Any time I want to right size-myself by reminding myself of what I hope to bring to the world around me, I watch “The Saint of 9/11”, an extraordinary documentary about an extraordinary man, Father Mychal Judge. Father Mychal was the New York City Fire Department’s beloved chaplain and the first officially recorded death on 9/11. He was killed by falling debris while administering last rights to a firefighter who’d been mortally wounded by a falling body.
His body was carried by firefighters and placed before the altar of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.
Father Mychal Judge was gay and a recovering alcoholic. He was buried on his 23 year sober anniversary. But anyone who defines him by his gayness or by the fact that he was in recovery is missing something very important: Father Mychal Judge. No one’s true definition is driven by anything other than the sum total of who they are, which is comprised of far more than someones sexuality or the disease of alcoholism, addiction.
The power of a human being’s life is found in their humanity. If, like me, you love Bruce Springsteen, are you wondering what church he belongs to when he is singing? If, like me, you love to read, are you wondering what the authors sexuality is or was or whether they drank too much when you read their work? Has anyone slammed down Sherlock Holmes because it’s author used drugs? Has anyone turned sniffily away from the work of Edgar Allan Poe because he was an alcoholic?
The power of Father Mychal’s impact on those who knew him and those, like me, who only met him through a documentary, was his capacity to lovingly accept the people he came in contact with for who they were and his capacity to accept life as it was. In the documentary a friend of his relates how he and Father Mychal would stand in front of the main branch of the New York City Public Library. Flanking either side of the steps are sculptures of two large lions named Patience and Fortitude. Father Mychal would tell his friend how could use more of both attributes. I suspect those who knew him best would say he had more than most.
I do not in any way experience “The Saint of 9/11” as a work about a gay man or gay priest or an alcoholic man or an alcoholic priest who happened to show courage on 9/11. Instead, I experience it as being about a man who dealt with the disease of alcoholism and who happened to be gay. Each truth is but a component of the man, neither is the definition. The defining truth about Father Mychal Judge was his loyalty to God , his deep love for his fellow human beings, and his breathtaking loyalty to his firefighters. When, on 9/11, Mayor Giuliani told Father Mychal he could join the mayor’s party and go to safety, Father Mychal said, no, “I have to stay with my men.”
A friend of his said Father Mychal would often say, “Have a cup of tea and sing a song, and maybe we can find some peace and understanding.” Not a bad idea for us all.
Malachy McCourt said serving others meant the most to Father Mychal. “That was his whole thing, to serve as best he could.” And so he did, and so should we all.