Last week a friend invited me to attend the world premiere of the film Saint of 9/11, a documentary that tells the story of Father Mychal Judge, Franciscan Friar, who served as chaplain to New York City Fire Department and died in service on September 11, 2001. On his death certificate, Father Judge was listed as “0001”—the first victim of 9/11.
While I knew some of the bare facts regarding his death and had seen the now-famous photograph of his body being carried, pieta-like, from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, I had no knowledge about his life prior to that terrifying disaster.
The film was a masterpiece, and I recommend it to any Catholic, any Christian, or, for that matter, anyone who holds humanistic values.
A Commitment to Poverty and Those Affected by AIDS
As a Franciscan, Father Judge took his vow of poverty seriously. He was the recipient of frequent cash donations from friends and admirers, and he would use these funds to help the poor. A friend of his, concerned about all the loose cash he collected, urged him to open a checking account; a request he refused, since he felt it violated his commitment to poverty. Finally, the man prevailed upon him, and told him that he would open an account in his own name, that Father Judge could access.
Interviewed for the film, the friend spoke of how the cancelled checks of Mychal Judge’s life revealed an amazing network of generosity and causes. For as quickly as large sums of money were deposited, Mychal would withdraw money in the form of checks written to AIDS hospices, soup kitchens, tuition payments, homeless people and health care clinics.
His favorite feature of the official car the fire department gave him was the extra large trunk in which he could stow large amounts of snacks, warm clothes and goods of all types that homeless people need. Father Judge was known to pull the car over whenever he saw a homeless person, pop open the trunk, and help out in any way he could.
In the early 90’s, he visited New York, and began to see firsthand the devastation that AIDS visited upon its victims. Mychal realized that he needed to move there so he could minister and be close to those who were dying of this scourge. In his hospital visits—clad in his friar habit or clerical collar—he became aware that AIDS patients, often angry at a Church that had rejected them and their “lifestyle,” often didn’t want to speak to a Catholic priest. So rather than beginning his visits with the spoken word, he would approach their beds, turn back the blanket and sheet, and simply, silently, anoint their feet with the Oil of the Sick.
Refusing Safe Passage
On that fateful day of 9/11, Mychal rushed to be down at the epicenter of the suffering and was offered safe passage by Mayor Giuliani to escape the chaos when all seemed, finally, lost. Mychal, however, refused the offer, saying the he needed to be with his men.
It was a deeply affecting film—all about a gay man and a recovering alcoholic, who knew his own measure of limitation, disappointment and failure. As the film finished, the audience—many cynical New York media types among them—filled the space with thunderous applause.
It later dawned on me that if Father Mychal Judge hadn’t perished as he did on September 11, 2001, very few people would have known about his beautiful life. But now, because of the tragedy of 9/11 how many people will find in this story some measure of hope and inspiration?
Our Easter Faith
This is essentially the Easter message. Our Easter faith teaches us that out of the depths of such great and excruciating suffering, some glimmer of hope shines. There is no darkness great enough that can engulf the light of the Risen Christ.
This is not, of course, to say that there is any goodness in the suffering and violence itself: Jesus himself said to His Father: “If it be your will, take this cup from me!” We must take care never to glorify, romanticize or exalt suffering as its own end. But it is a great mystery—a paradox—that life can emerge where death abounds.
Easter is essentially this mystery. To say “Christ is Risen” is not simply to say that good will follow from bad. It is rather to say that precisely in and from the hard suffering of loss and diminishment, some measure of God’s consoling presence is found.
Our acclamation of “Christ is Risen” is also not a proposition about which we possess certitude. I worry about people who rigidly hold onto faith as a proposition of certainty: their faith is all in the head and their conviction is more about the need for the security of their psyche than anything else. This is the curse of fundamentalism that threatens all religious traditions; it is the curse that brought down the towers that fateful morning, but it is also the curse that increasingly gets affirmed today in the public square and political life as an affirmation of “genuine faith.”
To say and to know “Christ is Risen” is first and foremost a Mystery that we gradually discover in our own lives; in our own hearts. It is to begin to understand why the Church, in its wisdom, makes the Easter season fifty days, as if to overwhelm the broken promises of our Lenten observances.
No Ordinary Mystery
“Mystery” can be a tricky word. The mystery of God is precisely not “mystery” in its ordinary meaning. It is not like a detective mystery novel in which clues are made known, and by the end of the book, the mystery is solved. The great twentieth century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner tells us that the mystery of God, rather, is “inexhaustible;” we know it, yet never completely, because God’s life is bigger than our brains can comprehend or our ideas can exhaust.
The common thread in each of the post-resurrection stories in the Gospels is that Jesus—whether He is walking with his disciples on the way to Emmaus, or breaking through the walls of the Upper Room where the disciples have gathered out of fear—always appears bringing peace and joy where fear and confusion darken the hearts of His disciples.
Because this Mystery continues to be revealed in our time, post-resurrection narratives continue to be written—as one was written in the story of Fr. Mychal Judge—and they are continually written in each of our own lives and hearts. To say and to believe that “Christ is Risen” is to say and believe the Mystery and the paradox of the empty tomb. The Mystery of the resurrection has a continuing and an enduring presence in our lives, revealed over and over again—inexhaustible in its power; incomprehensible in being totally known. Let’s pray that you and I can know the depth of its peace and joy.
Saint of 9/11 made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27. For information on future screenings check out the film’s website: www.saintof9-11.com.