#September11 – Father Mychal Judge, the Saint of 9/11
#September11 – Father Mychal Judge, the Saint of 9/11
Robert Emmett Judge knew from the time he was a child that he wanted to serve God. Growing up in the Great Depression, after his father died when Judge was just six years old, he worked shining shoes across the street from St. Francis of Assisi Church. It was there that he observed the Franciscan Friars, and there that he realized he wanted to join them. So at the age of 15, he began the process to join the Roman Catholic Church as a priest and a friar. When he did, he became Father Mychal Judge, a man who would be remembered in history as the saint of 9/11.
In 1992, he was assigned to work at the New York Fire Department as a chaplain, and it was there that he thrived. And according to his friends, he loved being part of the action.
His friend and fellow friar Michael Duffy remembers an episode when they were both young Franciscan priests in East Rutherford, N.J. Judge heard that a man had locked himself in the attic of his home and was threatening to shoot his wife and baby.
Soon after, Michael Duffy arrived at the scene. There were police cars, fire trucks, TV crews — and a figure climbing up the ladder to the attic.
“Who’s on the ladder?” Duffy laughs. “Father Mychal Judge! And in his habit.”
The priest, in his long brown robe and sandals, climbed in the window and disappeared.
“We waited 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Sweating bullets, waiting for that gunshot,” Duffy recalls. “The next thing you know, 20 minutes later, the front door opens, and out comes the wife holding the baby, the man with the guy, and Mychal Judge with his arm around him.”
The firefighters of the NYFD loved him, and he loved them back. He worked long hours, counseling the firefighters and their families, responding to fires and disasters, and was famous for always returning calls, no matter how many were on his answering machine. But it wasn’t just the firefighters that Father Mychal ministered to. Like Jesus Himself, Father Mychal reached out to the people often seen as the lowest in society: the homeless, the addicts, people with AIDS, those who were hungry or poor or sick. Society treated them as cast-offs, but Father Mychal loved them all. He famously gave a homeless woman the coat off of his back; when a man dying of AIDS asked him if God hated him, he kissed him and rocked him in his arms. He was also known to be an extraordinarily holy man; he would lose himself in prayer, become so lost in God, that hours would pass without him realizing it.
The day before the horrible attacks of 9/11, Father Mychal celebrated Mass for his firefighters, as he did every day. And his last homily was surprisingly prescient, considering the horror that would come the next day.
That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.
The retirees – He needs your prayers. He needs your stopping by occasionally to give strength and support and to tell the stories of the old days. We need the house and to those of you that are working now, keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together and do what you did the other night and the weeks and the months and the years before and from this house, God’s blessings go forth in this community. It’s fantastic!
What great people. We love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is. A difficult, difficult job and God calls you to it. And then He gives you a love for it so that a difficult job will be well done. Isn’t He a wonderful God? Isn’t He good to you? To each one of you? And to me! Turn to Him each day. Put your faith and your trust and your hope and your life in His hands, and He’ll take care of you and you’ll have a good life.
And this house will be a great, great blessing to this neighborhood and to this city.
When faced with the worst day the NYFD would ever have, Father Mychal showed up. He rushed to Ground Zero as soon as he heard that the first plane had hit the North Tower. On the way, he passed Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who called out to him. “Father Mike, pray for us!” he begged. “I always do,” Father Mychal responded. “I always pray for you!” He got to work right away, giving the dying their Last Rites, comforting those who were injured or scared, and praying all along the way. While many priests showed up at Ground Zero, Father Mychal was the only one to actually enter one of the two towers. He went inside the North Tower, where he continued to pray, offer absolution, and give assistance to those who needed it. When the order was given to evacuate, he refused. “My work here is not finished,” he said. The last moments of Father Mychal’s life were captured on film, as he stood inside the North Tower praying through the horror around him. In those last moments, Father Mychal’s lips are moving as bodies rain down around him — he was offering absolution to the people falling to their death. Moments before he died, he climbed up to the mezzanine in an attempt to reach some injured firefighters. As bodies continued to fall, in sickening thumps that could be heard from inside the building, Father Mychal would offer one last prayer. “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
At that moment, the South Tower collapsed. Debris flew inside the lobby of the North Tower at speeds of over 100 mph, and some of that debris struck Father Mychal in the head, killing him instantly. He was the first person identified, and became Victim 0001 of 9/11. A now-iconic photo was taken by Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton of anguished first responders carrying his body out of the towers, that has since been called an American Pieta.
They carried him to St. Peter’s Cathedral across the street, before he was brought to the West 31st Street firehouse. Finally, he was taken home to St. Francis of Assisi, where his wake and funeral would eventually be held. Over 3,000 people attended his funeral, including President Bill Clinton, who had met Father Mychal when he was a guest at the White House. He was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in New Jersey, in the friars plot. The fire jacket and helmet he was wearing when he died were miraculously recovered intact, and are now on display at the New York Fire Museum. His helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II as well. Each year on the Sunday before 9/11, people participate in the Father Mychal Judge Remembrance Walk, which begins with a Mass at St. Francis of Assisi, and then retraces his journey on 9/11 to Ground Zero, praying the entire way, as Father Mychal did. In 2006, a documentary film was released honoring Father Mychal’s life, called Saint of 9/11.
There is no indication that the Catholic Church is considering canonizing Father Mychal as a saint, as several miracles are required for someone to be considered for sainthood. While some have attributed miracles to him, perhaps the biggest miracle is that Father Mychal was there for us when we needed him. He continued to serve selflessly up to the moment of his death, praying and comforting and counseling the people he loved so much. And while it will always be a tragedy that he was taken from us, we can take comfort in knowing that God answered Father Mychal’s pleas, taking him away from the horror of 9/11 and bringing him to Heaven instead, where he could welcome the 343 firefighters he loved so much as they came to meet him on the other side.