Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 7th, 2011

‘Safe With Him’: What We Can Learn from Father Mychal Judge


A tribute poster with an image of Fr. Mychal Judge and other firefighters hangs on a phone booth outside the World Trade Center site. (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

The first picture I ever saw of Father Mychal Judge was a photo of his dead body. In the days following 9/11, I was haunted by the image of four men carrying the New York City fire department chaplain away from the Twin Towers. With the firefighters he served, Judge answered the calls for help, only to lose his life at Ground Zero. He was the first registered death of 9/11.

At first, I saw him as a tragic figure, a searing example of this country’s wounds. Since learning about his life, though, my perspective has shifted. Now I see him as a symbol of compassion, a vivid example of what it means to heal and be healed.

Who was Mychal Judge? He was a 68-year-old Franciscan priest, a native New Yorker, and proud Irish-American, a charismatic and beloved man. His answering machines literally broke from thousands of messages asking him to perform marriages or baptisms, or simply requesting some time to talk. He was a recovered alcoholic who had suffered from deep depression and became a passionate advocate for AA. He was also gay, a fact that he did not share widely for fear of compromising his ability to connect with those he served. By all accounts, he had a deep compassion toward people on the margins, and a willingness to be present in their struggles.

The biographies of Mychal Judge offer vivid examples of this tenderness. There’s his ministry to AIDS patients early in the epidemic when many people were afraid to touch them. Judge knew that his robes could be a barrier to some patients, reminding them of the rejection they had felt from many in the Church. Judge’s way around that was to gently massage the patients’ feet, talking and listening as he did so. There was his love for the homeless, whom he counted as friends. Many listed him as their next of kin. If you gave Mychal a new coat, say his friends, he’d thank you and then go give it to someone who needed it more.

Ministry of presence, listening

In The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge, Michael Daly describes the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, when Judge went to support distraught families during the recovery effort. The father of one of the victims, seeing Judge in his robes, began to scream, “You represent God. How can there be a God? How can you believe in God?” Judge grabbed the man’s hand and encouraged him to keep talking. The man railed at Judge for a while longer then broke into sobs and hugged him.

Reading these stories, what strikes me is that Judge made each encounter into a genuine point of connection. He was able to put aside his ego — or his fear, or his own comfort — to focus on what the other person needed. And in nearly every case, what that person needed was to be heard and valued: not for what the person would one day become, but for who he or she was at that very moment. In a world that is increasingly polarized, it strikes me that this ability to listen without judgment is both rare and more needed than ever.

Judge’s own struggles gave him a deep understanding of those in pain. In Michael Ford’s book Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero, a friend of Judge’s reflects on how the priest “projected a wounded warmth without being wounding.”

“When Mychal Judge came toward you, you knew he was wounded,” Father William Hart McNichols said, “but you also knew you were safe with him.”

Safe with him. 9/11 showed us that we are not always safe, even in the places we know well. And yet it also showed that in times of crisis there are people like Mychal Judge in the world, who offer unconditional comfort and compassion, the very best fruits of a spiritual life.

It’s a sad irony that I wish I had known Judge in life, but I would never have heard of him were it not for his death. And yet I, like many others, find inspiration in his way of living. His ministry proves that those of us who are wounded can be healers too, perhaps more effectively than people who have never struggled with despair.

And the more I think about Judge, the more I realize that his job as a fire department chaplain was beautifully fitting. Firefighters, after all, are able to reach the people whom everyone else would write off as a lost cause. So, in his own way, did Mychal Judge. He reached people in the simplest of ways, through listening and loving, making himself a safe place for others to rest. May we honor him by doing the same.

The Author : Ginny Kubitz Moyer
Ginny Kubitz Moyer is the author of the award-winning book Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area and blogs at randomactsofmomness.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • James Leo Oliver

    Our desires are a gift from God. To the degree we can give them back to him (give them up for God) the greater the gift.

  • MychalsPrayer

    Tota, this article answers your questions (scroll down to “Mychal Judge embraced his homosexuality as a gift of God”)

  • Tota Tua

    the image I walk away from 9/11 with is death certificate 0001, Fr. Mychal Judge welcoming everyone into heaven.

    That said, why does one’s sexuality have anything to do about him? Who talks about the celibate hetero priest? Sexuality is private and needs to remain private and not be flaunted for the world to see.

  • Liz Hale

    Since James brought it up, this needs to be made clear.

    Mychal Judge chose celibacy to honor his priestly vows and to not distract from his ministry. But he openly disagreed with official church teaching, and he blessed and supported committed gay relationships, often asking, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?”.

    All this is well documented in the Daly and Ford biographies, in the Saint of 9/11 film, and in these definitive articles on the Saint Mychal Judge website.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Beautifully done. I was in NYC on 9/11, not in the midst of the chaos, but the whole city was a mess in every way that day. The enduring image of Fr. Mychal has been with many of us since that day and certainly he stood tall for a long time prior to that day. His memory lives on.

    It does sadden me that some of us are talking about Father’s orientation. If it seems some use it to further their own agenda, as James Leo Oliver suggests, then is not Mr. Oliver doing something similar?

    I guess my question to Mr. Oliver would be – how does this enhance the conversation? How does this honor Fr. Mychal’s memory?

    If anything his memory, for me anyway, is a symbol of so many Biblical stories from both the New and Old Testaments. We are all called to be transformed through and in and with Christ and in that we are called to be One.

    And Fr. Mychal Judge embodied that in ways that shine on and on and on.

  • Teresa

    Thank you for writing this beautiful piece on Father Judge. I too, have the image of his body being carried by firefighters forever stamped in my mind. If we are going to be reducing his life to any one trait of his, it should be “brave.”

  • James Leo Oliver

    Here is a good story on Father Mychal Judge

  • Sarah

    To clarify: I meant Ginny’s essay and not James’ comment (FYI).

  • Sarah

    Wonderfully written! Bravo.

  • James Leo Oliver

    Dear Steve, Perhaps you need to research the life of Father Mychal Judge and gain an understanding of those who would use the idea that he was gay to further their own agenda. I think it’s important to note that all priests are sinner’s like the rest of us, all priests have weaknesses like the rest of us and all priests have desires like the rest of us. The living example Father Mychal Judge gave us was one where a person could have a sinful nature, have weaknesses, have desires and yet not act them out. Too many priests did just the opposite if we were to use the sex scandals as an example. The fact that Father Mychal Judge maintained his celibacy in today’s world makes him even more of a hero. Furthermore, I suggest you study the Theology of the Body in great detail if you wish to gain any sense of what I am trying to point out.

  • Steve Petroff

    Dear James Leo Oliver – I’m puzzled and saddened by your comment. I did not know Fr. Judge, but based on all I’ve read about him (including this fine article) I’d say that your “comment” could not be further from the meaning and importance of his life. We’ve just read about a faithful man who overcame his own personal challenges to bring comfort, support and refuge to others. He seems to me to have been a perfect witness to the gospel and a vivid example of Christ to those around him.

    What bearing do sexual preference and celibacy have on this man’s legacy or his example to us? Your comments truly cheapen his memory and miss the entire point of his life.

    Thanks Ginny for reminding us that the church is filled with every day heroes who are at the same time “human” and living examples of Christ among us.

  • James Leo Oliver

    Gay or straight (and that question is still unanswered), Father Mychal Judge was by all indications a celibate priest.

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