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Winter Books

Life of Sept. 11 hero was driven by love

by Michael Ford
Paulist Press, 224 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by JACK WINTZ

Biographer Michael Ford’s impressionistic portrait of Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, the firefighter chaplain who perished at New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is drawn from many interviews with Judge’s friends. “It is offered as a tribute,” writes Ford, a BBC journalist, “to a one-time alcoholic who could never shake off his strongest addiction: a love for other people.”

The book is, indeed, a portrait of a man whose compassion and love for people seemed as unconditional as that of the loving God he sought to serve. And yet, Judge’s affectionate search was not pain-free. It was burdened by his struggles with alcohol, Irish guilt and by his troubled search for his own spiritual path and identity.

The author’s primary gift in this biography is not that of dramatically making this intriguing friar jump off the pages as a living hero. Rather, Ford’s strength is that of the reporter and insightful interviewer who talks to the right people -- confreres and priests, firefighters and friends -- who are able to recall and describe Judge at all the crucial junctures and turning points of his life. Though the book at times seems uneven and perhaps hastily put together, by the story’s end a very informative and moving portrait has emerged.

Judge’s tragic encounter with death below the north tower is described early in the book. That morning a confrere informed Judge at his Franciscan residence about the tragedy unfolding downtown. Judge rushed to the fire station across the street, then sped off with the fire captain to the very center of the disaster area. Witnesses saw him running with firefighters into the lobby of the north tower, where he would meet his death. Though accounts differ as to the exact details, one thing was certain: “The fire chaplain had laid down his life for his friends, the ultimate mark of Christian discipleship.”

Judge’s home for the last 15 years of his life was the large friary attached to St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan. One of the friars described Judge as never speaking “an unkind word” against another friar. “I think one of his strengths,” the friar added, “was that he bore no judgment or condemnation toward anyone. He accepted people for what they were.”

And yet, according to Fr. Anthony McNeill, a Franciscan confrere and friend in Britain, “Mychal was a free spirit. You could not tie him down.” McNeill believed that his American friend saw God as an unconditional lover, not as a judge: “It was something he felt deep in the pit of his stomach. He was keenly aware of that presence of God’s love in the midst of every minute of his life. It was from there that he got his energy, his drive and motivation.”

Mychal Judge was born in Brooklyn, May 11, 1933. Both parents were Irish immigrants. The death of his father when Mychal was 6 left the young lad devastated. “I never called anyone ‘Dad,’ ” he lamented later and spoke about this loss most of his life. Among the odd jobs Judge performed as a youth was shining shoes in Manhattan’s Penn Station. During one of his shoe-shining stints there, he discovered St. Francis Church nearby, which put him in touch with the Franciscan friars serving there. “He found himself drawn to their lifestyle,” writes Ford, and he later entered their seminary system, eventually being ordained a Franciscan priest in 1961. During the 1960s and ’70s, Judge served in three different Franciscan parishes in New Jersey.

A real “people person,” he typically labored long hours meeting the spiritual and human needs of parishioners. While serving at one of these parishes, St. Joseph’s in East Rutherford, the local paper did a feature article on him. “I love being a priest,” he told The Sunday Record, “My sin is not having enough hours in the day to follow through with people.”

In these years, too, Judge’s heavy drinking was becoming a problem. “Matters were to come to a head,” writes Ford, “when he was appointed assistant to the president of Siena College, run by the Franciscans in Loudonville, N.Y., in the fall of 1976.” During his time at Siena, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the program, attending as many as five meetings a week and often speaking at them. Writes Ford, “AA nurtured him in a way neither Catholicism nor Franciscanism did.”

One of Judge’s Irish friends in New York, Brendan Fay, said of the priest: “Within the recovery movement, he found there a community of people, a safe place where he could be himself for the first time in his life. Slowly and surely, all the things he had hidden or denied about himself were in the open, and the real Mychal Judge could find a home for himself.” At this time, Judge was beginning to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous comprised mainly of gay people. The meetings helped Judge come into greater touch with his sexual identity. According to Fay, a gay activist, the spiritual dimension of Alcoholics Anonymous helped the friar “to own his homosexuality.”

Around this time, according to Ford, Judge also began supporting “the activities of Dignity, a community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics and their friends who gathered weekly for Mass.” There Judge made many new friends and got involved in some of their causes, such the HIV/AIDS outreach programs. And “he particular supported recovering alcoholics who were gay. … Although unstintingly compassionate to individuals,” writes Ford, “Judge was always politically astute in terms of his own public persona.” In a later chapter, Ford adds: “He was always aware that public knowledge of his sexual identity could undermine his work. He kept quiet because he did not want homophobia to compromise his ministry. … Many firefighters tacitly understood he was gay and respected his privacy.”

In 1979, he was made pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, West Milford, N.J., 45 miles from New York City. It was perhaps not the happiest assignment for Judge, given that “another world was opening up to him in New York City.” After six years in West Milford, he was tiring of parish life and became increasingly frustrated by difficulties he was facing as pastor. At the same time over in New York, Ford explains: “The battle lines between the church and the gay community were being drawn. Mychal Judge felt torn.”

The friar began thinking that perhaps “he needed time to explore the implications of his sexuality away from the American context.” It was 1985, and Judge felt that some time away for personal renewal would be beneficial for him. He was given permission by his order to take a sabbatical year at the Franciscan International Study Center in Canterbury, England. “He wanted to experience Franciscanism in a new culture,” writes Ford, “and looked forward to attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in England.”

