Mychal Judge: Franciscan, Priest, First Responder
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!
Sister Melannie, Thank You so much for the Wonderful story. I am so happy to be inspired every Monday morning. I am Grateful for your time. God be with you,
And I really appreciate your “readership,” Lu G! Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie
What a beautiful song remembering Fr. Judge! Thanks for recalling his life and ministry today. I like the comment that he brought the sanctuary to the people.
That’s one of my favorite lines too, Kathleen: he brought the sanctuary to people.” It’s always good hearing from you! Sr. Melannie
I have another song/video that I think really speaks to Fr. Mychal Judge.
“The Summons” by John Bell.
I especially like the part…”will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen?” Very powerful. Clearly this priest did that and more!
Dear Chris, Thank you for sharing the song “The Summons.” I’ll have to use it some time in my blog so everyone can listen to it. Melannie
I too look forward to your Monday morning reflections. I remember many years ago reading about Father Judge and his daily prayer. I prayed that prayer for quite some time, but somewhere along the way I stopped. Thank you for bringing back to my attention. Divine Providence has placed this prayer back in my memory bank at just the right time. Thank you for briefly sharing the life of Father Myke. I learned much I did not know. I most appreciate the comment that he brought the sanctuary to the people. We are so in need of many more Father Mykes today. the May God continue to bless your ministry.
Thank you for your comments, Ann. I too loved his daily prayer!…And thank you for your prayers for my “blog ministry.” It’s comments like yours that keep me writing! Sr. Melannie
Could you share his daily prayer?
Lord, take me where You want me to go
Let me meet who You want me to meet
Tell me what you You want me to say
And get me out of the way.
Dear Melannie, this reflection brought overflowing tears to my eyes. My heart was touched by the background story you related. I knew of the 911 happening and his death but was more moved by his life. He brought the sanctuary to others…. Whata powerful statement about a wounded healer and a person who lived out of Jesus’ words.Thanks so much for this.
Dear Marla, I confess: I shed a few tears as I wrote this reflection and then picked the song. I too was moved by that statement: he brought the sanctuary to others. Thank you for responding, Marla! Melannie
Just wanted to say hi to Marla, from one of her students!!!
One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite saints. Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring Monday reflection. And a reminder of what we are to be about every day.
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for writing. I’m glad you found Fr. Judge’s life so inspiring! Sr. Melannie
Thanks Melannie…for the story of Fr. Judge…what a great example of , acceptance and love of others…..perfect song for him and us ….Marilyn, S.N.D.
Thank you, Marilyn! It’s always good to hear from you! Melannie
Sr. Melannie, I Love that hymn and sang it along with them Thank you
Dear Florence, I too sing along with the songs when I insert them into my blog. I bet others sing along too! Sr. Melannie
Everything about Fr. Judge was remarkable!!
Amen to that, Anne! Sr. Melannie
Dear Sister Melannie,
Your writing reminded me of last evening’s episode of Call the Midwife. I’m not sure if you are familiar with it, but it airs on PBS, and is based on actual letters and diaries written by a midwife. Set in a poor section of England, in the late 1950s, the midwives are both religious and lay, who live in community.
The theme of last evening’s episode was the lack of tolerance towards those who are different. One story line demonstrated how the neighborhood reacted to a man found to be gay, while another story line focused on an unwelcomed Irish family, newly immigrated. To emphasize the point of those unlike the “norm,” poison bait was being used to rid the midwives’ house of its rat infestation. Dear Sister Monica Jane found her calling in collecting as much of the poison bait as she could, lamenting, “Aren’t we all God’s creatures?”.
I think Father Judge entertained the same question, implementing grace to hear God’s answer, and minister accordingly. May we all have the courage to do likewise.
Thank you, Sister, for your direction. May God bless you. Joanne
Dear Joanne, I too watch “Call the Midwife” on PBS. It’s a great series. (Incidentally, it’s a good portrayal of nuns–which you seldom see in movies.) I too was deeply moved by the last episode with its prejudice against gays and the Irish–and that was in the 1960’s. Perhaps we are making some progress… Thank you for making the connection between this reflection on Fr. Judge and that program. Sr. Melannie
The song, sung so gently, and the visuals touched me. Sometimes all we need is a candle in the darkness. I think Fr. Mychal was that for a number of people. Even if we don’t come into contact with a lot of people, we can all be a candle by our prayers and quiet actions.
Yes, Annie, I agree with your image of the candle in the darkness. And how we can be this with “our prayers and quiet actions.” Thank you! Sr. Melannie
Thank you so much for this story. I certainly sadly remember the picture of Fr. Judge being carried out of the building on that terrible day, but didn’t realize the extent that he brought the Gospel to all. It’s a valuable lesson for us of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ incredible acceptance of all. Lord make us all (especially me) more tolerant and loving of those who differ from us in whatever way…
Dear Bob, Yes, I join with you in your prayer for tolerance–beginning with tolerance for myself! Thanks for responding, Bob! Sr. Melannie
I note the irony that his last name was “Judge” – his life certainly exemplified the challenge to us all. “Judge not lest ye be judged”.
I never noted the irony, Karen. Thank you for pointing it out to us! Sr. Melannie
Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. We should all be so willing to serve. (Love the song, my daughter had it as the reflection at her wedding last Saturday)
Dear Kim, What a beautiful song to choose for a wedding! Sr. Melannie
Love your blog Sister Melannie. Just found you through your thoughts in Living Faith. I write a little bit and want, with God’s help, to be more spiritual in my writing . Thank you for all yours. Will follow your Monday reflections and may start my own on my blog soon.
Thanks for writing, Maz…And good luck with your own blog! Sr. Melannie
Love your writings, Sr. Melannie! Your choice of “The Servant Song” was very inspirational. How beautifully appropriate as a wedding reflection as stated in one of the comments. Thank you for blog.