September 11, 2018
Dear Members, Companions, Volunteers, and Friends,
Seventeen years ago, the world watched in horror as planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, and into a field in Pennsylvania. But as the world watched, many people responded with great courage and compassion. Franciscan Friar Mychal Judge, a chaplain with the New York City Fire Department, was one of the first responders and later identified as one of the first victims of the terrorist attack.
Books have been written about his life, and a film, Saint of 9/11, documented his story. It is a story many of you have heard and one that I have told on numerous retreats. But given the 17th anniversary of his death and where we are today as a community of faith once again dwelling in shame and scandal, Fr. Mychal’s story bears remembering.
In his biography of Fr. Judge, Michael Ford paints a portrait of a priest who knew who he was as a Franciscan, a recovering alcoholic, and a gay priest. Though he never shunned the spotlight and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, Mychal Judge spent most of his life serving the down and out. In addition to his work with the poor, hungry, and homeless in the city, he was one of the first priests in New York City to open his heart to people living and dying with AIDS in the early 1980s.
The former Jesuit, John McNeill, who served as Mychal’s spiritual director for a time, describes when many in the church slammed their doors early in the AIDS epidemic to those afflicted with the disease, Fr. Judge “would go into the room of AIDS patients wearing his Franciscan robes [and] he would run into real hostility from those who had been badly burned by the church—and that would be most. He tried to figure out how to bring them God’s message without preaching because he knew that was unacceptable to them. He came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. He would go into their rooms and, despite the state of the patients’ bodies, would pull back the blankets and massage their feet. That was his approach. People were afraid to be in the room with them or even talk with them. But here was this very gentle and wonderful person coming in and massaging their feet. That would break down all their resistance! It did take courage because there was a real fear.”
The key to Fr. Mychal Judge’s charismatic and compassionate presence in the lives of others was his own experience of the cross. According to Ford, “His sense of leadership emerged through his living the Franciscan charism of joy and sense of purpose, with an emphasis on the reality of Jesus being the Light of the Word, the Bread of Life, and the Good Shepherd. There was a moral leadership of persuasion there rather than a leadership of office.”
This is the kind of leadership we need in the church today: servant leaders who know their weakness but who also have an inner resolve to know and trust the providence and promise of God through the blood of the cross. As Michael Ford writes of Fr. Mychal Judge, “For him the cross represented the place of God’s most intimate engagement with the world.” Indeed, if we keep looking through the door of the cross, we will be humble in our approach to one another.
Father Mychal was killed on September 11, 2001 when he was hit by falling debris at the World Trade Center as he prayed with a dying firefighter. The picture of firefighters carrying his lifeless body out of the carnage and debris was on the cover of newspapers and magazines around the world. The firefighters placed his body on the altar at St. Peter’s Church near ground zero.
Each morning, Mychal Judge began his day with this prayer. It captures well the servant leadership he lived until the day he died seventeen years ago and the quality of humble service each of us are called to today:
“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.”
With peace in the blood of Christ,
Joe Nassal, C.PP.S.