Writing the icon of 9/11 – Remembering Fr Mychal Judge #AllSaints

On September 11, 2017, sixteen years after the devastating terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center, an article appeared online about its first recorded victim, which asked: ‘Could Father Mychal Judge Be the First Gay Saint?’

Father Mychal Judge was a little-known Franciscan friar ministering humbly to the disenfranchised and unloved on the streets of New York City… until September 11, 2001, when he suddenly became a global figure.

As chaplain to the city’s Fire Department, he rushed to help first responders at the World Trade Center but was killed by falling masonry in the North Tower. The picture above, of his body being carried out of the debris, became an icon of the atrocity.

Fr Mychal Judge’s biographer, journalist Michael Ford, speaking at St Bride’s Liverpool, September 11, 2017

Writer and BBC journalist Michael Ford wrote the first biography of Mychal Judge after his death, which became an overnight bestseller. Michael Ford explored the outer and inner life of the ‘Saint of 911’, his extraordinary ministry among the homeless, immigrants, gay people and AIDS patients, and the struggles of a charismatic but deeply wounded man wrestling with guilt, alcohol addiction and his gay sexuality.

Also on September 11, 2017, Michael Ford gave a talk at St Bride’s Liverpool, hosted by the Open Table ecumenical worship community. We learned how Fr Mychal’s story inspired so many throughout the world, through unique footage of 911, letters he wrote and photos from his album.

Here is the introduction to Michael Ford’s talk:

On the bright, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, he was sitting calmly in his third floor room with his head in his hands, no doubt quietly praying for all those he always promised to pray for. Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a loud banging at his door.

It was a fellow Franciscan priest who had been out in the city. ‘Mychal – I just saw a plane fly into the World Trade Centre.’ /  ‘Oh my God! Oh my God, you’re kidding me’ Father Mike responded, intermingling his reaction with an earthier phrase or two. Then his bleeper rang.

Within minutes, Mychal had changed into his heat-resistant uniform and was running across the street to the Engine 1/Ladder 24 firehouse to get his car. Instead, a fire captain, ending a 24 hour shift, offered to drive him down. Neither was to return. The New York Fire Department mobilized hundreds of firefighters from Lower Manhattan who were joined by units from across the five boroughs. As Mychal arrived outside the World Trade Centre, clouds of choking smoke were obliterating the azure sky, flames were licking their way across the towers and people were leaping to their deaths. It was likened to a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

Father Mychal began to comfort people as he usually did. The firemen had never seen such a grim look on his face. It was one of sorrow and distress. As women and men fell from the buildings, you could see Father Mike praying for them. One of the first to speak with the chaplain was the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. As Father Mike ran past, Giuliani put a hand on his shoulder: ‘Mychal please pray for us.’ With an expansive but anxious smile, he answered: ‘I always do.’ Then Father Mike ran with the firefighters into the lobby of the north tower. Never one to flinch from danger, he was there to offer solidarity to the crews.

Here is a clip from the 2006 documentary film ‘Saint of 911’ about the life of Fr Mychal Judge which Michael Ford showed us (8 minutes 26 seconds):

You can listen to the rest of Michael Ford’s talk here (38 minutes):

And to the Q&A session here, in which I conclude by explaining how we came to name our new home Mychal Judge House (13 minutes):

New Ways Ministry, a social justice movement for LGBT Catholics co-founded by Open Table‘s last guest speaker, Sister Jeannine Gramick, is collecting stories from those who knew Fr Mychal Judge to support the grass roots cause for him to be officially recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church – Read more.

If he were canonised, Fr Mychal Judge would not in fact be the first ‘gay saint’ – American Jesuit priest Fr James Martin recently met controversy for writing on Facebook that some saints ‘were probably gay’. Statistically at least, he is likely to be correct, though we cannot know for certain as projecting the modern psychological understanding of sexual orientation onto historic figures is problematic and anachronistic.

Icon of Fr Mychal Judge by Bro Robert Lentz OFM

That hasn’t stopped some finding LGBTQ role models among figures from the Bible and Church history – for example, the Q Spirit blog has a section dedicated to LGBTQ saints. Another Franciscan friar based in New York, Brother Robert Lentz, has made a career as a icon painter known for his innovative approach to this ancient art form. He has been rebuked by the Church for making icons of ‘queer’ saints. Here is his icon of Fr Mychal Judge.

Brother Robert’s website includes the following description of his mission:

Robert celebrates people who live in the margins, and his work embraces that ideology. He believes that icons should celebrate the person, not the religion.

Robert believes that it’s unfair to tell common people to emulate saints with whom they have nothing in common. If holiness is available to all, shouldn’t there be icons of people one could truly emulate?

Robert paints icons of marginalized heroes. He chooses his subjects carefully, spending a great deal of time contemplating the person’s life and actions. When the taboos and canon laws are stripped away, does that person embody the image of Christ? Is there love? Did he/she sacrifice for others who were broken and in need?

To put it simply, Robert creates icons to remind the world that Christ’s love is available to everyone on earth and His holiness can be seen wherever you look.

Fr Mychal Judge lived with and for people in the margins – the events of 911 have portrayed him as a marginalised hero. As a gay man, he understood personally what ‘the taboos of canon law’ meant. He disagreed with official Roman Catholic teaching regarding homosexuality, and often asked,

‘Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?’

Is Fr Mychal Judge a saint? After his extensive research into his life and work, Michael Ford thinks so. As the ‘Saint of 911’ documentary began with a prayer of Mychal Judge, so Michael Ford ended his talk in the same way:

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.

For the first time at St Bride’s Liverpool last Sunday, the Open Table community hosted the Sunday morning service, at which the Open Table Liverpool community facilitator Warren Hartley spoke about ‘Improbable Saints’. His key message is ‘We are all saints!’ You can hear his reflection here (18 minutes 30 seconds):

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *