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    The Saint of 9/11: FDNY Chaplain Father Mychel Judge

    By Brendan Fay

    Fr. Mychal Judge was born on May 11, 1933, and died on September 11, 2001. He had a heart as big as New York. There was room for all. To everyone he met, from the streets of New York to the White House, he was a man of tender compassion. From Flight 800 to the AIDS crisis, Mychal was a source of hope and healing in the midst of personal and national pain and tragedy.

    The world came to know Fr. Mychal Judge after his death at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That was a day of profound darkness for the human family- a day of terror and fear, injustice and death. Yet, out of the WTC pit of death and darkness, a light beamed in the iconic image of Fr. Judge being carried by firefighters and rescuers. Identified as victim 0001, FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge became a face of courage, sacrifice, profound hope, and compassion. On September 11, he embodied the prayer of his father St Francis: “Where there is sadness, let me sow hope, where there is hatred let me sow love… where there is darkness only light.” On 9/11, as most New Yorkers fled the World Trade Center, Mychal rushed toward the site with other first responders, which included the brave men and women of the FDNY, EMS and NYPD. This was his calling as a Franciscan FDNY Chaplain, to go to the place of human tragedy, pain, suffering and anguish, and to be present with comfort and healing.

    Fr. Judge was well known in New York for his ministry with the homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and others marginalized by society. He was a compassionate witness of peace and non-violence in Belfast and in Jerusalem. For the Irish, he was one of their own. To the men and women of the New York City Fire Department, he was “Father Mike,” a familiar face in the firehouses, city diners and in burn units of city hospitals. He led the funerals for firefighters, and consoled and comforted widows and children.

    He was a familiar face in New York AA meetings and counseled many, like himself, struggling with addictions. For the Catholic LGBT community, he was family as well as priest. We called on him during the darkness of the AIDS crisis. When exiled and excluded by the institutional Church, he provided compassion and sacraments in our living rooms and community centers.

    I met Fr. Judge because he was one of the priests who presided at the weekly Mass for Dignity NY, which is a group for LGBT Catholics at St Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village. We met each week until expelled by order of Cardinal O’ Connor in 1987. This was the middle of the AIDS crisis. I reached out to Mychal when asked for help by a family needing a priest to lead funeral prayers for two brothers who died from AIDS. As with many others in his life, we became fast friends.

    The fact that we were both gay was an almost unspoken truth between us. He wasn’t “out” out, as Mychal was selectively open about being gay, such as with friars and friends he could trust and people whom he could help by coming out. These included parents struggling with their child in a world of ignorance and prejudice. In his diary he wrote, “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.” He would become a huge supporter of working for change. He wrote checks to GMHC, to PFLAG and to St Pats For All, and then he would show up in his Franciscan habit. He was delighted with the founding of FireFLAG/EMS by Eugene Walsh and first president Thomas Ryan, both inspiring pioneers in the FDNY.

    While proud of being Irish and a much beloved Catholic priest, he was disheartened by anti-gay prejudice in the Church and Irish community. He referred to these problems as “high levels of madness.”

    Telephone calls between Fr. Mychal Judge and I concerned many matters. We would discuss Lourdes, Ireland, parades and the gift of sobriety. Sometimes we would just chat about the latest books by his favorite writers, Fr. Richard Rohr and the gay pioneer priest John McNeill, who was his spiritual director for a while. Calls often ended in a brief prayer or laughter.

    I was asked last year for the feast of the “Communion of Saints” to join the All Saints Roman Catholic parish in Syracuse as they unveiled a statue in Mychal’s memory. It was modeled on that iconic image of 9/11, of Mychal being carried out after the World Trade Center Collapse. All that is good and tender about the human heart is etched on the faces of the first responders as they carry the body of Fr. Mychal Judge and lay him down near the corner Church and Vesey – streets he walked and loved so much.

    Mychal loved New York and often walked the Brooklyn Bridge. As a son of Irish immigrants, he never forgot their struggles and would be an advocate for immigrants until the day he died. He was proud of this land and of stories about its immigrants.

    I have been gathering his letters and notes for a collection. He was great letter writer. He would stay up until all hours of the night writing notes and cards – to say thank you, to send a word of comfort, of encouragement, to celebrate a new job, the arrival of a new baby, the new home or new-found love. He celebrated weddings, baptisms and funerals, as well as the major moment of new citizenship. He would write a note of welcome to babies, to couples wedding, to families and surviving spouses after a funeral, and also to individuals in prison. People remember his love, his big heartedness and his sense of humor if you got too serious. That was our Mychal Judge!

    On each May 11, his birthday friends pause to give thanks for the gift of Fr. Mychal Judge. On each 9/11 anniversary, Mychal, even in his death, sends us a message. From the midst of the hell of war and violence, he points us to another possible path as human beings. Those who follow it, as he did, choose the path of compassion and tenderness.

    Brendan Fay is a filmmaker and activist. He co-produced “Saint of 9-11” and is finishing a new film entitled “Remembering Mychal.” He often speaks at colleges and communities about his friendship with Fr. Mychal Judge. You can reach him at Brendan@stpatsforall.com