‘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.