Lest We Forget

memorial day3

Note: After watching the several television programs devoted to commemorating Memorial Day this past weekend, I have come to the conclusion that many in the media confuse this day with Veterans Day, which is in November and recognizes the service of all United States veterans.

Memorial Day is, at its core, about lives never fully lived, marriages never made, children never born, and dreams never fulfilled. It is about the more than one million men and women who have died in defense of the United States since 1775, frozen forever in time at the moment of the sacrifice they made to preserve the basic freedoms and liberties that most Americans take for granted. Memorial Day is about the ones who did not come back, not about those who did and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. We express that appreciation on Veterans Day.

Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military – in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served – not only those who died – have sacrificed and done their duty.

In order to focus on what we celebrate on the last Monday of May each year, I offer the following Memorial Day tribute.

It was on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee that Rudyard Kipling wrote his renowned poem Recessional, part of which has the following lines:
God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe –
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law –
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Kipling wrote those words when the British Empire was at it height and the greatest power on the face of the earth. Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was the obvious event for celebrating this achievement, yet Kipling chose not to do so. Instead, he wrote these words, vividly cautioning revelers of the arrogances of pride and the capriciousness of power and that prideful power is neither ultimately lasting, nor conclusively significant.

It would be a gross understatement to say that Queen Victoria was neither amused nor pleased with Kipling’s words, thinking them instead to be inappropriate and unsuitable for such a splendid occasion.

If not appropriate for a Queen’s jubilee, then surely the words are fitting for Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a day on which we remember never to forget. The question is: What do we remember? Possibly one of the most difficult tasks that we will have is to remember that it is Memorial Day. Many people still refer to this day as “Decoration Day,” the original name for Memorial Day, coined in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Could this preference for the original name of the day be an outward expression of an almost subconscious feeling? It demonstrates our natural dislike for remembering some things. We much prefer to decorate and to forget.

In many of the newspaper picture sections throughout the country on this holiday, there will be published photographs of places that we have decorated and forgotten. There will be unbelievably large fields of white crosses, festive flowers and fluttering flags. Many people find it rather easy to look at such things without remembering too much. Rows and rows of white crosses do not do much but form a rather attractive geometric pattern against the green grass. For others like myself, however, it is rather difficult to forget what, or rather, who lay under those neat symmetrical white crosses. The memory is seared too deeply into heart and mind ever to be erased. But we should never see just row upon row of white crosses. There are men and women – dead men and women – beneath those neat symmetrical rows. It is only the rows that are neat and symmetrical, however. Most of those beneath those crosses died violent and horrible deaths, twisted and blasted into awkward, inelegant, graceless positions. Memorial Day is a day to remember those who died such horrendous deaths. To not remember them is to default on a sacred trust – the most sacred trust that one person can place upon another – one’s life.

So how will we celebrate? How will we remember? Unfortunately, the simple fact is that most of us will not. For most of us, Memorial Day is just a holiday, just a day of recreation. It is just another of the paid holidays that the union contract calls for each year. It is a day of commercial ventures and an opportunity for merchants to stay open and to reap the profits from a Memorial Day Sale. It is a day when one might go to the ocean, or to the mountains, or to the swimming pools and usher in the beginning of the summer season. Of course, the fact that summer does not officially begin until June 21 is beside the point. The point is that very little remembering will take place and that is sad, for memory is important!

And how about those who do remember, how will they do it? Well, there will be the traditional parades down Main Street, of course. And millions of solid, well-fed citizens who do not have the foggiest notion of what a bomb bursting in air really sounds like, or what a rocket’s red glare really looks like, will stand in ballparks across this great nation and before the umpire shouts “Play ball” will proudly stand and sing: “O say can you see . . .” But it seems that we cannot or we do not see.

As recent as a generation ago, it was still fashionable around Memorial Day to hear or to recite a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician in the Canadian Army. After he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, only twenty-two years old, he wrote these words:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our places; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands, we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Most schoolchildren today have never heard those lines. They do not know to what it is that those words refer. They cannot tell you the location of Flanders fields. At least, part of the reason could be that with the wars since Flanders fields, the words sound a bit passé and overly emotional, even a bit ominous – “If ye break faith with us who die . . .” But is it not, most of all that we hate to acknowledge the enormous cost of their ultimate sacrifice?

