Saint of 9/11


The finished version of the documentary about Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain, "Saint of 9/11", was shown last night at the Tribeca Film Festival to a packed house. I truly hope that it will get wide distribution and that many will see it. I say this not simply because this saintly man was gay, because he would be barred from the priesthood under the current Pope, or because, in the mysterious way God works, Judge's sexual orientation actually became a way for him to minister more effectively to the marginalized, sick, poor and forgotten. I say it simply because we Catholics need to hear the stories of the good priests every now and again. We have absorbed so many tales of abuse and arrogance that our faith may be dented. But the good work of good priests continues, out of the headlines, in the pews and streets and living rooms of America. Mychal served everyone in the spirit of St Francis: carefree, open-eyed, laughing, humble. Some of his greatest friends were alcoholics saved from street corners, a mother who lost her daughter on TWA Flight 800, a disabled former cop whom he wheeled across Ireland in an attempt to persuade the people there of God's healing power of forgiveness. 

Mychal never had a checking account; he never had a mortgage. He spoke of how "fantastic" it was to understand that an omnipotent God has not yet invented tomorrow, and so we can set about our lives each day in the wonder of not-knowing. Whom shall God send us? How will we be asked to serve? Which person we ignored yesterday will God be asking us to minister to today? He had such a great sense of mystery and a resolute astonishing faith in the power of God's love to redeem everything - and not in some distant eschatological future but now. He was also a big, brusque Irishman, a recovering alcoholic, and a priest of the old school who loved and knew and cared for the great American Catholic family. That's why he stayed closeted among his beloved firefighters. He knew, sadly, that it would place a barrer between him and some of them. His service came first, and he died doing it.

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For me, his ministry to people with AIDS in the very early days means the most. We forget how terrifying HIV was in the early and mid 1980s, how patients would be quarantined in dark rooms, abandoned by their families, with their meals rolled into their rooms on trolleys. From the beginning, Mychal did as Jesus did and walked right in and kissed these frightened souls on the lips. If they recoiled from the sight of a priest - gay men at that time saw the church as an alien, hostile entity - he would persist in silence. He would simply bring holy oils, take a chair to the bottom of their hospital beds, and massage their bony, cold, pain-racked feet. He seemed to express no anger, just a kind of suspended joy in the moment, a joy he found resuscitated by the fact of the resurrection and the intercession of Our Lady. I wish I had met him. What a role model. But through this film, we do meet him, and see the face of God again, and laugh, and sigh.