Remembering Father Mychal, First 9/11 Casualty

A reader sent in the following story and I'm so glad he did. I read so many stories each day that sometimes I get desensitized to what I'm actually reading. Not this one. Learning about the subject of the piece -- and the skillful storytelling -- gave me chills as I got through it. We're preparing this weekend for the 10th anniversary of September 11. I'm sure we're all getting a bit sentimental as we replay the events of that day and reflect on how thankful we are to have survived and not been counted among the fatalities. Or maybe we're thinking about friends or family we loved and lost that day.

But this story on NPR, about the first recorded casualty of the terror attacks that day (meaning he was given the first death certificate for people who died in the attacks), is worth a read. We're introduced to Mychal Judge -- a gregarious and irreverent man, a priest with personal struggles.

Much of the story is just friends reflecting. I think this is a very effective way to tell us about him. Here's on example:

His friend and fellow friar Michael Duffy remembers an episode when they were both young Franciscan priests in East Rutherford, N.J. Judge heard that a man had locked himself in the attic of his home and was threatening to shoot his wife and baby.

Soon after, Michael Duffy arrived at the scene. There were police cars, fire trucks, TV crews — and a figure climbing up the ladder to the attic.

"Who's on the ladder?" Duffy laughs. "Father Mychal Judge! And in his habit."

The priest, in his long brown robe and sandals, climbed in the window and disappeared.

"We waited 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Sweating bullets, waiting for that gunshot," Duffy recalls. "The next thing you know, 20 minutes later, the front door opens, and out comes the wife holding the baby, the man with the guy, and Mychal Judge with his arm around him."

We get quite a bit of description of the man -- a man's man who the firefighters felt very comfortable confiding in but someone who was very pious when administering the sacraments. Judge was a first responder, and he began serving people at tragic scenes and stuck with them through recovery. He'd return 30 messages a night before he went to sleep, we're told.

Perhaps some of his gifts came from his own background with alcoholism, we're told. At support meetings, he met Malachy McCourt. Here's another one of those stories:

McCourt, a writer, actor and proud atheist, remembers once telling his friend the priest that he had plunged into a deep depression. Why are you worrying about the future, he recalls Judge saying, God hasn't even made it yet.

"And he said, 'Listen: because God has not yet made tomorrow, omnipotent, all-knowing, all-seeing as he is, he doesn't know what's going to happen. So who the ____ do you think you are?!', McCourt roars, recalling the salty language. "So he said, 'Don't get into the future. It's a very dangerous place for alcoholics.'"

Judge was also a celibate gay man in the priesthood, a fact he revealed only to a select few. Brendan Fay, a gay activist who co-produced The Saint of 9/11, a documentary about Mychal Judge, says the chaplain's struggles drew people to him.

"Mychal sort of weaved his way in and out of groups that wouldn't be caught near each other," Fay says.

The story demonstrates how conservative and liberal Catholics, Republican and Democratic leaders, Wall Street types and homeless people all considered him their friend.

The story about Judge's death is also told, although you've probably heard it before and seen the iconic photo of firefighters carrying his body out of the building.

The story includes mention of a documentary that shows Judge standing at a window watching bodies plunge from the tower. His lips are moving. Someone is quoted explaining the significance of his prayers.

This is just a great story about a real person.

I'd been meaning to write about another story about this same priest. Daniel Burke wrote about this man under the headline "Fallen 9/11 priest emerges as an icon for gay Catholics." That story focuses on how Judge has become "a gay icon -- a hero bordering on sainthood to scores of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics." It also looks at criticism that this aspect of his life has been hyped.

Please let us know if you see any other good coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that focuses on religion angles.

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