Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to New York firefighters and unofficial “gay saint,” died helping others in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was the first recorded victim of 9/11.
Father Mychal Judge (1933-2001) responded quickly when extremists flew hijacked planes into the twin towers. He rushed with firefighters into the north tower right after the first plane hit. Refusing to be evacuated, he prayed and gave sacraments as wreckage crashed outside. He saw dozens of bodies hit the plaza outside as people jumped to their deaths. His final prayer, repeated over and over, was “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!” Judge was killed by flying debris.
While he was praying, Judge was struck and killed in a storm of flying steel and concrete that exploded when the south tower collapsed. Judge was designated as Victim 0001 because his was the first body recovered at the scene. More than 2,500 people from many nationalities and walks of life were killed. Thousands more escaped the buildings safely.
After Judge’s death, some of his friends revealed that he considered himself a gay man. He had a homosexual orientation, but by all accounts he remained faithful to his vow of celibacy as a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan order.
The charismatic, elderly priest was a long-term member of Dignity, the oldest and largest national lay movement of LGBTQ Catholics and their allies. Judge voiced disagreement with the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality, and found ways to welcome Dignity’s AIDS ministry despite a ban by church leaders. He defied a church boycott of the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, showing up in his habit and granting news media interviews.
During his lifetime, he often said, “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?”
Movement to canonize Mychal Judge as a saint
Many people, both inside and outside the LGBTQ community, call Judge a saint. In summer 2017 New Ways Ministry began a new effort to get Judge canonized as an official saint in the Roman Catholic church.
“Pope Francis paved the way for Fr. Judge to be considered for canonization this past week when he added a new possible pathway to sainthood: the heroic giving of one’s life for others,” New Ways Ministry Executive Director Francis DeBernardo wrote in a call to start the canonization process.
They are seeking first-hand accounts from people who knew Judge. “Extremely important is any information regarding a possible miracle attributed to Fr. Judge’s intercession,” he added.
There is also a Facebook group devoted to “Support for the Canonization of Mychal F. Judge, OFM.”
Judge has not been canonized yet by his own Roman Catholic Church, but some feel that he has already become a saint by popular acclamation, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America did declare officially declare him a saint. Here is a round-up of artwork, films and books about him.
Mychal Judge and 9/11 in religious art
A dramatic icon of Judge against a backdrop of the burning buildings was painted by Father William Hart McNichols. He shows Judge with Saint Francis of Assisi as the World Trade Center burns behind them. The narrative that accompanies the icon describes Judge as a Passion Bearer who “takes on the oncoming violence rather than returning it… choosing solidarity with the unprotected.” It is one of 32 McNichols icons included in “You Will Be My Witnesses: Saints, Prophets, And Martyrs” with text by John Dear. McNichols is a Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico. He has a deep connection to New York City because he worked at an AIDS hospice there in the 1980s.
Judge carries his fire department hat in an icon by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBTQ-positive icons. It is one of 40 icons featured in the book “Christ in the Margins” by Robert Lentz and Edwina Gateley. Lentz is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. Both McNichols and Lentz have faced controversy for painting gay-affirming icons. They are two of the 11 artists whose life and work are featured in “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More ” by Kittredge Cherry.
A smiling Mychal Judge with a halo was sketched by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.
The priest’s connection with others is emphasized in “(Saint) Mychal Judge being Welcomed by the Franciscan Saints” by JR Leveroni. Deliberately painted in the primitive style of folk art, it goes beyond the iconic news photo, sometimes called the “American Pieta,” that shows firefighters carrying Judge’s limp corpse at Ground Zero. In Leveroni’s vision, saints replace the firefighters to carry Mychal onward to heaven. He holds his red firemen’s helmet in his left hand. Leveroni has also painted gay martyrs Matthew Shepard and Saint Sebastian together. A variety of male nudes and religious paintings can be seen on Leveroni’s website (warning: male nudity).
Another contemporary icon providing spiritual comfort after the 9/11 attacks is “Our Mother of Sorrows” by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). It shows Mary with airplanes instead of angels. She cradles the twin towers of the World Trade Center. “The smoke, stylized and sanctified, bears witness to the ultimate sacrifice of so many on September 11,” says the icon’s narrative.
Williams studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz. A common theme in Williams’ icons is social justice, including LGBTQ-affirming subjects. Our Lady of Sorrows is a title for Mary that focuses on her suffering. Her feast day is Sept. 15.
Books and films about Mychal Judge
Stories from Judge’s life are presented in the book, “Mychal’s Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge” by Salvatore Sapienza, a former monk who worked with Judge to build St. Francis AIDS Ministry in New York City. The book mixes prayers with stories from the chaplain’s life. It begins with Judge’s own words, a text that has come to be known simply as “Mychal’s Prayer”:
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 an excerpt from the book, see the previous post 10 years later: Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11. Sapienza is also the author of Seventy Times Seven: A Novel, a novel about a young Catholic brother torn between his sexuality and his spirituality as an out and proud gay man.
“Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero” by Michael Ford is a biography that examines Judge’s life, including his journey to accept himself as a gay man. A revised version was published in 2016 with a new introduction and reflections on events since the 9/11 tragedy.
The film Saint of 9/11 – The True Story of Father Mychal Judge is a complete and uplifting documentary on Judge’s life, including his gay orientation and his support for LGBTQ rights. Its producers include Brendan Fay, who directed “Taking a Chance on God,” a biopic about gay priest John McNeill.
Another gay man who died heroically helping others in the Sept. 11 attack was rugby champion Mark Bingham, who lost his life while fighting hijackers on Flight 93. His story is told at this link.
Mychal Judge is the first recorded victim of 9/11 — and also the first saint profiled in the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry when it began on Sept. 11, 2009. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, may these images and stories inspire people with renewed dedication to peace and service to humanity.
Could Father Mychal Judge Be the First Gay Saint? Inside the fractious campaign to canonize the 9/11 icon (Slate.com, Sept. 11, 2017)
“Fr. Mychal Judge” at the Legacy Project
Top image credit:
“Holy Passion Bearer Mychal Judge and St. Francis of Assisi” by William Hart McNichols
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