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Remembering Father Mychal, First 9/11 Casualty

A reader sent in the following story and I’m so glad he did. I read so many stories each day that sometimes I get desensitized to what I’m actually reading. Not this one. Learning about the subject of the piece — and the skillful storytelling — gave me chills as I got through it.

We’re preparing this weekend for the 10th anniversary of September 11. I’m sure we’re all getting a bit sentimental as we replay the events of that day and reflect on how thankful we are to have survived and not been counted among the fatalities. Or maybe we’re thinking about friends or family we loved and lost that day.

But this story on NPR, about the first recorded casualty of the terror attacks that day (meaning he was given the first death certificate for people who died in the attacks), is worth a read. We’re introduced to Mychal Judge — a gregarious and irreverent man, a priest with personal struggles.

Much of the story is just friends reflecting. I think this is a very effective way to tell us about him. Here’s on example:

His friend and fellow friar Michael Duffy remembers an episode when they were both young Franciscan priests in East Rutherford, N.J. Judge heard that a man had locked himself in the attic of his home and was threatening to shoot his wife and baby.

Soon after, Michael Duffy arrived at the scene. There were police cars, fire trucks, TV crews — and a figure climbing up the ladder to the attic.

“Who’s on the ladder?” Duffy laughs. “Father Mychal Judge! And in his habit.”

The priest, in his long brown robe and sandals, climbed in the window and disappeared.

“We waited 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Sweating bullets, waiting for that gunshot,” Duffy recalls. “The next thing you know, 20 minutes later, the front door opens, and out comes the wife holding the baby, the man with the guy, and Mychal Judge with his arm around him.”

We get quite a bit of description of the man — a man’s man who the firefighters felt very comfortable confiding in but someone who was very pious when administering the sacraments. Judge was a first responder, and he began serving people at tragic scenes and stuck with them through recovery. He’d return 30 messages a night before he went to sleep, we’re told.

Perhaps some of his gifts came from his own background with alcoholism, we’re told. At support meetings, he met Malachy McCourt. Here’s another one of those stories:

McCourt, a writer, actor and proud atheist, remembers once telling his friend the priest that he had plunged into a deep depression. Why are you worrying about the future, he recalls Judge saying, God hasn’t even made it yet.

“And he said, ‘Listen: because God has not yet made tomorrow, omnipotent, all-knowing, all-seeing as he is, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. So who the ____ do you think you are?!’, McCourt roars, recalling the salty language. “So he said, ‘Don’t get into the future. It’s a very dangerous place for alcoholics.’”

Judge was also a celibate gay man in the priesthood, a fact he revealed only to a select few. Brendan Fay, a gay activist who co-produced The Saint of 9/11, a documentary about Mychal Judge, says the chaplain’s struggles drew people to him.

“Mychal sort of weaved his way in and out of groups that wouldn’t be caught near each other,” Fay says.

The story demonstrates how conservative and liberal Catholics, Republican and Democratic leaders, Wall Street types and homeless people all considered him their friend.

The story about Judge’s death is also told, although you’ve probably heard it before and seen the iconic photo of firefighters carrying his body out of the building.

The story includes mention of a documentary that shows Judge standing at a window watching bodies plunge from the tower. His lips are moving. Someone is quoted explaining the significance of his prayers.

This is just a great story about a real person.

I’d been meaning to write about another story about this same priest. Daniel Burke wrote about this man under the headline “Fallen 9/11 priest emerges as an icon for gay Catholics.” That story focuses on how Judge has become “a gay icon — a hero bordering on sainthood to scores of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics.” It also looks at criticism that this aspect of his life has been hyped.

Please let us know if you see any other good coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that focuses on religion angles.

