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Father Figure

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.

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.

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.

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