By Stephen McKinley
His was the first firefighter death recorded on Sept. 11, and in the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, many wondered if Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department’s beloved chaplain, had arrived at heaven’s gate first so that he could welcome the other firefighters killed that day.
It was just one of the stories and legends that have become associated with Judge, the friar whose life and ministry had touched people from every walk of life — and whose dramatic death during the tragedy, brought him to the attention of people across the world.
Now, a group dedicated to Judge’s memory has started a campaign to have him canonized.
In the months since Sept. 11, however, some of Judge’s friends and acquaintances have begun to wonder at how quickly the memory of the Fr. Mychal they knew has been transformed: they have suggested that a move to canonize Judge merely takes away from his complex life of service on earth.
At the group’s web site (www.saintmychal.com), a message declares that Judge’s death led to the “birth of Saint Mychal,” and sets out in detail the reasons why he is a candidate for sainthood.
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“He would have a hoot at that,” said Malachy McCourt, a longtime friend of Judge’s. McCourt knew Judge through their shared experience of alcoholism. Judge was buried on the day on which he would have been sober for 23 years.
“He was a principled man who lived according to his lights,” McCourt continued. “But he was a friend to those who would be considered the deviants of society: alcoholics, homeless people, revolutionaries, gays, people with AIDS, divorced people, everyone not acceptable to the conservative wing of society.”
It was Judge’s ability to touch people from so many situations that has fueled both the movement to have him canonized and those who say that such a move puts Judge on a pedestal and detracts from his flawed, complicated humanity.
“There is a rush to canonize Mychal these days, and I think it is a mistake,” said Fr. John Felice, of the same order as Judge. “In making saints of people, we often shove people away from our experience. . . . He was a very human, flawed, complex person, just like the rest of us.”
A month after his death, a Month’s Mind Mass was held for Judge in Chelsea. A diverse group of people paid tribute to Judge, from gay firefighter Tom Ryan, who recalled that the chaplain had helped him accept his gayness, because, he said, to those wrestling with their sexuality, Judge was able to speak of similar experiences in his own life.
Former police officer Stephen McDonald spoke of how, after a near-fatal shooting left him paralyzed from the neck down, Judge’s frequent visits sustained him through the darkest period of his life.
Others testified to Judge’s often quirky and earthy approach to their problems, of how he visited those dying of AIDS in New York when many others shunned them.
In sharp contrast, still others who knew Judge have angrily dismissed what they describe as “how homosexual activists hijacked the truth about Fr. Mychal Judge.” Dennis Lynch, general counsel to the Judge McDonald Foundation, said that he knew Judge for 10 years and that there was never any evidence that he was gay.
Judge’s transformation from friar to martyr was lightening fast, in the hours and days after Sept. 11. It was as if, as one commentator put it, “hundreds, if not thousands, of people . . . wanted him to die gorgeously and aptly, in a way that expressed the depth of his faith.”
It is still not entirely clear as to how Judge died on Sept. 11. It was suggested that he was struck by a piece of the building while he knelt to administer the last rites to a dying firefighter. Other witnesses said that he had been struck by a body falling from one of the burning towers. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recalls seeing Judge at the scene, and clasping his hand, asked Judge to pray for the city’s rescue workers.
“I always do,” he told Giuliani, a smile on his face.
Irish community and gay activist Brendan Fay, who knew Judge for some years, has added his voice to those who feel that sainthood would take away from Judge’s true personality.
“For many people in the Irish community, the firefighters, gays, addicts, homeless, their lives were truly blessed,” Fay said. “To many people he’s a hero and he will be remembered as a holy man.
“A more fitting memorial to Judge might be to set up a soup kitchen.”