Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. As such, it is also the 21st anniversary of the death of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, a gay priest who was the chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Fr. Judge died in New York’s World Trade Center while he ministered to victims and first responders that day.
In March of this year, Liturgical Press published Mychal Judge: ‘Take Me Where You Want Me to Go,’ a biography of the Franciscan, written by Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director. The book explores the spirituality of the priest, examining a variety of factors which helped him develop an intimate relationship with God that led to generous service to others. The following two sections are excerpts from the book, focusing in on two of the major influences on Mychal’s spirituality: his Franciscan formation and his gay identity.
Michael’s pastoral ministry style sprung not only from his personality and social talent but from the Franciscan spirituality that shaped his understanding of God. Primary among these Franciscan spiritual values is a deep reverence for the incarnation of Christ. St. Francis was so taken with the idea that God took on human flesh, became human, and entered history that he wanted people to have a strong visual reminder of the event. He is credited with having started the now universal tradition of erecting a nativity scene at Christmas time.
But in Franciscan thought, the incarnation was more than just something that happened once in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. For the poor man from Assisi and his followers through the centuries, all of creation was a reflection of God’s glory. Nothing earthly is foreign to God. All is essentially good. The incarnation is a way of looking at and receiving the world and its people.
Though many have tamed this Franciscan value into sentimental thoughts about the beauty of nature, the emphasis on the immanence of God in the world became a grounding principle for how the friars ministered.
His friend Brian Carroll, who had been a friar, recalled that Michael “fell in love with St. Francis.”14 As a priest, Michael took it upon himself to point out the fusion of the divine and the human in each individual life. God was not distant but was down in the dirt. God was not something to be achieved, but was already active in people’s lives, actions, and relationships. For Michael, being a pastoral minister meant seeing God acting in every person’s life. He had a keen sense of the connection between the secular and the sacred, the divine and the human, the mundane and the supernatural. With St. Francis as his model, Michael saw God and goodness everywhere and in everyone, no matter how small or outcast.
He told a local newspaper reporter in 1978, “God is here, right here, alive and with us. God is so tremendously great to me. If he weren’t, I couldn’t do the things I do. And every time I do something for him, he does so much more for me. Every person has the responsibility to talk about God. When we speak of God, we bring a sense of God, even for a moment, into the world. At the same time, we develop a sense of God in our own lives. God is not an obligation, a burden. God is the joy of my life.”15
One way his incarnational spirit manifested itself was through Michael’s practice of blessing . . . nearly everything. Because everything to him was sacred and should be recognized as such, his blessings were ubiquitous. He blessed pregnant women, sick people, marriages, animals, mealtimes, recreational times. Blessings were not simply spiritual gestures but physical ones, in which he laid hands on a person, hugged them, looked deep in their eyes, made personal contact. His blessings didn’t so much evoke a supernatural force as much as recognize and affirm the presence of the divine already working in a person’s body, relationships, and event. (pages 22-24)
In 1999, two years before Judge’s death, a gay friend had encouraged Judge to keep a journal in which he could write about his sexual identity openly. The journal was a short-lived exercise, extending only a few months and extending through fifty-seven pages. Friends said Judge never had time to write because of his busy schedule. Judge’s twin sister, Dympna, gave journalist Michael Daly access to the journal, and he included some excerpts in his 2008 biography of Judge.
As noted previously, Judge began the diary with some self- identification on the inside front cover: “Some Mother’s Son. 230 Dean St. [his boyhood address] Irish, Catholic, Democrat, priest, gay and more . . . No one (ever) asked me!”11
The entries that followed chronicle his struggle with being private about his sexuality. Part of this struggle was due to the fact that he genuinely accepted the gift of sexuality and his own sexuality in particular. He wanted the freedom to share that reality with others: “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully—and why? Because it is not acceptable. No one, absolutely no one lives two fuller separate lives as I do. Little wonder I am so tired at day’s end.”12
Judge had learned to appreciate his sexual feelings and was grateful to God for them, even though he was aware that the church often sent disapproving messages about sexual attractions:
A thousand thoughts and desires run through my mind at everybody I see. But only for a moment—Drives, desires, passions, energy, excitement, yearning and all the rest. I see the beauty, how God created it and how, in a sense, the Church scorns your dwelling on it—Sexual, sinful—Hand in hand—But they are not connected at all. I love, I applaud the beauty of God’s handiwork. . . . Sexually, I am alive as I can be. The thoughts, the drives, the desire are there always. Can’t see enough on the street . . . and I am grate- ful for it . . . And you, Lord, are always there and you so nicely remind me to call on you and show me your presence. I love you. . . .
Well, here I am . . . I’m somehow started, I think, on this new journey—not sure where it is taking me, how I am to go, etc. etc. But I keep praying and asking for guidance and leadership. It is a real test of my faith and belief and that God is there.13
These and other passages in the Judge diary reveal that, despite the struggles, he had come to a healthy and holy acceptance of his sexuality and its place in his life as a committed Franciscan friar. Like any partial record, these brief writings make some readers wish for fuller explanations. How did he come to such an acceptance of his identity? If his experience were typical, this process would have included many moments of confusion, guilt, shame, despair, constraint, and even doubts about a loving God. But it also would have included many powerful moments of clarity, affirmation, joy, courage, liberation, and faith in a God of love who made human creatures with the capacity for love. From the bits of information that he left about his self-acceptance and communing with God, these latter moments were surely in abundance. (pages 122-123)
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, September 10, 2022