The Unique Spirituality of Father Mychal Judge

Lord, take me where You want me to go;
Let me meet who You want me to meet;
Tell me what You want me to say, and
Keep me out of Your way.

These four lines are known as “Mychal’s Prayer.” They were written by Father Mychal Judge, OFM, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, who died 19 years ago today while ministering to emergency workers and victims at the World Trade Center after its destruction by two hijacked airplanes.

Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM

While Judge had written this prayer down on paper, and often would share it with others, more importantly, this prayer was written on his heart. Like all true saints, Mychal’s spirituality emerged not from super-pious strength, but from brokenness that led to a radical dependence upon God’s mercy. As a recovering alcoholic and as a gay man who suffered from a long-closeted existence, Mychal had experienced despair intimately and deeply.

Through his Franciscan formation and Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12-Step spirituality, Mychal was able to stop drinking, accept himself, and reach out with humble compassion to others in need. The first three lines of his prayer reflect the radical dependence on God that was a hallmark of Franciscan, A.A., and other spiritualities.

What is unique about Mychal’s prayer is the last line: “Keep me out of your way.” Although he was often valorized in his lifetime for his willingness to serve others, Mychal deflected such praise, knowing that he himself could often be the major obstruction to God’s will and mercy. For him, praying for God to show the way was not sufficient without also praying for the grace to avoid being the obstacle to God acting in the world.

I learned more about Judge’s spirituality, and from what interior depths his prayer life emerged, in writing an inspirational biography of him that will be published one year from today by Liturgical Press. The title will be Mychal Judge: ‘Lord, Take Me Where You Want Me to Go.’ It will be part of Liturgical Press’ “People of God” series which chronicles the lives of 20th and 21st century who have responded to life’s challenges in extraordinary ways. Others in the series include Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Sister Thea Bowman, Father Augustus Tolton, and Martin Sheen.

In preparing to write, I read through numerous news reports about him, both before and after his death, interviewed many parishioners, firefighters, colleagues, and friends, and benefitted from three previous biographies about him: Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero by Michael Ford; The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge by Michael Daly; Saint of 9/11 (video) co-produced by Brendan Fay and Malcolm Lazin.

I learned that while Judge did not make his gay orientation public knowledge, neither did he keep it a secret. He shared that information with friends, especially when he knew that such information would help someone (as one a fire department leader was struggling to understand his gay son).

In the 1980s and 1990s, when simply associating with gay or lesbian people opened one up to accusations of being gay or lesbian, Judge ministered with this community at Dignity/New York and with people who he met through AA. At a time when people were so panicked about HIV/AIDS that they thought it could be passed through mosquito bites, Mychal took on a full-time ministry with these patients, often hugging and kissing them, the way St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have embraced a leper he met on the road (who turned out to be Christ Himself, in disguise).

The knowledge of Mychal’s orientation did not become widespread until after his death when people came forward with stories of when the priest let his orientation become known to them. It was confirmed when Dympna, his twin sister, lent his journals to biographer Daly, whose book included excerpts that acknowledged a gay identity.

Is Mychal Judge a saint? While the church has not officially canonized him, many, many people who knew him attest to his holiness and life of service. More than several times, I was literally moved to tears when I listened to people who knew him describe how he had affected their lives. It is fitting that Liturgical Press is including him in their “People of God” series. The publisher’s website describes the collection:

“A series of inspiring biographies for the general reader. Each volume offers a compelling and honest narrative of the life of an important twentieth or twenty-first century Catholic. Some living and some now deceased, each of these women and men has known challenges and weaknesses familiar to most of us but responded to them in ways that call us to our own forms of heroism. Each offers a credible and concrete witness of faith, hope, and love to people of our own day.”

That sounds pretty saint-like to me.

Is Mychal Judge a gay saint? Yes, without a doubt. But not simply because he was a gay man who was also holy. We already have plenty of people in the canon of saints whose biographies indicate a strong likelihood that had they lived in in the contemporary world, they would have identified as LGBTQ.

What makes Judge a gay saint is that his struggle with and eventual acceptance of his orientation had a significant impact on his spirituality: on his relationship with God and his ability to reach out in service to others. His acceptance of his sexuality helped him to understand God’s love in profound ways. His gay orientation is not just an incidental part of his personality, but a key to understanding his most authentic self. Along with his Franciscan formation and A.A. spirituality, his identification and association with the LGBTQ community was instrumental in helping him to follow where God led him, even when he was called, 19 years ago today, to reach out to people experiencing unimaginable horror and destruction, and to show them the face of God.

And that also sounds pretty saint-like to me.

To pre-order copies of Mychal Judge: ‘Take Me Where You Want Me to Go’  by Francis DeBernardo, click here.  (Paperback and Ebook formats are available.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 11, 2020

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