Father Figure

One gay priest won the love and loyalty of New York City’s fire department and, in the tragedy of September 11, became an icon.

BY Charlotte Abbott

August 26 2008 11:00 PM ET

It’s not
easy to name many gay people who are widely recognized as
national heroes, but there’s little question that
Father Mychal Judge is one of the few. After he died
while assisting victims at the World Trade Center on
September 11, 2001, New York City fire department chaplain
Judge became a symbol of those who risked their lives to
help others. Beloved for his irreverent humor and
ever-available ear, he was such a popular friend and
confidant that he wore out three answering machines in
nearly a decade of ministering to both Catholic firefighters
and gay New Yorkers. But for those who had never
contemplated the priest’s sexual orientation,
the news that Judge was gay was a posthumous surprise; some
firemen were in such denial that they even accused gay
activists of wrongfully claiming him as an icon.

But
Judge’s legacy -- as a Franciscan priest and a gay
man -- survives in The Book of Mychal: The
Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal
Judge
, a stirring new biography by New York Daily
News
columnist Michael Daly. One of the
book’s most poignant revelations is that Judge
began a journal in 1999, thinking that his struggle to
reconcile his public and private lives might make a worthy
memoir. In the passages Daly quotes, Judge’s
turmoil is heartbreaking. He alternates between his
desire to speak out freely as a mature gay priest -- to
“release fears, explain the pain, show the joy and
give peace to so many” -- and his deep-seated
fear that coming out would mean losing his friends,
his ministry, and his standing as a priest.
“Lord…hold me tight. Don’t let me
do anything foolish,” he prayed.

It’s a
loss to both gays and Catholics that Judge didn’t
live to write his own story. But Daly’s
friendship with the priest, his skill as a reporter,
and his access to Judge’s journals make his account
the closest we’re likely to get to an
authorized biography. The beginning and end of the
book are particularly gripping, though they border on
hagiography. Daly’s empathy for New York City
and its characters turns Judge’s Depression-era
childhood in Brooklyn into a classic Irish-American story
that includes his father’s death when Judge was 6,
his often brutal Catholic schooling, and his entrance
into a Franciscan seminary at age 15. The final
section of the book, which centers on the morning of
September 11 and the days following, is equally intense and
elegiac.

Tags: Books

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