John Tranchitella is performing around the United States in My Will and My Life, a one-man play by Fr. Harry Cronin, CSC, and directed by Christopher P. Kelly which tells the story of Father Mychal Judge, OFM, beloved chaplain for the New York City Fire Department who was killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was attacked. Fr. Mychal was also an alcoholic in recovery and worked tirelessly to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. The play is told by a character that experienced the ministry of Fr. Mychal.
Bondings 2.0 asked Tranchitella some questions about the play, Mychal Judge, and his own faith journey.
What is the play about?
The play is about Father Mychal Judge, OFM, who was the Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, and was the first official victim of 9/11. The play examines his dedication and his ministry. In this basically one-man show, I play a character named George, a gay man who is at a 12-step meeting (that sounds and looks like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting) about three weeks after 9/11. George discusses his relationship with Father Mychal and how the priest helped him get sober and accept the truth about his sexuality and become honest. The story revolves around the intersection of love, spirituality, faith, and redemption. Although the play is not interactive in the classic sense, George speaks to the audience as if they are members of the 12 step group.
You play a gay man who was able to reconcile conflicts about his sexuality through the help of a priest, yet the Catholic Church Is often seen as a hindrance, not a help, to LGBT people. What did you learn about the relationship between LGBT people and the Catholic Church from this play?
When we meet George, he is “reconciling” in real time. We don’t know if George is Catholic, though it seems that he is. A lot of his conflict about being gay is that he is a NYC fireman and being gay at the time the play is set (2001) was not something that he could not speak about openly. Keeping it a secret has caused him great pain. George tells the audience that he had never told anyone else but Mychal. He decides to come out to Father Mychal. The message he received from the priest is much different than he expected. George begins to realize that Mychal had opened a part of him to God’s love. Ultimately that is what saves George from himself. He comes to the realization that with God “all things are possible,” even self-acceptance and love for how (as Father Mychal told him) “God made us.”
I was raised Catholic, and the message that I had received was that homosexuality is a terrible unforgivable sin. I think that that we must define what “The Catholic Church” means. When we say “Catholic Church,” what do we mean? Is it the institution, the buildings? The leadership? Is it the Pope? I think the church or any church is made of individuals, and some of the individual members of the Church are a hindrance to acceptance of homosexuality as part of God’s wonderful creation. I think that it is fear that keeps some Catholics from accepting that Jesus loves LGBT people. I have learned that there are some very accepting and open communities within the Catholic Church that are ministering to the LGBT community. The play was performed at Catholic churches in San Francisco and New York City, and was very well received. Some folks want to bury their heads in the sand, but we are moving forward.
Ultimately the message of the play is that God is bigger and more loving than any one person or one interpretation of a scripture or dogma. That was Father Mychal’s message and his life. He helped anyone who needed help. Mychal brought people out of the shadows. I think that the church is slowly, very slowly coming to terms with the LGBT community and our role in the church.
Both the character you play and the real Fr. Mychal Judge were men in touch with their own brokenness. What did you learn about brokenness from this play?
Brokenness comes from a sense of separation from God, from not feeling “worthy,” of God’s love. It is also the separation from other people. Not being OK with who God created us to be. That God can meet us anywhere we are, so it is OK to be “broken.” Being honest with another human being or a group about our brokenness is powerful. The key to healing is helping others, getting out of ourselves. Brokenness is healed by humility. But we must be willing to go through the pain to come out the other side. We need each other.
What was the greatest challenge to you personally to play this role?
The more I learned about Father Mychal, the more I feared doing his life and legacy justice. This story is very close to my heart and somewhat mirrors my own experience. Personally, the challenge is always about fear, overcoming the fear to bring a story to life, that some may not like and some may not agree with. As an actor, it is challenging because there is no “fourth wall.” The audience is part of the play. I must get raw, emotionally raw and go to the dark place that George is living in since the horrible day of 9/11. The play takes place only three weeks after the tragedy, so George is processing his grief and his pain.
In the drama, I also play Fr. Mychal for a time, in George’s memory of him. It was a huge relief and very moving when someone came up to me after a performance in San Francisco and said, “I knew Mychal, he would have loved this.”
