On September 11, 2022, the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New Ways Ministry was honored to receive the “Father Mychal Judge Award” from All Saints Parish, Syracuse, New York. Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, represented New Ways at the parish ceremonies. Over the course of the weekend, he presented a workshop to members and friends of the parish’s LGBTQ Task Force, which was entitled ” ‘Lord, Take Me Where You Want Me to Go’: Responding to God’s Call as LGBTQ Catholics and Allies.” The workshop was based on DeBernardo’s new biography of Fr Mychal Judge, the gay Franciscan priest who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 while ministering to first responders and victims.
DeBernardo also preached about the life of Fr. Judge at the parish’s three weekend Masses, basing his talk on the gospel reading of the day, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). Also speaking at each Mass was Lieutenant David Fullam, a retired NYC firefighter who was a friend of Father Judge. He shared many touching memories of the chaplain.
Over the course of the weekend, All Saints Parish rededicated their shrine to Father Mychal Judge, the only one of its kind in the U.S.
You can also view a recording of the Sunday liturgy, including DeBernardo’s sermon and Fullam’s remembrances, on the All Saints Parish website. The following is the text of DeBernardo’s sermon:
First, let me say a BIG thank you to all of you at All Saints Parish for inviting me to be with you on this weekend celebrating the life and ministry of Fr. Mychal Judge. I bring greetings to you from New Ways Ministry’s co-founder Sister Jeannine Gramick. Both she and I have known about your LGBTQ-welcoming parish and it’s predecessor St. Andrew’s Parish for decades now, and you have truly been pioneers in building a church that truly proclaims, not just in words, but in action, that All Are Welcome. iNSo I am truly honored to be here.
When people think of Father Mychal, they tend to think of words like heroism, selflessness, service, compassion. He helped countless people as a parish priest, an advocate for homeless people, a minister to those with HIV/AIDS, a friend to the LGBTQ community and the AA movement, and of course, as chaplain to the NYC Fire Department, where he offered life so that he could continue to minister with others on 9/11.
We honor him for all these things, and we should, but doing so can easily make us fall into the trap of seeing Fr. Judge as a larger-than-life superhero. I think he would laugh his wonderfully hearty laugh that people think of him that way. Instead of a superhero, I think Fr. Judge would see himself more as the Prodigal Son from today’s gospel.
Let me be clear. In saying this I’m not suggesting that Fr. Judge was a libertine sinner who constantly squandered God’s gifts to him—at least not any more than any of us do. What I mean is that he was like the Prodigal who was able to face his life situation honestly and to turn to rely not on his own power, but on the power of an all-loving God. We should call this story “The Returning Son” or “The Recovering Son,” because what is important is his ability to be honest, humble, and to return to his loving father and family.
How was Mychal Judge able to do make this return? Like the Prodigal Son, Mychal became radically honest and radically humble about who he was, warts and all. To achieve that honesty and humility, Fr. Judge had to overcome one of the most powerful and deadening human emotions there is: shame.
Let’s look at what shame is. When I’ve terribly squandered God’s gifts, my natural inclination is not to be honest about what I’ve done, to try to rationalize some act or to pretend it didn’t happen, in the hopes that it would go away. I think that is how a lot of us react. And if I can’t face up to these things honestly, I’m certainly not going to be humble enough to go even further by asking for forgiveness. These kinds of responses are the very essence of shame.
But like the Prodigal Son, Fr. Judge worked his way out of a life of denial, self-recriminations, and shame. Fr. Judge was able to do this primarily through his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12-Step program taught him not to pretend his shame and pain did not exist, but to embrace them and to become humble in the face of them, and most importantly to recognize his total dependence upon God.
It was through the AA program that Mychal Judge was able to acknowledge and affirm that he was a gay man. Let’s remember that Father Judge grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, when the forces of oppression and repression of LGBTQ people were much stronger than they are now. And the fact that he grew up in a Catholic Church and was a priest added even greater layers to these negative forces. What an immense amount of shame there must have been to overcome!
While he was not “out” in the ways we think of being publicly out to almost everyone today, he let others know about his identity through more quiet ways, and did so when he felt that others knowing his identity would be of help to them. Though not out in the Fire Department, he did reveal his gay identity to the Fire Commissioner, Thomas Von Essen, when he learned that this official was having a difficult time accepting his gay son.
In a diary that Fr. Judge kept for a short time about his sexuality he wrote this about the gift of sexuality:
I see the beauty, how God created it and how, in a sense, the Church scorns your dwelling on it. 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. . . and I am grateful 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. . . .
What a gift that is to the church! To be able to appreciate our sexuality, not as something shameful, but as life-giving, and as a reminder of the presence of God in our lives! His line: “I am alive as I can be.” What an antidote to shame that is!
I recommend that whenever you may experience the feeling of shame that you pray those words—“I am alive as I can be—and pray them to Mychal Judge. I am sure that you will receive blessings.
We remember Mychal Judge today for all the good things that he did in his life and for the fact that he offered his life, in so many ways, to be of service to others, and he also gave his life in the ultimate way to let others know that even in the nightmarish horror of the 9/11 attacks, with people jumping to their deaths, bodies burned, and buildings crumbling, God was still there with them. God was there in the sacrifice of the first responders and God was there through Mychal Judge staying with them until the end. To me your beautiful statue of him in the shrine outside is like an image, not just of the Pieta, to which it is often compared, but of the crucifixion. It shows a man who gave his life for his friends.
Father Richard Rohr, the great Franciscan spiritual writer who was a close friend of Mychal Judge, has this to say about the crucifixion: “What the crucified has revealed to the world is that the real authority that ‘authors’ people and changes the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, and are refound on a new level.” I think that quote aptly sums up the life of Fr. Judge.
He was like the Prodigal Son, who was lost, let go, and became refound, and that experience enabled him to become very much like Jesus.
John McNeill, theologian, former Jesuit, and Judge’s therapist—and a native son of Syracuse and LeMoyne College–recalled that Judge struggled with fears and self-doubts, but that it was those things which prepared him for holiness. McNeill said of Judge: “All the strain and pain. At the same time it was part of his sanctity. To become a saint you have to suffer. He came the closest to sainthood of anyone I knew.”
Mychal Judge, like the Prodigal Son, overcame his brokenness and shame through honesty, humility, and self-acceptance. And through that, he was able to return to the embrace of an all-loving God, who like the father in today’s gospel pulls out all stops and spares no expense to show us extravagant love.
And in that embrace of an all-loving God is exactly where Fr. Judge lived, it was in that embrace of an all-loving God that he died, and it was in that embrace of an all-loving God that Fr. Mychal Judge still lives today.
St. Mychal Judge, pray for us!
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 14, 2022
For information about or to purchase a copy of the new biography, Mychal Judge: ‘Take Me Where You Want Me to Go,” please click here. If you would like information about hosting the workshop ” ‘Take Me Where You Want Me to Go’: Responding to God’s Call as LGBTQ Catholics and Allies” in your parish/faith community or on Zoom, please send an inquiry email to director@NewWaysMinistry.org.
The Daily Orange: “New Ways Ministry awarded for compassion, advocation for LGBTQ rights”