So, let us look at the record, lump all the neat white crosses together and add up the score. There have been twelve major wars that we have fought since our founding, starting with the American Revolution and continuing through Operation Enduring Freedom. In those twelve major wars, 1,343,420 men and women have given the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, and that figure does not include those who died in the twenty or so lesser known wars in which our military has been involved.

What, then, shall we say on this Memorial Day? Shall we say that the sacrifice was stupid and useless and senseless? Shall we, with the ultimate cynicism, write the whole thing off as a bad show? Shall we give each headstone and monument a consoling pat, with the comforting words: “Nice try, buddy. You gave it everything you had. Too bad you didn’t make it?” Shall we say that to those who died?

NO! We dare not say that!

Winston Churchill’s sixth and concluding volume of his memoirs of World War Two is entitled Triumph and Tragedy because, as Churchill states: “. . .so far, the overwhelming victory of the grand alliance has failed to bring peace to an anxious world.”

Yes, there is the triumph, but there is also the tragedy. We have so often broken faith with those who died. Why did they die, these thousands upon thousands under those neat white crosses? So that we can eat apple pie, boo the umpire, and watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Of course not! That is nonsense and unmitigated balderdash!

Those who have died knew, as we must know, that liberty is not a destination, but a journey. Their fight was not just an isolated moment in history. It was part of the mainstream of the human story, a mission of bringing freedom to all of the bound children of God.

Earlier, I quoted John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. On a Saturday morning in November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared, a Georgia educator named Moina Michael was reading a magazine that featured McCrae’s poem. She had read the poem many times before, but was transfixed by the words: “To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” At that moment, Moina Michael made a personal pledge to “keep the faith” and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders fields not only as a sign of remembrance, but also as an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died.”

Compelled to make a note of this pledge, she hastily scribbled down a poem on the back of an envelope entitled We Shall Keep the Faith. Here are her words:
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders fields.

To keep the faith with all who died and to teach the lessons that they have wrought should be our pledge as well.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we might know peace, who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity, who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom.”
-Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
Memorial Day


One Solitary Raspberry


Love does not die easily. It is a living thing. It thrives in the face of all of life’s hazards, save one – neglect.
-James D. Bryden, American author

In Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, we find the protagonist, Hazel Motes, standing on the hood of his car (yes, Hazel is a man) and expounding – for everyone with ears to hear – on what he calls the Church Without Christ, a paradoxical faith in which “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.”

We live in a world where the dead stay dead.

This is a world where life does not come from the dead. When an animal dies in the field, it does not trot across that field again. Dead things stay dead.

This is a world where any scientist worthy of the name will argue without fear of contradiction that virgin births do not occur in humans, and that once you die, you are dead. Dead things stay dead.

This is a world where every biologist who sees the bones of a skeleton knows that those dry bones are not going to live again. Dead things stay dead.

This is a world where people are blown to bits by bombs on a daily basis. Dead things stay dead.

This is a world where fanaticisms are so great that suicide bombers volunteer every day for what they consider to be a righteous cause. Dead things stay dead.

This is a world where an influenza pandemic can threaten to wipe out whole populations. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where hurricanes can devastate the Gulf Coast of the United States and where tsunamis can wipe out coastlines and kill or displace people from Northern Sumatra to Kenya.

This is a world where dead things stay dead.

Or is it?

If we were to ask Gerda Weissmann, she might disagree.

