Father Figure

By Charlotte Abbott

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

Book of Mychal smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com

Though the middle
of the book bogs down in excessive detail, Daly does a
good job of portraying Judge’s delicate and often
painful balancing act between his work for the fire
department and his friendships with gay people in the
1990s—a time when the political battles between New
York City’s Catholic and gay populations were
especially bitter. For example, when Judge marched
with the city’s firefighters in the St.
Patrick’s Day parades, it was with the raw
awareness that the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization
had been barred from the lineup. Although the St.
Patrick’s marchers who pelted gay protesters
with beer cans made Judge “sorry to be
Irish,” they didn’t frighten him away from
marching in the city’s gay pride parades.

Daly also
presents Judge’s private life with sensitivity,
including his predilection as a young friar for
sipping a can of Tab he’d secretly filled with
scotch and his subsequent recovery with Alcoholics
Anonymous. Daly acutely observes that Judge had been
“obliged to marginalize his sexuality before it
even took form” but at times fails to ask the right
questions related to Judge’s sexual orientation. For
example, Daly writes eloquently about how Judge
established one of the earliest ministries for AIDS
patients in New York City in the 1980s, despite the
church’s official scorn for homosexuality. But
he doesn’t probe how Judge navigated church
politics on a purely practical level.

Even more
enigmatic is Daly’s account of Judge’s
decadelong romantic relationship with Al Alvarado, a
Filipino nurse 30 years younger than he. He presents
their relationship as celibate and relates several examples
of Judge deciding against seeing Alvarado in order to avoid
temptation. But Daly leaves the reader to wonder what
exactly the two men did when they went on vacation
together in London six years after they met. And while
Alvarado clearly cooperated with Daly for the book,
there’s little sense of why he remained in this
hands-off relationship.

These complaints
aside, what makes the book worth reading is its visceral
portrayal of how Judge used his inner turmoil as a vehicle
for becoming a more effective priest. The devout love
of the firefighters who went to such great lengths to
recover his body from the World Trade Center wreckage
is one testament to his success—the publication of
Daly’s book is another.