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 by Michael B Kelly
published in “The Age”, Melbourne,
Saturday, Dec.13, 2003

 As I stand looking eastwards from the corner of Church and Vesey streets, everything in lower Manhattan looks normal.

 The traffic on Church Street is heavy and aggressive. The subway entrance is grimy and crowded. The old trees in front of Trinity Church are rustling in the afternoon wind, and vendors are hawking trinkets to foot-sore tourists. A rabbi and a few boys wearing yarmulkes stop to buy sodas from a street-stand.

 When I turn and look West, however, a chasm yawns and there is a strange sense of light and space. On the ground there are trucks and red flags, acres of green netting, makeshift traffic barriers and men in hard-hats.  One tall building is shrouded in black netting. On the side of another there is an enormous mural of a heart-shaped American flag, above the words “The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart”. Suddenly I find myself blinking back tears, here on this sunny afternoon on the edge of Ground Zero.

 I have come to New York to honour the man whose death certificate, “Number 00001”, marks him as the first registered victim of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, and I am standing on the spot where they laid his body.

 Father Mychal Judge, Catholic chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, died in the lobby of the North Tower after being hit by falling debris. Some say he had taken off his helmet as he gave the Last Rites to a fallen fire-fighter. His body was carried out by a group of fire-fighters and police and laid on the corner of Church and Vesey Streets. One of the policemen, a Catholic, was crying out “Can somebody get this man a priest!” A young officer was running south towards the Towers as hundreds of people surged North. He heard the cry and ran into nearby St Peter’s Church calling out for a priest. Inside there was a woman who was ripping up church linens to use as masks so that people could breathe in all the dust and devastation. She told him there was no priest there, then said, “Are you a Catholic?” When he said he was, she told him that in an emergency he could give the Last Rites, so he should go and do it. He went back to the other officer and told him what the woman had said.

 And so, in the midst of all the chaos and horror, the two cops knelt down in the street. As people ran screaming all around them, they laid hands on the dead priest’s body, said the Lord’s prayer and paused for a moment of silence. They then stood, hugged each other, and ran back into the burning buildings to keep pulling people to freedom.

 Those who knew Mychal Judge say that he died the way he had lived. He had been a Franciscan priest for 40 years and his life had been filled with grass-roots ministry to the homeless, refugees, alcoholics, people with AIDS, and New York City’s fire-fighters and their families. He was, perhaps, the city’s most recognised and beloved Catholic priest, with an unwavering dedication to putting himself at the centre of human anguish – and an uncanny knack for ending up in the limelight. For years he had walked the streets of Manhattan in his brown Franciscan habit, blessing everything that moved and bringing compassion, faith and earthy humour into situations of desperation and brokenness. He was loved by the homeless people outside the Friary on 31st Street, respected by the city’s powerbrokers, and tolerated by the local Church bureaucracy who had learned to live with his maverick ways.

 On September 15 some three thousand people packed St Francis of Assisi Church for his funeral, while crowds in the street outside watched on television screens. Inside, former President Bill Clinton remembered how Fr Judge “lit up the White House” at a prayer breakfast, New York’s new Archbishop, Cardinal Egan, proclaimed him “a saint”, and his fellow Franciscan, Fr Michael Duffy said, “Mychal Judge has always been my friend. And now he is my hero”. Thousands felt the same. One of the fire-fighters who had come to the church still covered in grime from Ground Zero simply said, “I just think God wanted somebody to lead the guys to heaven.”

In the months following Father Judge’s death accolades continued to pile up around him. He received honorary doctorates, religious prizes, an international award for “Moral Courage”, and had streets, ferries and scholarships named after him. New York’s fire-fighters solemnly presented his helmet to the Pope in St Peter’s Basilica, France gave him its “Legion of Honour”, and Ireland named him its “Man of the Year”. Across the world churches began to invoke him as an inspiration for young people, a model of the Christian hero and an image of the ideal priest. Websites sprang up dedicated to “Saint Mychal”.

 This outpouring of esteem, this sudden elevation of Mychal Judge to “saint” and “hero”, says as much, perhaps, about our common need to find hope and meaning in the midst of overwhelming violence as it does about the man himself. Somehow a symbol of moral courage and self-sacrificing love had to be drawn out of the rubble of September 11, and Father Judge provided not simply a symbol – he was the real thing. It seemed official canonisation would only be a matter of time.

 Mychal Judge, however, was not just the real thing – he was a real man. Inevitably attention turned to the actual life, personality and spirituality of the man who died so heroically in lower Manhattan on that dark day. What was found was both inspiring and unsettling.

 In many ways Mychal Judge seemed the model of the good priest. “He was the ultimate servant of God and people”, said writer Malachy McCourt. “He embodied the ideal blend of spirituality and public service”, said Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “If we are looking for saintly people in New York City, he would fit the bill”, said Senator Tom Duane. Without question, Judge was passionately committed to pastoral ministry and his generosity and compassion made people flock to him, especially in times of need. It was common for him to return to his room late at night and find 40 messages on his answering machine. He would sit, exhausted, and answer them all. One Franciscan remembers an evening when Mychal took him on a long trek across the Brooklyn Bridge, then retuned home to news that a fireman’s father had died. It was midnight, but Judge drove more than an hour north to be with the man’s family. This was typical of him.

 However, some suggest there was something obsessive about Judge’s commitment to ministry. Underneath his genuine warmth, humour and dedication he was a driven man who struggled with issues of self-worth and addiction. He was an alcoholic who had been sober since 1978, and he relied upon regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous to maintain focus and inner peace. He took the spirituality of AA’s “Twelve Steps” deeply into his soul, and he learned self-acceptance and perseverance in the company of people who were struggling just like him. He had no illusions about himself, and it was his direct, transparent humanness that drew all kinds of people to him.

