First Death Certificate of 9/11—Fr. Mychal Judge

Someday it may seem mild, but a priest who openly admitted being alcoholic and gay, then went rollerblading in his sixties was pushing the narrowly defined boundaries of priesthood in the seventies and eighties.

At one time, Mychal Judge drank so heavily he had blackouts. The drinking began in the seminary with little sips of altar wine. By 1976, “his alcoholism had become so serious that it became both crisis and opportunity.” After joining AA, Judge later attended as many of its meetings as he could. Some thought he was more familiar with the AA book than with the Bible.

The risk was dramatic at a time when “if a friar had drinking problem, it was hushed up or he was sent away for therapy.” So too for his second frontier: being gay. Judge was open about his gender preference even at a time when Archbishop O ‘Connor was quoted in the  New York Post as saying, “I would close all my orphanages rather than employ one gay person.” At first hesitant to march in New York’s first inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2000, Judge received wild acclaim from the crowd—and nervous disapproval from the church.

That continued when he was reported to the diocese for not wearing vestments at firehouse Masses. Judge told the young clerical bureaucrat who called him on the carpet: “if I’ve ever hurt the church I’ve served and loved so dearly for 40 years, I want to be burned at the stake on 5th Ave., at the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” “No matter how many robes Cardinal [O’Connor] put on or how much power he tried to exert, he still could not… quash Mychal Judge.”

The story of his death is well known: Judge rushed to the World Trade Center to be with the fire fighters responding to the disaster. Some speculate that he removed his helmet to pray the last rites over a dying firefighter, was struck on the head by debris and died. Five rescue workers carried him out through the rubble; Shannon Stapleton’s photo of them was widely published. (His friends joked that even in death, Mychal still loved a photo-op.) Firefighters laid Judge’s body before the altar in a nearby church, covering it with a sheet, his stole and badge. His eulogist pointed out how appropriate it was that Judge died first; then he’d be in heaven to meet over 400 first responders who arrived later.

Judge’s biographer comments on the impromptu ritual of two cops praying over his body at Ground Zero. It’s not only OK for laity to give last rites in an emergency. It “was, in fact, entirely in keeping with Father Mychal’s own sacramental theology of hallowing the moment and was typical of the way ordinary people generated light in the darkness of that day.” [1] The overflow crowd outside Judge’s funeral proved what his eulogist said: “When he was talking 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.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450

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