Monday, September 11, 2006

God's Tears

After 9/11 I sat transfixed, overwhelmed by the human agony, trying, as we all were... to understand, to make some sense of this tragic tragic time. It was too big, I could not describe how the loss of humanity from the group fabric, had left me raw, an open gaping wound. Numb, I sat flipping channels, until I settled on an interview with a fireman. I cannot remember the channel or who was interviewing him, but I remember what he said,

He raised a large, sooty hand and rubbed it across his forehead reaching for his voice, trying to find a place where he could speak without breaking down, then he said, " It's hard to explain, but all this steam and stuff falling from the's like, it's's God's tears. "

Then I heard about Mychal Judge and decided God needed him to explain the human condition. Lord knows he seemed capable of a higher level of being that included and raised up everyone who knew him. The firemen loved him, they carried his broken body from the WTC and placed it on the altar at St. Pauls, asking for God's blessing and speed. Only later did many of us discover he was also a gay man.

The Firemen's Friar

He was the first and most famous victim of the World Trade Center attack, but the death of Father Mychal Judge, the beloved New York Fire Department chaplain, was not as extraordinary as his colorful and iconoclastic life.
By Jennifer Senior
(Photo: AP)
One month after Mychal Judge's body was pulled from the shattered lobby of 1 World Trade Center, and three weeks after his televised funeral, some of the friar's friends decided to hold a smaller memorial evening of Celtic music and storytelling. Priests, nuns, lawyers, cops, firefighters, homeless people, rock-and-rollers, recovering alcoholics, local politicians, and middle-aged couples from the suburbs all streamed into the Good Shepherd Chapel on Ninth Avenue. Pete Hamill read one of his columns from the Daily News, the Irish band Morning Star played jigs and reels, and Malachy McCourt -- actor, author, and irrepressible raconteur -- stationed himself by the altar, briskly moving things along as emcee. The crowd was so motley, so colorful, it looked like the setup to a joke. (A priest, a lawyer, and an Irishman walk into a bar . . . )

"Only Father Mychal could get a room like this together," said Joe Hartnett, an electrician and father of five from New Jersey, when he took his turn at the altar to speak. Judge had been a pastor at Hartnett's parish in East Rutherford when he was a teenager. "I mean, I see firemen, policemen, recovering alcoholics, and people who are -- uh, here's a word I don't use very often -- gay."...
"There's a very old postcard of a giant Jesus looking in the window of the Empire State Building in those long, long robes," says McCourt, in a brogue as thick as potatoes. "And that was Mike Judge in New York. He was everywhere. Over the city. And ooohhh, how good it was to know he was there."
Judge was gregarious, mischievous, a luminous presence; he thrived on movement and kept a preposterous schedule, as if he'd found a wormhole beneath the friary on West 31st Street that allowed him to be in six places at once. On any given evening, he might be baptizing a fireman's child, ministering to an aids patient, or listening to Black 47, a Celtic rock band that had a regular gig at Connolly's on West 47th Street. Judge got 30 to 40 messages a day on his answering machine. Every six months, he'd wear another machine out....
The firemen loved him. He had an encyclopedic memory for their family members' names, birthdays, and passions; he frequently gave them whimsical presents. Once, after visiting President Clinton in Washington, he handed out cocktail napkins emblazoned with the presidential seal. He'd managed to stuff dozens of them into his habit before leaving the White House.
"I would break his chops constantly," says Falco. "I wouldn't treat him like a priest. I'd treat him like any other guy. It wasn't a priest-parishioner relationship. It was . . . you know, man to man. He'd help guys out with their marital problems. With every problem, big or small. You could go to him."
Obviously, Mychal Judge was not what one might call a conventional priest. But he was, arguably, a typical New York Franciscan -- earthy, streetwise, thoroughly engaged with the characters and chaos of the city. If times required it, Judge would hold Mass in the most unlikely places, including firehouses and Pennsylvania Station. This drove certain literalists in the clergy crazy, but no matter -- Judge pressed on. (To one of his antagonists, a certain monsignor in the chancellery who frequently phoned to admonish him, Judge once said: "If I've ever done anything to embarrass or hurt the church I love so much, you can burn me at the stake in front of St. Patricks")

The other pillar of Judge's spiritual philosophy was Alcoholics Anonymous. Once, at the White House, he told Bill Clinton that he believed the founders of AA had done more for humanity than Mother Teresa. "He was a great comfort to those with troubles with the drink," says McCourt, who usually saw Judge twice a month at AA. "He'd always say, 'You're not a bad person -- you have a disease that makes you think you're a bad person, and it's going to fuck you up.' " McCourt pauses a moment. "He had no compunction about language. Not with me, anyway...
Cardinal O'Connor wasn't exactly a fan. "I heard that if Mike got any money from the right wing," says McCourt, "he'd give it to the gay organizations. I don't know if that's true, but that's his humor, for sure....

Thank you for your life Mychal Judge, you remind me that integrity often comes wrapped in good humour with great human kindness.


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