Not just a hero on September 11, FDNY Chaplain Father Mychal Judge was an LGBT hero who deserves to be canonized.
*Editor's Note: This column was originally published in September 2017.
There is so much more to the life and work of Father Mychal Judge than his quiet heroism on 9/11. The time has come to honor this profoundly Christian man and proud Irish American with the sainthood he deserves.
On the morning of his death on September 11, 2001, Father Mychal Judge was moving quickly. Stopping only for his Fire Chaplain’s helmet and FDNY coat, he raced down to the smoking World Trade Center buildings to offer all the aid and comfort that he could.
Despite the danger to his own life, his presence was mandatory he believed. In a prayer once, he had outlined his philosophy: “Lord take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet…” it began.
He set off urgently on that world-changing morning to where the Lord wanted to take him, thinking only of helping others.
A passing documentary crew filmed his anxious face, already a shocked witness to history, as he prayed in the lobby of the north tower, his white helmet reading “F.D.N.Y. Chaplain.”
Refusing all offers to be evacuated, Father Judge instead gave sacraments as huge parts of the building – and people – fell to earth all around him.
Dozens were hitting the plaza outside as people jumped to their deaths from the top stories. Passers-by heard his final prayer, which he repeated over and over: “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, the debris crashed through the North Tower lobby, killing many in its path, including the man that the FDNY called Father Mike.
The medical examiner recorded Judge as the first fatality of the day, assigning him the number DM0001-01, the DM standing for Disaster Manhattan. There are many in the FDNY who see a spiritual symbolism in that official designation. Father Mike was at the head of the line to welcome the victims into heaven, they say.
Speaking at his funeral a few days later, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was in no doubt about the standing of the fallen Fire FDNY Chaplain, saying simply: “He was a saint.”
If he had done nothing else, Father Mychal’s courage and ministry on 9/11 would make him a candidate for sainthood in the eyes of many. But Father Judge did so much more in his 68 years.
For decades, he had ministered to the homeless, the hungry, recovering alcoholics, to people with HIV and AIDS, to the sick, the injured and the grieving, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians, and to many others who were overlooked or cast out by the Church and society.
It can be hard now to remember the hysteria and ignorance that informed the first public response to the AIDS crisis, but in the early years, even longtime nurses and doctors would bluntly refuse to treat the patients who were presenting in their wards.
Judge embraced them, he often even cradled them, speaking and singing to them, administering the Eucharist and last rites. He spoke at their funerals too, sometimes he was one of the very few attending, and sometimes he comforted their entire families, friends, and lovers.
“Mychal really knew that gay Catholics were being treated like second-class citizens by the church,” Pastor Salvatore Sapienza, a former religious brother who worked alongside Judge to establish the St. Francis’ AIDS ministry, told Slate in 2017. But rather than step away, Judge stepped up.
The time is ripe to canonize Fr Mychal Judge
Traditionally, the pathway to Catholic sainthood is a complex process, involving a long and comprehensive investigation of the miracles attributed to the prospective saint.
Butin 2017, the Vatican announced that it had expanded its criteria to include a new category of sainthood for people who willingly sacrifice their lives for others: oblatio vitae, or the “offering of life.”
Under this new rubric, Father Mychal is already eminently qualified.
In death, the challenge before him is the same one that he knew in life: his homosexuality. Father Mychal embraced his own orientation and even privately celebrated the lessons it had taught him, but the challenge of elevating an LGBT man to sainthood in a conservative church is still a sobering one, even for his most ardent champions.
One such champion is Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Talking to Slate, he said that now, under Pope Francis, may be the best moment there will ever be to advance Judge’s candidacy.
“There’s a real opening under Francis, but the door will only remain open for so long,” Schmalz said. “If you’re going to push things publicly, now’s the time to do it.”
There has never been an openly LGBT Catholic saint. If Judge was to become the first one, he would stand as the first unmistakable bridge between the LGBT community and the Church. It’s a bridge many want to cross but many more want to raze.
“I would pray for his canonization but I wouldn’t bet on it,” Schmalz concluded.
“If you look at the church worldwide and church hierarchy, [Judge’s canonization] would be incredibly problematic,” he said. “It’s a kind of litmus test as to how deep the culture wars in Catholicism go, and whether they can be transcended.”
Meanwhile, New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy and justice for LGBT Catholics, has set up a web page to seek personal testimony from those who knew Father Mychal and support his candidacy.