As we reflect on the tragedy that was 9/11, and as we as LGBT Catholics face the fierce resistance by Catholic bishops to marriage equality, let us recall eleven years later, that the first victim carried out of the ruins of the World Trade Centre was – a gay Catholic priest, Mychal Judge. He was not one of the unfortunate victims trapped inside the building at the time of the attack with no time to escape, but the chaplain to the New York fire department, who had entered the building after the attack, together with the firefighters, to render what assistance he could. In his story, are many lessons relevant to those of us who struggle with the challenge of living authentically as both Catholic, and queer.
In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, when it emerged that the popular Catholic chaplain had voluntarily entered the collapsing building to support the firefighters, there were many prominent Catholics calling for his bravery and highly regarded ministry to be marked by canonization – calls that rapidly subsided once it emerged that within his circle of friends and colleagues, it was well known that Mychal Judge was widely known to be gay.
The story of his death is well – known, and available from many on- line sources (for examples, see the links below). It is his life that I want to explore.
In the book, “Queer and Catholic“, Salvatore Sapienza (author of Mychal’s Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge) shares some reflections on the man that he knew personally during the late 1980’s, an article called, appropriately, “Fully Human, Fully Alive”:
“Walking to the subway station after an AA meeting in Manhattan, Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest fully attired in his hooded brown monk’s habit , turned to a young man he had met at the meeting and exclaimed “Isn’t God wonderful!” When the young man asked the priest why, Father Mychal responded “Look at all the beautiful men out on a Friday night”.
What may sound like the introduction to another sordid story about the secret sexual lives of priests is anything but, for this is the tale of a man who took his vow of celibacy very seriously, yet still celebrated his sexuality openly. A man of God, but still just a man”.
– Sapienza, in “Queer and Catholic“.
The late 1980’s was a time when AIDS was taking a toll on the lives of countless gay American men. Later in his article, Sapienza describes how it was this that brought him into contact with Fr Mychal, soon after he had himself decided to commit to life in a religious community:
At a time when the Church should have come roaring into action – for this is where Jesus would surely have been with the outcasts and the sick – church leaders, instead, chose judgement over love. This was especially true in New York City, one of the places hardest hit with the virus, where Cardinal John O’Connor became the face of hate to the gay community.
While most Catholic clergy members kept their distance, Father Mychal took it upon himself to address the needs of the gay community at this time of crisis. He formed Saint Francis AIDS Ministry, one of the first Catholic AIDS organizations in the country. He, along with myself and three other professed religious men, began to minister to people with AIDS in area hospitals…
But in addition to his total commitment to service, through his AIDS ministry, or working with Dignity New York for gay Catholics, or through his regular employment as chaplain to New York’s fire fighters, he was also able to simply enjoy life – appreciating the male beauty around him, or in socializing with people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Whether sitting on a cot talking to a destitute man in a homeless shelter, shooting the breeze with a bunch of macho firefighters at a New York City firehouse, or shmoozing with some rich society matrons at a swanky benefit, Mychal had the amazing ability to socialize and empathize with everyone he met.
Sounds to me an awful lot like one Jesus of Nazareth!
There is important symbolism here – as a Catholic priest, openly gay within a limited circle, he was very far from unique. It is now widely accepted that a substantial proportion of Catholic priests are gay: many estimates put the number between a third and one half. Many are deeply closeted, a tiny number are fully out and open, and some, like Fr Mychal, are open to friends and colleagues, and even to bishops. This number is probably increasing, putting the bishops on “a steep learning curve”, as James Alison once put it to me, based on his discussions with them, in a range of localities. Publicly however, they seldom discuss the implications, or even acknowledge the phenomenon, just as there has been little serious attempt to engage fully and honestly with the idea that gay men, lesbians, or other queer people in loving and committed relationships can be good and faithful Catholics.
Just as the case for heterosexual priests, some of these gay priests are sexually active – but Mychal Judge, like others, was not, honouring his vow of celibacy. In this, he reminds us that outside the matter of orientation, gay priests are much like any others – and many loving same – sex couples have much in common with conventionally married ones.
But the most important symbol in his story, and the reason for his celebration as a saint of 9/11, is in the powerful example of authentic Catholicism that he displayed, in his life, and in his death – an example of unswerving commitment to service to others, in the name of the Lord, as reflected in his prayer:
Mychal’s Prayer: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.
It is this, not slavish adherence to a sexual book or rules, that makes one a true Catholic.
Books & Film
- Lynch, Kelly Ann: He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge
- Ford, Michael: Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero
- Daly, Michael: The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge
- Sapienza, Salvatore: Mychal’s Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge
- Collaborwrite: Father Mychal Judge – GOD’s Spirit in Sandals
- Evans, Amie M. and Trebor Healey: Queer and Catholic
- Saint of 9/11 – The True Story of Father Mychal Judge
- Saint of 9/11 – The True Story of Father Mychal Judge (Trailer)
- Catholic Parish Honours Gay Saint, Mychal Judge
- Gay, Celibate Catholic Priests: Mychal Judge, and Fred Daley
- Saint Mychal Judge website, with links for:
- Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11 (Jesus in Love)
- Fr Mychal Judge: Not Just Another 9/11 Memorial (Guardian)
- The Saint of 9/11, Fr Mychal Judge (10 000 Same – Sex Couples)
- Gay Catholic Icon, Rev Mychal Judge (Huffington Post)
- 9/11 Victim 0001: Fr Mychal Judge’s Message (Truthdig)