was to do the work of ministering to the poor and downtrodden, and so he had not sought this position. His commitment was to the Kingdom of God and God’s Kingdom of justice, mercy and peace.

Our calling in our community is to minister to the poor, the downtrodden, the hurting, the captives and prisoners, those who mourn and grieve. In doing so, we bring into our community the “Light of Christ.”

14333002_10155269528449972_5631651222549001549_n chaplain 5I believe that as Christ Followers, we are called upon to lead people into a place of healing and reconciliation- restorers of broken communities, broken relationships and brokenness.

Christ bought healing wherever He went and led people into a place of emotional and physical healing, restoring their worth.

The Vision of a Community Chaplaincy Service is to continue that servant work of meeting people’s needs in their time of crisis.


Chaplain Philip Stoneman

Isaiah 58:12


Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Matthew 5:13

You are the Light of the World. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.


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