Gerda Weissmann at age fifteen

Gerda Weissmann
at age fifteen

In 1939, Gerda Weissmann was a fifteen year-old girl who had her life changed forever as Nazi German troops invaded her home in Bielsko, Poland. After being forced to live in the basement of her childhood home for nearly three years, Gerda was separated from her parents. Never losing hope, Gerda would spend the next three years in a succession of slave-labor and concentration camps. She was forced to walk on a 350-mile death march during which two thousand women were subjected to exposure, starvation, and arbitrary execution and fewer than 120 of them survived. In the recounting of her extraordinary life, Gerda Weissmann recalled a precious gift that she received from a childhood friend. A simple loving gesture on the part of young Ilse Kleinzähler made a lasting impression on Gerda Weissmann. Both girls had been placed in a series of brutal slave labor camps. One afternoon, Ilse found a raspberry in the gutter. She carried it in her pocket all day long wrapped in a leaf that she had plucked through the barbed wire fence. It was just one single dust-covered raspberry and she gave this treasure to her friend, Gerda. Of this gesture, Gerda Weissmann wrote, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”

Sometime later, Ilse lay in the arms of twenty-year-old Gerda, weak from starvation. Ilse told Gerda that she harbored no anger toward anyone and made two last requests of Gerda: first, that Ilse’s parents would never learn how she died and second, that Gerda would hold on for another week. Soon after making these last requests, Ilse died and Gerda was indeed liberated by American forces in May 1945. The raspberry was the symbol of the love that kept both Gerda and Ilse going even under incredibly difficult circumstances.

One of her liberators was Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who had stumbled upon the abandoned factory in Volary, Czechoslovakia where Gerda and her fellow prisoners were housed. Gerda guided Lieutenant Klein to her fellow prisoners, most of whom lay sick and dying on the ground. Gerda was one day shy of her twenty-first birthday, at sixty-eight pounds, with gray hair.

This first encounter outside a booby-trapped warehouse in Europe on 7 May 1945, blossomed into a fifty-seven-year marriage for Gerda and Kurt, with a tireless mission: to battle intolerance and hunger and to turn heartache into hope for generations, ranging from Holocaust victims to Columbine High School survivors.

Suffering, evil and death are the norms in a “dead things stay dead world.” But sometimes a gesture of love, like Ilse Kleinzähler’s solitary raspberry can give one the hope that love can triumph over tragedy and that there can be a radical transformation of despair.

Walking in His Shoes

Mark Busse 1977-1995

Mark Busse

You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
-Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

Mark August Busse is perhaps not a household word, but I want you to hear his story, for it is both an account of courage and of compassion. Here is his story.

Mark Busse of Reardan, Wahington, at the age of eighteen, was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable cancer. Although in the final stage of a terminal disease, Mark ignored the pain and tried to cram a lifetime into his last summer. He played in Spokane’s Hoopfest basketball tournament. He water-skied. He drag-raced the jet-black ‘68 Camaro given him by the Wishing Star Foundation. He commemorated his eighteenth birthday with his first trip to a casino. He began his senior year of high school and, though barely able to stand, attended a football game just a week before he died.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know what he really went through,” said Bonnie Long, Reardan High’s athletic director who was also Mark’s confidant at school. “He never griped about his cancer. His philosophy was, ‘Suck it up and do it.”’

That tenacious spirit won him legions of fans.

Near the end of his life, Mark Busse spoke of his funeral. He said that he did not want the typical “chin-dragging in-the-dirt” funeral. He wanted “no sappy crying and no sissy flowers,” he told his parents as he neared the end.

What Mark wanted was for everyone to be filled with joyous memories. He wanted people to have memories of a young man who idolized basketball star Michael Jordan, to have memories of a spirited young athlete who earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track, and to have memories of a once-energetic kid who reacted with cocky optimism and a mischievous half-grin after life dealt him a lousy hand.

When he died, more than eight hundred people attended his memorial in his home town, a farm community with a population of just 525.The service was held not in a church, but appropriately on the school’s old basketball court where Mark worked on his jump shot and warred against rival schools. Despite his wishes, there was a flower or two and more than a few tears as his loved ones bid him a deeply moving farewell.

But that is not all there is to Mark Busse’s story. Mark’s courage, as inspiring as it is, is only half of the story. His courage was fueled by a gang of amazing friends who never deserted him. And that is the rest of his story.

When Mark Busse began chemotherapy, the treatment made his hair fall out and he worried about going to school with a bald head, thus making him stand out among the 180 high school student population.

