We stood by Father Mychal Judge’s grave in the Franciscan plot in the cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey. The sky was as blue on that September 11 morning 20 years ago. We prayed and sang the prayer of St. Francis. Make me a channel of your peace.
Me, Frank, and Sam, each of us touched and brought together by Father Mychal Judge. We prayed, we sang, we told our 9/11 stories to each other, and gave thanks for the gift of Father Mychal.
Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York. There was room for us all. To each 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, from firefighters recovering from severe burns or families in grief at funerals, Mychal was a source of hope and healing in the midst of personal pain and national tragedy.
On September 10, 2001, at the rededication blessing of Engine 73 Ladder 42 in the Bronx, he spoke his final homily: “You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of another, you get on that rig, you go out to do the job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig, no matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God’s calling you to, but he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
The world came to know Father Mychal Judge from 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 pit of death and darkness, a light beamed in the iconic image of Father Mychal being carried by firefighters and rescuers. Identified as victim 0001, FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge became a face of courage, sacrifice, profound hope, of compassion.
On 9/11, 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, Father Mychal rushed towards the site with other first responders the brave men and women of the FDNY, EMS, NYPD. This was his calling as Franciscan, FDNY chaplain, to go to the place of human tragedy, pain, suffering, and anguish and be present with comfort and healing.
Father Mychal was well known in New York for his ministry with the homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, the LGBT community, and others marginalized by society. He was a compassionate witness for peace and non-violence in Belfast and in Jerusalem.
While filming for a documentary about Mychal, I visited Stormont just outside Belfast. I sat with Patricia Lewsley, former commissioner for children and young people in Northern Ireland, who recalled her meetings and conversations about conflict resolution and reconciliation with Mychal and NYPD Detective Steven McDonald during their peace pilgrimage to Belfast in 1999.
For the Irish, he was one of our own. And how he loved the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. When he was declared Irishman of the Year he called us. “Brendan I want you and Tom there and be sure to get on the dance floor.”
That’s who he was, a bridge person helping people cross divides and distance and bringing us together to celebrate the good of life.
He was a familiar face in New York AA meetings and counseled many like himself struggling with addictions. He was 23 years sober when he was buried. At retreats together, after evening prayers, we would sit up till all hours with Mychal leading the session of folk songs and Clancy Brothers Irish ballads.
For the Catholic LGBT community, he was one with us as well as our priest providing sacraments. We called on him during the darkness of the AIDS crisis. When exiled and excluded by society and the institutional church, he provided compassion and sacraments in our living rooms and community centers.
It wasn’t long after I arrived from Ireland to study at St. John’s that I met Mychal as he was one of the priests who presided at the weekly Mass for Dignity NY, a group for LGBT Catholics.
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.
Mychal was selectively open about being gay with friars and friends he could trust and people whom he could help by coming out such as parents supporting 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 groups working for change. He wrote the checks to AIDS Interfaith NY, to the Parents group PFLAG, to St. Pats for All.
On Skillman Avenue, at that first parade in March 2000, he showed up in his Franciscan. He said a prayer of thanks for the blessings of the day and the welcome for all especially the Irish LGBT group Lavender and Green Alliance. He then walked with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center contingent. He also spent time saying hello with Mary Somoza and her daughter Anastasia.
While proud of being Irish and a much-beloved Catholic priest, he was disheartened by anti-gay prejudice in the church and Irish community, which he called “high levels of madness.”
While researching Father Mychal’s story, people sent me copies of his letters and notes. He was a great letter writer. He would stay up till all hours of the night writing notes and cards – to say thank you, to send a word of comfort, of encouragement in sobriety, to celebrate a new job, the arrival of a new baby, the new home, newfound love.
People remember Mychal’s love, his big-heartedness, and his sense of humor if you got too serious. That was our Mychal Judge.
On this 9/11 20th anniversary, Father Mychal Judge, even in his death, sends a message. From the midst of hate, war, and violence, he points us to another possible path for us as human beings.
Like him and all who gave their lives that day, we too can choose the path of compassion and tenderness. Mychal challenges us to shun the path of violence and engage in the hard work of peacemaking, finding friendship and new ways to live well our brief lives together.
(Brendan Fay is European director and co-producer of Saint of 9-11. With Emmy award-winning editor Ed Caraballo, he is finishing a new film entitled “Remembering Mychal.")
Here is the trailer to "Saint of 9-11":
*This column first appeared in the September 8 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.