“You don’t need to do this,” Father Mychal Judge said. He was standing on a ladder, talking through the window of an apartment building to a man who was holding a gun to his wife’s head. A hundred police officers stood on the ground below. Mychal’s words floated down to them; he told the man with the gun pointed at his wife’s head that he was a good man; that he didn’t need to do this; that Mychal wanted to hear what he had to say. “Come on down and let’s talk about it,” Father Mychal said. “I’ll stick by you.” News photographs of the incident showed Father Mychal carrying the couple’s two children down the ladder, then the gun, and finally there was a photograph of Father Mychal and the man emerging from the apartment building together.
The Franciscan priest showed this same propensity to go the aid of others despite personal risk to himself during the first years of the AIDS epidemic. He went into hospitals at a time when many people wouldn’t visit AIDS patients for fear of contracting the disease, and he ministered to those dying from it. It was in the hospital that someone asked him to visit a police officer who had been paralyzed in a shooting, and it was through that visit that he met a firefighter and became interested in being a firefighter chaplain. And so it was that he came to be in the lobby on the morning of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He had rushed there in the unfolding horror of that morning, saying, “I have to be with my men.” His was the first officially confirmed death there.
I didn’t know of Father Mychal Judge until several years later. I was researching the role of chaplains, a field I was considering, and his name came up in some of my searches. Intrigued by a trailer for Saint of 9/11, I continued to explore his life by reading two books* that have been published about him. What I found was the story of a man who had developed a gift for connecting with others, despite a lonely childhood.
As a boy, Mychal Judge could only see his father from the window of a hospital. Mychal was three years old when his father entered the hospital for mastoiditis, where he underwent repeated surgeries for the next few years. The hospital didn’t allow children to visit, so Mychal’s mother took Mychal and his twin sister to a street corner near the hospital, where they could see their father waving from the window. He died when Mychal was six. A certain loneliness entered Mychal’s life.
Mychal knew from a young age that he wanted to be a priest. He left for seminary at the age of 15. The seminary was in the Catskills, far from the city of New York that Mychal loved. It was 13 years before he became a priest, years during which he received little encouragement in his academic pursuits, and little in the way of any other kind of comfort. Yet he stayed with it, through a rigorous and solitary path. Finally, the day of his ordination came. On this, the occasion of his first homily, everyone recognized that he had a gift, a gift for connecting with people as he spoke. Even his mother, who had begrudged him going to seminary, seemed proud of him at the reception that followed. The boy who had longed for his lost father would become the friend and beloved pastor of many.
I think of Father Mychal Judge often, not only in connection with the events of September 11, but because his life story is personally inspiring to me. And I am thinking of him especially on this, the tenth anniversary of that day. I think of the number of lives lost beginning with those taken violently and abruptly from us on that bright September morning to include thousands around the world since. And the first confirmed death in all of these was Father Mychal Judge. Sometimes, when I consider his whole life, that seems ironic. But perhaps it is not. I think of him standing on a ladder those many years ago, talking quietly through a window to a man holding a gun to his wife’s head, telling him that his story didn’t have to end this way. There are few individuals who can climb ladders and create bridges to those who are threatening violence and to quietly speak the words we can’t say to ourselves in the heat of the moment, or in the long years of fanning the anger leading up to it: “You don’t need to do this.”
*The books I read, from which I learned some of these details of Father Mychal Judge’s life are: Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero, by Michael Ford, and The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge, by Michael Daly