He had little to fear. Mark and five of his closest buddies gathered at a house one Sunday night and took turns shaving each other’s head.

“I really appreciate this,” Mark said at the time. “When I told my friends they didn’t have to do this, Josh (Jenkin) said, ‘Shut up. I’m first.”’

The “Mr. Clean look” quickly caught on. Soon the halls of Reardan High School were bobbing with smooth, round, and bald symbols of support.

A photograph appeared in the local newspaper showing the completely bald Mark Busse sitting on the steps of his high school. (see below) A startling sight, yes, but that is not what is significant about the picture. All around Mark were his classmates, some twenty-five of them, all of their heads were bowed towards the camera – and all of them were bald! Twenty-six bald teenagers!

Shortly before he died, Mark called his gang of bald-headed pals together one last time.

“The room was full,” said Mark’s father. “He joked, said goodbye and then asked everybody to come shake his hand.”

They did, but no one would leave.

Mark looked at his weeping pals. He realized that it was time to take the sting out of yet another bad moment.

“Aw, don’t be such wusses,” he scolded them, flashing that half-grin of his. “If you’re not gonna leave, then sit down. Let’s watch some TV.”

I believe that Mark Busse had the best kind of friends that anyone can ever have. His friends, even though they were not sick, and even though they had no reason to shave their heads, did so in order to feel something of what their friend was experiencing.

Mark’s friends took time to identify with him. For at least a moment in time, they walked in his shoes and showed him that he was not alone. They gave to him a sign of compassion that he could treasure for the rest of his life, however long or short that may be. It was a sign that made real to him and to others their love for him. They walked with him in his difficult journey. But that is what love and compassion are all about. Right? Of course, right!

Love Is a Verb, Not a Noun

love verb

How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
-Anne Frank, from her wartime diary The Diary of a Young Girl

Back in the 1960s when folk masses were in vogue, William Flanders wrote a folk hymn entitled Love Is A Verb. I recalled Flanders’ song when I started writing this post because I thought what the song said was pertinent to what I wanted to say in this post. Here are the relevant words of Flanders’ folk hymn:
Don’t count on love to come flying in your window.
Don’t count on love to mysteriously appear,
Born from above as an answer to your troubles,
Filling your heart with intentions most sincere.

Love isn’t there, some possession bought or found.
Love is no thing, nothing good to have around.
Yet people, at times, can be loving in their actions.
Love is a verb, not a noun.

Love as a noun may be kind and may be patient,
But love as a noun always tends to be unreal.
When love becomes loving, then real things start to happen,
And love is received as a fact, not an ideal.

Love is a verb, not a noun. Love is not a thing; love is what one does. Love is action.

What an interesting and profound thought!

To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what kind of love that I am talking about here.

To begin with, when I say “love” I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. I can recall very early in my professional life preaching a sermon at an institution for “delinquent girls” (whatever that means). I was young and very much an inexperienced preacher. I used as my text that day the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the same passage that Bill Flanders used in his folk hymn quoted earlier, a passage that speaks about love – not eros (intimate love), but agapē (selfless love). Well, these “delinquent girls” were all in their late teens and early twenties and probably with raging hormones and love meant only one thing to them – passionate sexual craving. Of course, that was not what I was talking about, but that was what they heard and I should have known better than to use a text such as I did. But as I said, I was young and inexperienced. At any rate, as I looked out on my “flock” that day, some of the girls on the front row were winking at me and making some suggestive gestures with their hands. That day I learned not only to choose my preaching texts more carefully and appropriately, but also to define my terms sufficiently and adequately. So, let us understand one another right from the beginning. This post is not a sex manual. The post is not about sex at all. It is about love. Love and sex are NOT the same thing. Love is an action. Sex, on the other hand, is a biological event. Do not get me wrong. I do not mean to sound so clinical about this. I am all in favor of sex and sexual desire, and the “biological event” is a wonderful experience; it just is not the subject of this post. Someone else will have to write that post.

