Picture this: a tall fire ladder swaying in the wind with a man perched on top. He clings to the ladder with one hand, and clutches his brown Franciscan habit with the other. He is talking to a man in an open window who is pointing a gun to his wife’s head. She holds their baby. We don’t know what the priest said to the man, but the man eventually drops the gun. No lives were lost there that day thanks to the daring and compassionate priest.
(Much of my information for this reflection is from Kathy Coffey’s new book, When the Saints Came Marching In: Exploring the Frontiers of Grace in America, published by Liturgical Press.)
The priest was Fr. Mychal Judge of New York City. In the 70’s and 80’s he was one of the first priests who openly admitted he was an alcoholic and he was gay. His drinking had been so heavy at times, he suffered blackouts. But he eventually began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. He became absorbed by the teachings in AA literature. As a result, he was saved by AA, and he spent the rest of his life ministering from his own woundedness.
Fr. Judge was also “deeply pained” by the prejudice against gays—even in his own church. In response, he started the St. Francis AIDS ministry on Thirty-First Street. And in 2000 he marched in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade, despite the disapproval of many.
He also had great gifts with counseling grieving people. In 1996, he got a call about the crash of TWA flight 800 off Long Island in which all 230 people on board were killed. He responded by spending twelves hours a day ministering to the grieving families who were being housed at the Ramada Inn near JFK Airport. He celebrated Mass every day, took part in counseling sessions for people of all denominations, and organized ecumenical memorial services for the victims’ families and for the TWA personnel. He later said, “When that call came through, it was the Lord calling me somehow.”
In 1992 Fr. Judge was appointed chaplain of the New York Fire Department, a ministry he embraced enthusiastically. He loved New York City with its vast array of people. He was convinced it was one of the best places to live. He enjoyed strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge and, ironically, he watched the Twin Towers go up.
The rest of Fr. Judge’s story is well-known. On September 11, 2001, he rushed to the Twin Towers to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. People say he was bent over ministering to a dying first responder. In the process of giving the man the last rites, Fr. Judge was hit in the head by falling debris and was killed instantly. The photo of five rescue workers carrying him out through the rubble became one of the iconic images from that terrible day.
I am inspired by this priest’s life for many reasons. First he was deeply in touch with the power of God’s grace working in the world. A friend said he began every morning with this little prayer: “Lord, keep me outta your way.” The good that he did he always attributed to the grace of God. Fr. Judge also focused on the positive in daily life. Another friend said, “Like St. Francis he found so much good to celebrate because he expected to find it—and he went looking for it.”
At his funeral, a homeless man in the crowd said, “That priest didn’t hide in the sanctuary; he brought the sanctuary out to us.” Doesn’t that comment remind you of what Pope Francis has said about how the church should minister in the world? His eulogist noted how appropriate it was that Fr. Judge died first on 9/11. “Then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.” And finally, Kathy Coffey writes, “The overflow crowd at his funeral proved what his eulogist said, ‘When he was speaking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth….We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.”
The song I chose for today is one of my favorites: “The Servant Song” song here by a group called the Bukas Palad Ministry. The song captures the essence of Jesus’ message: love one another, serve one another. The song exemplifies how Fr. Judge lived—and died—serving the people God put into his life.
Does anything about the story of Fr. Mychal Judge move you in any way?
Does the song speak to you today? If so, how?
PS: Thank you to the 70 women who participated in the morning retreat in Bethlehem, PA last week. You were so attentive, prayerful, good, and fun! Next week I’m giving a three day Easter retreat to Our Lady of Victory Sisters in Huntington, IN. Once again I ask for your prayers for this event. Thank you!