How did you research Fr. Judge’s life to prepare for the part?
The playwright, Fr. Harry Cronin, CSC, was very helpful. I watched the documentary “The Saint of 9/11.” It is a terrific film. I was so thrilled that one of the producers of the film, Brendan Fay, came to see the play in NYC. I watched every You Tube video I could find about 9/11. I read about Mychal’s life and his work. He was really something, so many people loved him and he is very much still venerated in New York. I also read about the efforts to make him a saint. Somehow, I kept being put in touch with people or I would stumble over an article or a story about him. Now that I have been doing the show and have been to NYC, I have talked with several people who knew him. I also went down to the 9/11 memorial and the museum at Ground Zero. Just being in NYC and being on Mychal’s turf was so helpful. He really did love NY. It is amazing how things have “just happened,” that would move this project forward.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Fr. Judge from this experience?
His capacity for love and kindness was so great that it lives on in the hearts of so many people. There is a “Walk of Remembrance” every year in NYC to honor him. I was also surprised to learn that he was a bit of a rebel when it came to the Church’s hierarchy. He was also very human and has his own struggles. I think that is why he could relate so easily with suffering people.
What kind of feedback from audience members are you receiving?
It has been overall very positive and very humbling. People have said it has given them so much to think about and has changed the way they thought about alcoholism and sexuality. This play touches on so much that anyone can relate to some part of it. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of AA, so we never say it is an AA meeting. But people have come up to me afterwards and say “I felt like I was at a meeting,” or “I was transported.”
On 9/11, Fr. Judge ran into the World Trade Center to minister to others while the occupants were fleeing for their lives. Do you have any insight as to what motivated this man, in that moment, to do something so risky and selfless?
I think that he was doing what he believed that God needed him to do. I think his love of God and of Jesus and of other human beings was a heroic love. He was dedicated to the firefighters of NYC. To him helping others was as natural as breathing. Although I didn’t know him, I believe that he was truly a Saint because of his love for people and his desire to help. He was blessed with a special purpose that is beyond what I can articulate. Ultimately, he was doing what he believed was Gods Will.
If you were able to meet Fr. Judge, what would you like to say to him or what questions would you ask him?
Oh wow, that is a interesting question. Well I hope I don’t meet him for a while! I plan on sticking around on the planet for a long time. But I am sure I have met him spiritually, in prayer and meditation. I have thanked him for helping me become not only a better artist, but a better human being. I would thank him (and do thank him) for helping me reconnect with my faith and my own recovery. I would ask him if he is OK with what we are doing with the play. Also, I I would ask him about what he feels about being recognized as a saint. And I have asked him what can I do to help continue his work and legacy.
Has the experience of playing this role changed you in any way?
In the play George tells the audience that “human being can do awful things. We commit atrocities, like flying planes into buildings, but human beings can also be beautiful and wonderful.” Learning about Mychal and having had the experience of how people have reacted to the play has helped me see how “beautiful and wonderful,” human beings really can be. It has restored my faith in the church and has helped me reconnect on a personal level to my own sacredness and faith. I have become much easier on myself, much more accepting, much more aware of my own journey to wholeness. When I think about Mychal I am much kinder and compassionate. I am so grateful every day to honor Father Mychal, and I am grateful to Father Harry Cronin for writing the play and asking me to perform it. I think that my belief in the mystical and the miraculous is much stronger. It’s just been wonderful to be a part of this project.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 26, 2017
If you are interested in hosting a performance of My Will and My Life, please contact John Tranchitella, email: email@example.com
For information on a campaign to research Fr. Mychal Judge’s life for the process of canonization as a Catholic saint, click here.
For another interview with Tranchitella about the play, see Press-Republican: “Finding the will: play recalls life of Father Mychal Judge, first victim of 9/11 terror attacks”
My Will and My Life will be performed in the following locations on these dates:
- November 3rd and 4th, 2017: Broadway West Theater Company, Fremont, California
- July 2018: The Alterena Playhouse, Alameda, California
- September 11, 2018: WOKE Theater Company, San Francisco, California