No. What I am talking about when I say “love” is the kind of love that is dispassionate, self-giving, detached, and is usually given without any thought of return from the person or persons to whom it is given. I have a friend who displays this kind of love. For purposes of illustration, I have changed his name to protect the guilty. My friend is “Charlie” and he goes to church every Sunday. At worship, Charlie disagrees with much, if not most, of what he hears preached from the pulpit. He stands with the congregation for the creed, but does not say those ancient words because he just does not believe in the concepts contained in the historic creedal statements of the church. It is important for Hank to maintain his intellectual integrity – and he does. At the prayers, Charlie’s mind wanders because he cannot conceive of an intervening God who answers people’s petitions. Furthermore, Charlie has a big problem with an intervening God who could/would permit the extermination of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, or the God who would/could stand idly by while at least ten thousand children are killed in a war in Syria. Where was the loving God of the Bible and of traditional Christianity in those situations, he wails! Hank has yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that probing question.

I asked Charlie one day why he went to church on Sunday if it all was so meaningless and repugnant to him. His answer was that going to church is meaningful to his wife and he loves his wife. He does it for her, not for him. And then he added, almost parenthetically: “And besides, there are some people there that I like, and the food at the fellowship hour is pretty damn good.”

If anything, Charlie is honest. But that is not the reason that I write of my friend Charlie. I write of Charlie because this man volunteers three times a week at a local hospice and sits at the bedside of persons dying of all kinds of cancer. It is a difficult task, one that most people cannot do, and one that can only have a singular kind of an ending – death. Knowing that Charlie is not motivated by any religious impulse, I asked him why he volunteers to do such an arduous undertaking. He answered me: “I do it because I have been so blessed in my life. I have a fantastic wife and three wonderful children. I have just about everything that a person could ever want. Doing this volunteering is my way of giving back some of the good that has come my way.” In other words, for Charlie “love is a verb.” He does it voluntarily and the world that Charlie knows is a better place because of Charlie and what he does. It is people like Charlie who selflessly demonstrate the human capacity to love.

I believe that the most important dimension of love is to see “love as a verb,” to see that love is action. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to make love a verb.

I like what Albert Camus wrote when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”

I may be wrong, but if we really want the world to look differently the next time we step outside, we need to make love a verb, not a noun and do some love.

That is a challenge that is for each one of us!
human family

The Man Who Should Not Be Made A Saint

Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?”
-Mychal Judge, Franciscan friar

A historic event was held this past weekend in Rome. The event marked the first time in the church’s history that two former popes were canonized on the same day. As if that were not enough, added to the historic and uncommon moment was the fact that two living pontiffs were present, as Pope Benedict XVI was in attendance. This whole business of manufacturing new saints of Angello Giuseppe Roncalli and Karol Jozef Woytyla, better known as Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II respectively, caused me to reflect on another person who, in the eyes of many, is also considered “sainthood material.” This person’s name is Mychal (Gaelic for Michael) Judge and here is his poignant story.

Mychal Judge was a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order and Chaplain of the Fire Department of New York City, known to many as the Fireman’s Friar. Father Judge regularly parked his fire-department chaplain’s car at Engine 1/Ladder 24 and often took his meals with those fire-fighters (six of whom died in the World Trade Center attack). When there was an emergency, Father Judge would simply throw caution to the wind and just go and help.

When tragedy struck on 11 September 2001, his friend Father Brian Carroll went up to Judge’s room to inform him that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Judge quickly took off his Franciscan habit, changed into his chaplain’s uniform and headed for the door.

While thousands of people tried to escape the Twin Towers, hundreds of fire- fighters rushed the other way. As Judge rushed toward the North Tower with fire-fighters, Mayor Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani grabbed his arm and stopped the friar and said to him, “Father Mike, pray for us!” Judge simply looked at the mayor, grinned his playful Irish smile, and replied, “I always do! I always pray for you!” And then he turned and ran off with the fire-fighters, right to the North Tower. Those words would be Judge’s last public utterance – his promise to always pray for those in need.

