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.