 People also turned to him when the Church had failed them. He was always ready to bend the rules, offer a hug and a blessing and show people what the love of God was really like. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when nurses were frightened to touch people with AIDS and priests were refusing to bury them, Mychal Judge would often turn up at a hospital room unannounced. He would quietly turn back the covers on the bed of an AIDS patient and gently massage his feet. One man remembers that when his partner was dying Fr Judge came to give him Holy Communion. After the ritual the dying man anxiously whispered, “Do you think God is angry with me?” Mychal responded by taking the man in his arms, cuddling him, rocking him against his chest, then kissing him.

 Father Judge’s commitment to being close to people in their brokenness, and his astonishing tenderness, were forged in a heart weathered by his own struggle to believe he was embraced and blessed by God. Mychal Judge, you see, was gay.

 A week or so after the attack on the World Trade Centre I received an email from an Irish friend, a priest, who had known Mychal for more than a decade. It read, “What has not yet come out is that Mychal was gay. He was also not fully ‘out’. Sometimes when we visited gay clubs in the Village he would joke that he had his clerical collar in his pocket, so that if a fire-truck passed him on the street he could slip it on and say he was on a pastoral visit”.

 As a gay Catholic myself, I read this email with conflicted emotions. I wanted the world to look at this man the Vatican would have labelled an “objectively disordered homosexual” and see the saint and hero. I felt almost cheated that Judge had never fully “come out” as gay. However, I also knew that public knowledge of his sexuality could stall any canonisation process. “How do we tell the world about this?”  I emailed my friend.

 I need not have worried. Mychal Judge was no cowering, closeted cleric. His fellow Franciscans, senior fire-fighters, people in AA, and countless Catholics in New York knew he was gay, and knew he was committed to using his priesthood, his resources and his energies to support and empower gay people in spiritual, practical and even financial ways. He did this even as he maintained his “cover” within the institutional church, taking extraordinary risks and making the system serve justice. After years of struggle and uncertainty, Mychal had learned to accept his sexuality as a gift of God, and when gay newspapers in Manhattan broke the story of the “gay saint” and printed his picture on their front pages – instead of the usual brooding hunk - friends agreed that he would have laughed and been delighted.

 Church officials, however, were not so pleased. Cardinal Egan of New York literally fled from journalists who questioned him about the homosexual he had proclaimed a “saint”. Some of Judge’s friends received angry phone calls from conservative clerics after speaking to the gay press. Judge’s image started disappearing from church websites and newspapers, and talk of canonisation died. It seemed Catholic leaders had no idea how to handle this holy gay man. Perhaps this was not surprising, since just at that time senior bishops were starting to make gay priests into scapegoats for the Church’s sex abuse crisis, and the Vatican was working on a document to ban homosexuals from entering seminaries a gay saint was not on their agenda.

 Among ordinary people, however, Judge’s name continued being venerated, his image passed around, his story told. Then in May this year the oldest Protestant seminary in New York, Union Theological Seminary, held a seminar to reflect on the legacy of Father Judge. I was one of those invited to speak, and to help move the phenomenon of Mychal Judge from storytelling to theological refection.

 I remember sitting in a café on Christopher Street and wondering what to make of this heroic, alcoholic, obsessive, semi-closeted gay priest. What could he have to teach the church and the world at the start of the 21st century? Was this a man who embodied that most elusive of qualities – holiness?

 Sometimes God, or life, or an accident of history thrusts an individual into prominence at a time of great need.  This was true of Mychal Judge. In a time of devastation and violence that was spawned by, and that would spawn hate, anger and injustice, this priest gave his life in service and emerged as an icon of courage and love. It is as if we were given a gift to bring us hope in this dark time.

 When we unwrap that gift, however, we find a man whose life teaches us that holiness is not about being perfect but about being real. As a great saint once said, “Christ makes us utterly real”. The journey into God is a journey into our deepest selves, and along the way we have to confront all our demons and illusions, surrender our comforting pieties and learn naked trust. Mychal Judge, I believe, was holy because he learned to embrace the truth of who he was, and because he was not afraid to face his emptiness, pain and need and go on loving.

 At the core of this journey was the truth of his gay sexuality – the part of his being that he had been taught could not be of God. Embracing this dimension of himself meant trusting God so deeply that he could risk being wrong, risk exploring his own embodied truth, risk facing down the secure and self-righteous condemnations of the Church he loved and served. In that risking he found, again and again, that he was loved and held, and so he was able to love others and free them to go on their own journeys into life and faith.

 This also meant that he was able to be in the Church with unusual inner freedom. He chose not to come out publicly as gay, but even in that he offered a model for all the thousands of gay clerics who remain within Church structures. His life shows that the only way to remain “in” is to use all that the Church is and has to empower and support people in their own search for love, freedom and grace. Encouraging each other in that search is, perhaps, all we can really do for one another, and all we can ask our saints to do for us.

 The day before I left New York I went down to the corner of Church and Vesey Streets. I thought about those two cops as they knelt and prayed over the body of  Mychal Judge. I bent down, touched the asphalt and concrete and paused for a moment. I thought of the final words of St Francis as he lay dying on the bare earth: “I have done what was mine to do. May God show you what is yours”.

 I stood and looked back towards the open space, towards the place where Mychal had poured out his spirit. I prayed that he would show us what is ours to do, as this troubled century begins. Then I turned into the wind, and walked north on Church Street.

Michael B Kelly writes and speaks about spirituality, sexuality and justice.