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In memoriam

St. Mychal of ground zero: a personal reflection Add to ...

As journalists, we usually have the luxury of writing about the terrible things that happen to other people without being personally touched by them. That norm was blown away on Sept. 11, 2001, when the priest who married us – Rev. Mychal Judge – was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.

The photograph of Father Mychal being carried through the rubble by five men, the anguish and weight of their burden etched on their faces, is one of the abiding images of 9/11. It has been compared to a modern day Pieta. For us, it carries the added pain of seeing a familiar face, one that shines out from our wedding photographs, shortly after the moment of death. Ten years later, it still hurts.

Father Mychal was so many things to so many people that it was, perhaps, inevitable that he would become a symbol, even an idol of sorts. To the world, he was the first official casualty of 9/11 – death certificate 0001. To the firefighters who clearly loved him as much as he loved them, Father Mychal, the chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, was a tower of faith, always there for them when things got dangerous or turned tragic.

To New York’s gay community, Father Mychal was a man of compassion and a hero, ministering to those with AIDS back when they were still social pariahs, and attending their funerals. They considered him brave to challenge the church so brazenly; a year before he died, he marched in the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

To members of his congregation at St. Francis of Assisi Church, on West 31st Street, the Brooklyn-born son of Irish immigrants was the epitome of generosity and compassion, known for giving his coat to a street person, ever ready to listen, and open about his own battles with alcoholism. He was a “street priest.” The altar alone was not enough to hold his interest.

To us, Father Mychal was the spirit of tolerance. In 1994, when his fire department duties left little time for weddings, baptisms and funerals, he found time for us because he knew that most other priests would not. When we asked him why he had agreed to co-officiate with a rabbi at our wedding, where the bride was Jewish, not converting to Catholicism and would not promise to raise the children Catholic, his reply was that there are many roads to God, and who are we to say only one of them is right?

He thought that there should be more mixed-faith marriages. “It breeds tolerance,” he told us when we first met him. It may be that he also enjoyed testing the church’s limits.

“He liked to bend the rules. It used to drive the cardinal insane,” John Porretto, a firefighter who knew Father Mychal, told us the day after he died.

Couples in the market for official interfaith marriages had few options a decade ago, even now. Most took the easy way out and went to Las Vegas or trotted down to city hall for a quickie civil ceremony. We wanted a wedding that incorporated both of our traditions, with both a priest and rabbi. We eventually found Father Mychal through the United Nations chapel in New York.

He was instantly likeable. He was tall and handsome, with thick white hair, an infectious laugh and a mischievous glint in his eye. He was perennially clad in a long, brown Franciscan robe tied at the waist with a rope, and sandals.

When we talked about wedding details, we asked whether he wanted us to send a car to pick him up. No, he said. “I have a fire department cruiser with a siren and I just flick it on whenever I’m late.”

Our wedding was a blast. One of our friends dubbed Father Mychal and the rabbi the wedding’s “best dressed couple.” The rabbi had the booming voice of a Broadway music star. He sang the seven blessings and blessed the rings. But it was Father Mychal who anchored the ceremony, leading us through our wedding vows underneath a chuppah (the traditional Jewish wedding canopy). When he blessed us, he brought God into the house without alienating any of the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or atheists in the audience.

After the ceremony, Father Mychal was obviously enjoying himself and stayed on. At one point, my father introduced himself as a former altar boy. Father Mychal grinned, and in a gentle putdown, said: “Many parents come to me and say, ‘What happened to my son? He left his wife and robbed corner stores. And he used to be an altar boy!’ ”

We didn’t see Father Mychal after our marriage, as work took us to London and then Toronto, but we did keep in touch. Only a few days before 9/11, we talked about taking our two young girls to New York to meet him. We had counted on his wisdom and humour guiding us as we charted our somewhat eccentric course through marriage and child-rearing. The terrorist attacks deprived us of that; it deprived others of so much more.

When the news came in about the Twin Towers attack, we knew Father Mychal would be there. Going to disaster scenes to help the wounded, administer last rites and pray for the dead was his calling, his job, his passion.

But we hoped that his luck would hold out. He had had other close calls. In 1974, he had been called to a house in New Jersey where an angry man was holed up with a gun upstairs, threatening to kill his family. The police were afraid to enter. Father Mychal grabbed a ladder, climbed up to the window and talked the distraught man into submission.

Mychal Judge was not lucky this time. We learned about his death at about midnight, when New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, his voice heavy with grief and fatigue, read out the names of the known victims, including the name of the fire department chaplain.

The precise manner of his death is unknown. Some firefighters said he was struck by a jumper, which seems implausible since his body was found in the lobby of the tower. Others said he had had a heart attack or had been hit by debris. Whatever the case, we know he died doing what he loved – comforting and praying for the firefighters who had fallen around him.

Since then, Father Mychal has been transformed into a media star and cult figure. Books have been written and documentaries made about him. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and 3,000 others attended his funeral on Sept. 15, 2001, in Manhattan. France awarded him the Légion d’honneur and some members of Congress have introduced a bill to award him the Congressional Gold Meda “in recognition of his example to the nation of selfless dedication to duty and compassion for one’s fellow citizens.” There is a movement to have him beatified, though his association with gay rights ensures that the Vatican will not take the effort seriously.

The Mychal Judge we knew was not a media star, religious icon or hero. Instead, he was the model of tolerance, a thoroughly 21st-century priest clad in medieval robes, reading ancient texts and giving them new interpretation and meaning, finding the strands that connect religions and humanity around the globe and over the centuries.

At a time when the world population is growing, when we no longer live in homogeneous towns or countries, when air travel means that we are just hours away from our farthest neighbours, when immigration and intermarriage mean that we live next door to all creeds and colours, Father Mychal’s brand of tolerance isn’t merely desirable, it is necessary.

Sadly, we’ve gone in the opposite direction since 9/11, which was used as an excuse for anti-Islamic sentiment, for bloodshed and warfare.

We have lost not just Mychal Judge, we have lost the tolerance he embodied.

Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail’s European business correspondent. He covered 9/11 and attended Rev. Mychal Judge’s funeral. His wife, Karen Zagor, is a writer.

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly


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