11 September 2001 is memorable for one single reason – the terrible attacks upon America which took place that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. It is a day the world will never forget and it showed, in the darkest imaginable light, the evil of which man is capable. But darkness is always counterbalanced by light; and invariably, one way of another, the light always overcomes darkness.
This is seen in all moments of human tragedy, whether in our immediate vicinity or on the broader level; and even – as on this occasion – at the global scale. Light triumphs in this way every single time someone is forgetful of self for the sake of another. And it is for this reason that moments of tragedy, moments which should vanquish all hope in the goodness of humanity, actually achieve precisely the opposite – because the goodness of certain people glows bright in those moments of darkness. They are like a million tiny little stars puncturing the night sky and reflecting something beautiful and wondrous.
11 September 2001 was no different.
On that day, a deeply holy man went to his eternal reward, dying whilst serving those around him who had been injured and killed as the two hijacked aeroplanes smashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It is the belief of many that a Saint was made that day, that those final moments of his life were like a summation of all the moments which had proceeded them on his personal path to sanctity. The man was called Father Mychal Judge OFM.
Only later would be be known as Mychal. At the beginning of his story, he was called Robert Emmett Judge and he was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 11 May 1933, the son of Irish immigrants. His twin sister, Dympna, was born two days later. Robert’s father died six years later and to help support the family, the child worked as a shoe shiner at Penn Station. Across the street was the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, which would figure prominently in his life later on.
Aged fifteen, Robert began to study with the Order of Friars Minor, his dream being to join them as a Franciscan. He was formally received by the Order for entry into formation in 1954, studying Philosophy at St Francis College, Rye Beach, New Hampshire, before beginning Theology at Holy Name College in Washington, DC. He was ordained to the Priesthood in 1961. Known to begin with as Father Michael, he later adjusted the spelling to ‘Mychal’ to avoid confusion with another Priest with a similar name. His ministry was spent serving the communities of the Bronx, New Jersey and eventually Manhattan.
He had something of a reputation as a peacemaker, and the story is told of the peace between he was able to bring between two men; one was a New York cop and the other was the man who shot him one night in Central Park, leaving him paralysed. Father Mychal would go on to become good friends with the policeman.
Despite clear spiritual gifts, Father Mychal found these tested at times and it is documented that he experienced alcoholism for most of the 1970s, eventually overcoming his addiction toward the end of that decade. However, this does not detract from his holiness – and it may perhaps have deepened it in some ways. Sometimes it is only when we really understand and experience the sufferings of another that we can truly empathise and – only then – offer them what they need. Suffering of this sort also tends to something of a school of humility -and this is the foundation of all the other virtues.
It has also been widely noted that Father Mychal identified himself – to his closest friends – as a gay man. This, too, offered something which he was able to use effectively in his spiritual work. He had been a member of Dignity until the Cardinal of New York banned the organisation from having a ministry within Catholic Churches of the Archdiocese. After this, Father Mychal minister in a very humble and holy manner to many people living with – and dying with – AIDS. This particular illness tended to bring out the very worst in many who did not have it, leaving them bereft of any charity or human compassion toward those who did. Father Mychal, however, was one of the many who used the scourge of the illness to show a Christ-like acceptance and love of those most deeply affected by the illness. This shone like a beacon in the AIDS ministry he began at the Franciscan Friary on West 31st Street, where – upon being appointed as Associate Pastor – he resided from 1986 until his death.
Opposite the Friary was the Engine-1 Ladder 24 fire station, and Father Mychal was very close to the fire officers there. He was thrilled, in 1992, to be appointed as Chaplain to the New York Fiore Department. His sister, Dympna, told him – “your two boyhood dreams are now realised. You are a Catholic Priest and a firefighter. Now you have the best of both worlds.” And that was precisely how Father Mychal saw things.
Looking back, it does seem that all things were leading to the hellish day of 11 September – all the strands in Father Mychal’s life came together and found their culmination in his sacrifice of his own life whilst ministering to those who needed him in those terrible moments. As the South Tower Collapsed, debris was thrown through the lobby of the nearby North Tower, instantly killing Father Mychal and many others who were present there. He was aged 68. IN the moment before his death, he is said to have been praying out load – “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
Father Mychal was the victim of the World Trade Centre attack to be formally identified and so he became known as ‘Victim 0001’. The photograph of his body being brought out by colleagues is one of the most remarkable, memorable, and desperately sad of all the images captured that terrible day.
Delivering the Eulogy at Father Mychal’s funeral on 15 September 2001, Father Michael Duffy said this –
“The other thing about Mychal Judge is he loved to be where the action was. If he heard a fire engine or a police car, any news, he’d be off. He loved to be where there was a crisis, so he could insert God in what was going on. That was his way of doing things..
“When you step back and see how my friend Mychal died, when we finish grieving, when all this is over and we can put things in perspective, look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing, we’re always saying, Jesus come, Jesus forgive, Jesus save. He was talking to God, and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful.”
It is odd how sometimes it is the events surrounding the death of a person which brings their life into sharp focus, making their name known beyond their own circle. So it was here. Many have paid tribute to this remarkable and holy Priest and various honours have been given to him, albeit posthumously. The Siena Community in New York, for example, awarded him a Doctorate in Humane Letters – he had ben Assistant to the President of Siena Collage between 1976 and 1979. He was also given a plaque on the Legacy Walk in Chicago. He has been the subject of a documentary – ‘The Saint of 9/11’. And at least two books have been written about him – ‘The Book Of Mychal: the Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge’ (Michael Daly, 2009); and ‘Father Mychal Judge – An Authentic American Hero’ (written by BBC journalist Michael Ford in 2016). I suspect Father Mychal would have been touched by these plaudits but would have been able to see well beyond them at what counts more.
For him, what counted more was the deep and living spirituality which was the source of all he was and all he did. Friends commented on how he often said he unbelievably blessed – although undeservedly – he felt himself to bel and he was well known for taking a moment to bless just about every person he ever had any form of direct contact with.
Father Mychal is well known now for a short prayer he wrote –
“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.”
Commenting on this prayer in an article on the New Ways Ministry website, editor Francis DeBernardo wrote these insightful words –
“What is unique about Mychal’s prayer is the last line: ‘Keep me out of your way.’ Although he was often valorised 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.”
Perhaps this is one of the great marks of the holiness of Father Mychal Judge – that he was entirely willing to be an instrument of the grace of God, but equally keen that he should never become an obstacle to it.
One article I read surmised that Father Mychal died early that morning so that his many colleagues who also left the world that day, would have a warm and welcoming face to greet them as they entered eternity. And I suspect that in those moments of greeting he took a moment to bless them.