The year, which coincided with his 25th anniversary as a Franciscan priest, turned out to be a time of replenishment and personal discovery for Judge. His time away allowed the 52-year-old friar to further integrate his sexuality with his spirituality and his Franciscan ministry. A friend of that era, Fr. George Smulski, said of Judge, “He was carving out a new Franciscan life for himself. But he was happy about being a friar.”

At the end of this lively chapter, Ford writes: “The English interlude was a watershed in Mychal Judge’s life. Returning to New York with greater self-confidence and vision, he set about inaugurating a ministry to the city’s latest outcasts.” Ford was referring to people living with HIV and AIDS -- people whom many in the church were careful to avoid. “But,” announces Ford, “a loving Franciscan, inspired by a saint who touched lepers, would soon be back in town, anointing their heads and massaging their feet.”

When Judge returned from England, Ford explains in the next chapter, the friar “inaugurated the St. Francis AIDS ministry on 31st Street that mobilized money, resources and people to care for men and women in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. The work harmonized his pastoral gifts, his ability to be present to people, his understanding of healing through prayer and the sacraments, his capacity for publicity and his fundraising skills. It was an opportunity to integrate his Franciscan spirit, his priesthood and his sexuality into a ministry of compassion.”

Judge knew that if he wanted to work effectively within the institution of the church, he had to be politically wise and somewhat guarded about his connection with Dignity, which was having its difficulties with the church. Judge had great warmth and charisma, and many families sought his presence and comfort as the AIDS crisis affected members of their families. He was asked to officiate at many wakes and funerals.

Ford writes: “Father Mychal was visiting St. Clare’s and St. Vincent’s, two Catholic hospitals that specialized in caring for AIDS patients. Often he would hold the hand of patients and tell them quietly that he understood something of their journey because he, too, was gay. He spoke gently as he anointed their ears, eyes, hands and feet. ... Mychal Judge not only went close. He touched. He took in teddy bears and stuffed animals. His was a ministry that helped many gay people, alienated from the church, reconnect with their faith.”

One of the contributions of this book is its perspective that there need not be a contradiction between being Catholic and being gay. Many believe that Judge’s example could go a long way in helping bring about greater reconciliation between the church and its gay members. The life and special charism of Judge, as revealed in this book, remind the church and all its members of the ongoing task of integrating one’s sexuality with one’s spirituality.

During the last 10 years of his life, Judge devoted most of his energy to being a chaplain for the New York Fire Department. In 1992 he was appointed an associate Catholic chaplain and became chaplain two years later. Being a fire chaplain meant more than everyday spiritual assistance and encouragement. The chaplain’s presence was needed for emergency situations and caring for those who were injured or suffering loss because of fire tragedies. It often meant visiting the homes of bereaved families, or officiating at funerals and prayer services. Judge, of course, was a gifted minister in such instances.

Judge’s hurrying off to the World Trade Center to bring comfort and compassion to those who might be suffering was simply a follow-up to what this friar was doing all along, namely, conveying the goodness and unconditional love of God to brothers and sisters in need.

I’ve selected three quotes from three different people -- scattered throughout the book -- which describe well Judge’s special kind of love. It was a love that flowed from God but kept the flavor and character of Mychal Judge’s unique humanity and personality.

The first quote is from Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald, a Franciscan friar who was a classmate of Judge’s at the Franciscan seminary in Calicoon, N.Y., Sept. 11, 1951 (exactly 50 years before his death). During the last 15 years of Judge’s life, they both lived at St. Francis Friary on 31st Street and became spiritual confidants for each other. The two would go out to dinner and sometimes take long walks in the evening. Says Fitzgerald: “God’s love did not pass through Mychal Judge in a passive way like water through a straw, but God’s love took on the character of Mychal Judge. That personality wasn’t perfect, but it was a perfect instrument for God.”

The second observation comes from Judith Rosato, who got to know Judge through Masses she attended in Canterbury, England, at the Franciscan International Study Center. In her view, Judge “was somebody who had so much love. … You loved Mychal because he was one of those people who embraced you. He always had time for you. When he talked to you he never looked over your shoulder at someone else. You were the most important person in the world at that time. That is a great gift as well.”

The third quote is from Fr. Brian Carroll, a Franciscan colleague who also lived with Judge at St. Francis Friary. A psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, Carroll says of Judge: “It was his love of God and his love of humanity that made him a friar. He put humanity and God together. He was able to synthesize that. … He haunted his humanity with God. … I think he brought that same spirit to everybody he met. You hear stories constantly of strangers he met on the street feeling touched by him. That haunting spirit of God permeated everything he did.”

Many hope that Fr. Mychal Judge’s Spirit-filled humanity and love will continue haunting the church.

Franciscan Fr. Jack Wintz has been a writer and editor at St. Anthony Messenger for 30 years, recently finishing a three-year term as editor in chief. He is now a contributing editor of that publication, as well as editor of Catholic Update (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and author of Friar Jack’s E-spirations, a monthly e-newsletter at www.AmericanCatholic.org. Wintz is a Franciscan friar of the Cincinnati-based Province of St. John the Baptist.

Related Web site

For further information on Fr. Mychal Judge

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002