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  • MikeL

    Regarding Brendan Fay & Fr Judge as a “gay icon,” I recall that there was some controversy about Fay’s claim that Fr Judge was gay being false. I found this article by Dennis Lynch: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/707975/posts

    Some of the comments under the article lend support to Fay’s contention, and I haven’t heard anything since, so I guess this aspect of Judge’s story died down, but I’m curious if any journalists have run across this.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for featuring this story, Mollie. There is a flood of religion reporting around 9/11 but this story stands out because it’s a human story. Too often we insist that religious figures (or politicians) be perfect. But this story illustrates how someone’s weaknesses can paradoxically be a source of strength.

    I’ve seen many stories about religion and 9/11 which more to come. But most do not rise to the level of a great story or fall to a level worth deconstructing, at least so far. I’m sure we’ll have more examples of both between now and 9/12.

    MikeL’s comment also illustrates that you can find anything on the internet especially if you look at questionable sites which have exceptionally strong ideological axes to grind. Rarely they raise important points so they can’t be automatically dismissed, but all too often they are not worthy of attention.

  • Susan

    I am not sure how the Gay and Lesbian community relates to Fr. Judge. He apparently chose celebacy and remained faithful to his vows and to his religion’s teachings. I am not aware that Fr. Judge lobbied for a change in the Church’s teachings. The fact that he struggled is not surprising; it would be surprising if he did not and if he did not struggle with other temptations as well.

    So what is it that the Gay and Lesbian community so admire in Fr. Judge as a specifically “gay icon?” His life surely does not fit the profile that gay and lesbian activists would feel is a “healthy” response. And yet here is an example of a person who acted (and struggled)against his nature due to his religious convictions and remained a notable contributor to the community … mature spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

    I find this aspect interesting … and wonder what I am missing. I would love to see an article on this subject.

  • dalea

    Continuing the GR tradition of publishing stories about GL people without actually talking to any gay people, the NPR does manage to quote the politically isolated and widely loathed Andrew Sullivan. Not talk to him of course, just rummage up a quote.

    It would strike me as good journalism to actually interview and quote mainstream GL people on how they perceive Fr Judge. As a constant reader of the GL press, I have never seen much mention of him. From my reading, the wider GL community is at best indifferent to Fr Judge and his works. This is so shoddy, term someone an ‘icon’ of a community without interviewing any members of said community.

  • Jeffrey

    Susan, the RNS story explains that angle. He was a member of Dignity and allowed them to meet at his parish. That would make him a hero among many gay Catholics who have found Dignity targeted by the higher-ups and where there are talks of purges of gay seminarians.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    dalea,

    We didn’t publish any of these stories, just critiqued them. Also, NPR didn’t quote Andrew Sullivan but RNS did.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    Do you have a non-ideological URL for that Dignity claim?

  • Jeffrey

    The RNS story states he was a member of Dignity and allowed them in his parish. Surely you don’t consider them partisan.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, TMatt

    re #7, here it is from the Dignity web site:

    http://www.dignityusa.org/taxonomy/term/186

    Judy

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    It would seem that here is a case to be made for sainthood. Great story here. Thanks.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    Unfortunately the “gay icon” thing is likely to derail his cause for canonization. Even if it is not true there are too many people who would interpret it as canonizing Dignity and what it says about gay sex. No way it happens.

  • Gail Finke

    Thank you so much for linking to the Daniel Burke story. I have seen some of the “gay icon” things and they make me very uncomfortable, especially because the parts of the book I read about him quoted his journals and, while he was gay, he took his priesthood and his celibacy seriously and he seems to have devoted his life to God and to helping other people. I find that admirable in anyone, and I hope THAT is what people with SSA admire in him. This isn’t really a comment about the journalism, I just wanted to say thanks — and to thank dalea above. Great comment. It is so easy to think you know what other people believe and think!

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I recall that when a deputation of firefighters presented Fr. Judge’s helmet to the Pope, New York Press columnist Michelangelo Signorile ranted that he was a “hypocrite” for accepting it because he was “anti”-homosexual. Of course, if the Pope had refused the gift, this would have been denounced as hateful “homophobia”.

    But perhaps Signorile is not “gay mainstream” enough either?