The Life & Legacy of Father Mychal Judge
By Cliff Garvey
On September 11, 2001, Brother Sun presided over a brilliant summer morning in New York City. By all accounts, the air and sky were crisp, clear, and cloudless. But this beautiful day was shattered by terrorists who hijacked passenger planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The emergency response was immediate. Police, paramedic, port authority, and firefighting units rushed to the scene. They raced into the burning towers. They ran up the stairs to fight the fires and evacuate thousands of people.
Among those first responders was Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar and priest, who served as senior chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Father Mike was widely known as outgoing, compassionate, and relentlessly busy. In addition to his ministry to the firefighters and their families, he worked tirelessly with addicts, alcoholics, homeless people, and those living with HIV-AIDS. Throughout decades of ministry, Father Mike seemed always joyful; and ever ready with a joke or kind word. But on September 11th, Father Mike paced with worry in the lobby of Tower One. Dressed in his firefighter’s coat and helmet, he stood clear of the first responders, fingered the beads of a rosary, and prayed. We know this to be true because two documentary filmmakers were there; and they provided vivid images of this good man and holy priest.
Suddenly, an unspeakable roar shook the earth. Tower Two collapsed to the ground, turning one of the world’s great skyscrapers into a burning and twisting wreck. After the tower fell, those in the lobby of the other tower began a slow and steady evacuation. Amidst the dust and darkness, a flashlight illuminated the face of a man who lay still and buried under some rubble. It was Father Mike. He had no pulse. He was gone. Firefighters carried his body across the street to a nearby church and gently placed him near the altar. Father Mychal Judge is recorded as the first official casualty of the 9-11 terror attacks. He is listed as Victim 001.
In 2017, Pope Francis introduced a new pathway by which a person can be considered for sainthood. It is reserved for heroic men and women who lived holy lives and freely accepted a certain and premature death for the good of others. In this spirit, some are now petitioning the Vatican for the canonization of Father Mychal Judge. Others are working to continue his ministry with the poor, the sick, and the forgotten of our society. One of these charities is called Mychal’s Message. It provides food, clothing, and basic necessities to the homeless in New York City. Another is the Father Mychal Judge Recovery Center at Saint Anthony Shrine in Boston. It provides counseling services to addicts in recovery and their families.
Those of us who did not know Father Mike personally can still honor his memory by remembering, and perhaps imitating, his deep spirituality and abiding faith in the Franciscan way of life. Like his patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, Father Mike always seemed busy. On a typical day, he might rush from morning Mass, to the bedside of an injured firefighter, to the home of a family in crisis. Like Saint Francis, he reached out to those often shunned by the world: addicts, AIDS patients, the mentally ill, and the homeless. Like Saint Francis, most often because of his zeal and strong sense of mission, Father Mike sometimes irritated those with power and privilege. And like Saint Francis, Father Mike’s clothing was often worn and threadbare. He received gifts of new clothing, but more often than not, he gave them to the poor.
When we read about Father Mike’s life and ministry, we may ask: How did he do it? How did he keep the pace? How did he care so much? The life and example of Saint Francis can help answer some of these questions. More than 800 years ago, Francis traveled widely, almost always on foot and almost always barefoot, in order to preach the Gospel, share God’s love, and rebuild the Church. He embarrassed his friends and the powers that be with his energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to imitating the life and ministry of Jesus. And just like Jesus, Francis sometimes retreated from the world for long periods of prayer and solitude. Father Mike, a truly modern man with a Franciscan heart, did the same thing.
When Father Mike needed to renew his spiritual energies, he would retreat into the city he loved. He took long solitary walks from his friary in Manhattan, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and into the outer boroughs. From the bridge, he could step back from the mean streets of the city and gaze at the iconic skyline. In an urban sense, he could see the whole forest, not just the individual trees. From the bridge, he could pray for himself; and for the city and its people that he loved so very much.
In our own prayers, we remember the first victim and all victims of the attacks on September 11th. We pray for all who were lost and for all who were left behind. We pray for the soul of Father Mychal Judge and for all hearts that were touched by his faith, hope, love, and countless good works. We pray for all who serve our communities as first responders; and for all who serve our country in uniform. We pray for reconciliation and understanding between all peoples, religions, and cultures. And we pray for peace in our sick and suffering world.
One day before his death, Father Mike blessed a newly renovated firehouse in the Bronx and celebrated Mass for first responders and their families. His homily that morning would be his last. It is joyful and prophetic. It speaks past the coming attacks and their long and painful aftermath. It transcends the agony of the dead and the grief of the living with a voice that brims with devotion, gratitude, and love for God and his people. This passage from Father Mike’s final homily reads like a last testament of an everyday saint, a saint of the streets:
That’s the way it is.
Good days and bad days.
Up days and down days.
Sad days and 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 the other.
You have no idea when you get on that rig.
No matter how big the call.
No matter how small the call.
You have no idea what God is calling you to do.
But he needs you.
He needs me.
He needs all of us.
Amen, Father Mike. Amen. Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Father Mychal Judge, pray for us! Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
Art Credit: Photo 27598617 Copyright Jerry Coli | Dreamstime.com
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to Remembering Victim 001. These audio recordings are produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!