Today marks the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which took the lives of 2,996 people. Catholics remember in a special way the life of victim No. 1, Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM.
Judge, frequently referred to as the “Saint of 9/11,” was not only a chaplain for the New York Fire Department and a beloved (and busy) pastoral minister.He was a gay priest. This last identity is sometimes ignored or even left out intentionally when he is remembered, but it should not be.
As we pray for the victims of 9/11, for those persons who inflicted such pain, and for peace in our world today, we would do well to consider Judge in his fullness, for the lessons he taught and the witness he provides for our church even now. Focusing on his death could obscure his life, as a 2011 feature article in New York Magazine cautioned:
“As it happens, the unembellished story of Mychal Judge’s death is just as moving — and an even more telling tribute to the chaplain, as well as to the men he served.”
Part of his busy life included ministry to LGBT people who were on the margins of the church and of society in the 1980s and 1990s. The same article quoted above explained:
“Back in the early eighties, Judge was one of the first members of the clergy to minister to young gay men with AIDS, doing their funeral Masses and consoling their partners and family members. He opened the doors of St. Francis of Assisi Church when Dignity, a gay Catholic organization, needed a home for its AIDS ministry, and he later ran an AIDS program at St. Francis. [In 1999], he marched in the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade, which his friend Brendan Fay, a gay activist, organized in Queens.”
Fay said that in Judge “there was a core of sadness or vulnerability in him” that made him a good minister because he “was very in touch with human vulnerability.” The priest had an apartness from it all, though, which helped him minister, too, said Fay:
” ‘He recognized the tension between the worlds he lived in. . .He’d be honored by these members of the far right, and yet at the same time he felt he had to constrain himself. There was a certain sadness about that.’ “
Judge never came out publicly, especially to the firefighters at Engine 1-Ladder 24, near his residence. But he came out selectively to many people, including gay advocates, New York City officials, and the Catholics to whom he ministered. Franciscan Fr. Brian Carroll told New York Magazine:
” ‘Mike taught me how to come out as a young man. . .And how to see sexuality as an important part of who I am. He took away the shame. For some people, sexuality is a part of their shame. Or homelessness is a part of their shame. Or addiction is a part of their shame. Mychal helped people embrace all the shame parts of themselves and turn them into something good.’ “
Judge still struggled with the church, even while he himself was quite peaceful about his sexuality, writing once from the Marian shrine at Lourdes that he felt as if he was in a “different kind of church.” Many of his brother Franciscans were surprised when it became public after his death that Judge was a gay man.
But Judge’s sexual orientation, for him, was an integrated part of his being and even a gift. An autobiography of the priest, written by Michael Ford, quotes Judge as saying, “Look at who we are as gay people at this moment in history, being a gift for the church, being agents of change in both church and society.”
Popular devotion to the “Saint of 9/11” is growing, as a fast-growing website about the priest’s legacy attests. There are documentaries and biographies, including Brendan Fay’s film, “Remembering Mychal,” which was shown at World Youth Day in Poland this past July and has been screened at parishes, too. His burial site in New Jersey has become a place of pilgrimage for many people. The cause for Judge’s formal canonization is gaining steam,reported The Record, but it also has little backing from the Archdiocese of New York or the Franciscan community.
Today’s Gospel, part of the same readings proclaimed the Sunday after September 11th, 2001, includes the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son. They are readings about going out to the margins to find people, and about rushing out to welcome those who have come home. This Gospel seems particularly fitting for Fr. Mychal Judge, a gay man who, in his priestly ministry, rushed to the margins and welcomed home the many people he served in so many ways. Fr. Michael Duffy, OFM, concluded the homily at Judge’s funeral with the following words (you can listen to the audio version at NPR by clicking here):
“And so, this morning we come to bury Myke Judge’s body, but not his spirit. We come to bury his voice, but not his message. We come to bury his hands, but not his good works. We come to bury his heart, but not his love. Never his love.”
Fr. Mychal Judge was, and is, a gift for Catholics. Gay men in the priesthood still have to deal with structural homophobia, and disputes about priests who have come out as gay are not infrequent. Judge’s life reveals how wrong it is to reject or repress gay priests. His life is a witness to the broader truth that there are many gay priests who lead holy lives of humble service. That is why, in remembering him and learning the lessons he teaches, we must never forget that his sexual orientation was a fertile source for his ministry and his love. We must always honor the fullness of Fr. Mychal Judge’s person–the full person that God created him to be.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
National Catholic Reporter, “The joys of Mychal Judge, fallen 9/11 chaplain”