Other priests also came to the scene, but Judge was the only priest to actually enter the World Trade Center building. When commanders gave orders to evacuate the building, Judge refused to abandon the hundreds of fire-fighters still trapped inside saying, “My work here is not finished.”

Sometime between 9:50 and 9:55 a.m., Judge climbed up to the mezzanine, attempting to reach some injured fire-fighters. He continued to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing the Sick (in most cases, in extremis) and praying in the lobby as wreckage and jumping bodies crashed onto the plaza outside.

Mychal Judge was struck at 9:59 a.m. when the South Tower collapsed and sent concrete and rubble flying through the North Tower. He had removed his safety helmet to administer the Sacrament of Anointing to two of the victims, a fire-fighter and a woman who had fallen on the fire-fighter. He was hit in the back of the head by falling debris and died during the collapse of the South Tower. His death certificate says he died of blunt force trauma to the head. The fire-fighter’s chaplain actually died after anointing the fallen fire-fighter.

Five fire-fighters removed Judge’s body from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and because they knew him so well and respected and loved him so much, they did not want to leave his body in the street. So they quickly carried his body into a nearby church and instead of just leaving their comrade in the narthex, they carried his body up the center aisle and placed the beloved padre near the altar. Then they covered his body with a sheet, and on the sheet, they placed Father Judge’s stole and his fire badge. Only after they felt that they had done all that they could do for their fallen chaplain did they rushed back to continue their work. He was identified as “Victim 0001” because his was the first body recovered from the scene.

To many who witnessed the scenes of that horrific day, and also to many, many others, Mychal Judge is viewed as “sainthood material.” But Judge would probably say that he just did what he was ordained to do: to minister to the sick, to the injured, and to the dying. In doing so, his life was ended. Since then, the life and death of this gregarious, blue-eyed son of Irish immigrants has taken on the aura of legend, and with the legend has come a bit of controversy.

First of all, on the day after his funeral, it was revealed that Mychal Judge was gay, which for some in his own church called into question the validity of his priesthood! At a time when there are rumblings that the Roman Catholic Church wants to bar gay men, even celibate ones as was Mychal Judge, from the priesthood, some believe questions about Judge’s sexuality could prevent the church from ever considering him for sainthood.

Further, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would let the Franciscans, Judge’s religious order, decide whether or not to pursue sainthood. The Franciscans have made it clear that while Judge was a good friar, he should not be set apart. Sainthood is a long shot at best, experts say. It will be even more difficult for Mychal Judge without the support of the Franciscans.

Then there were Judge’s idiosyncrasies that made him so appealing to so many. For instance, he was a recovering alcoholic who proudly wore a shamrock tattoo on his behind. (You have to love that!) He loved to spin yarns and was ever ready to tell a joke. He wore his brown Franciscan habit on the hottest days of summer. He was not above tweaking church officials whom he found to be either pretentious or hypocritical or both.

But while Mychal Judge was a man of many idiosyncrasies, he was also a man of much compassion. He always remembered a widow’s birthday and was also known for carrying a wad of $1 bills that he handed out to the poor. Whereas many clergy shunned AIDS sufferers, Mychal Judge cradled them in his arms. And up until his death, he kept in touch with many family members of those who died in the 1996 ill-fated TWA Flight 800 that exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York. Such was the man named Mychal Judge, a man who died showing and giving his love and the love of God to the people whom he was ordained to serve.

It is my hope that Mychal Judge never becomes “Saint Mychal.” I say that not because he was gay, not because he had some idiosyncrasies, not even because he had a shamrock tattooed to his rump. No, to my mind those things are all in his favor for that elevated position. My reason is far deeper. In making people such as Mychal Judge saints, with all of the attendant process of discovering modern-day miracles, recognizing their elevated position in heaven and their subsequent veneration, we push them farther away from us and put them on an inaccessible pedestal. Mychal Judge was a very human, a very flawed, and a very complex person, just like the rest of us. He was, as we are inclined to say, like one of the family. I’m with the Franciscans on this one: do not to set him apart.

Fr. Mychal Judge, O.F.M.

Fr. Mychal Judge, O.F.M.