After attending daily Mass at New York’s St. Francis on 31st Street last week, I went into the gift shop because I was nearly certain Dante was one of the figures on a side panel of the main mosaic behind the altar and wanted to find information on the figures depicted. (I was right, he stands next to Columbus). While there, I purchased a children’s book called “He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge.” It’s a touching illustrated tribute to Victim 0001 of the 9/11 attacks and the man captured in the famous photograph that has been called “America’s Pietá.”
Mychal Judge was a Franciscan friar who lived at St. Francis and served as the chaplain to the NYFD. He was one of the first responders after the attacks and died from blunt trauma to the head while administering last rites to people in what is still to me an entirely unfathomable scene, perhaps more so after living here in the rebuilding years. I think of the victims often as my bedroom window looks directly out onto the rising Freedom Tower downtown. Although I lived elsewhere then, I’m haunted by images and stories of that day throughout my adopted city. I’ve visited the church, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, where Father Judge’s corpse was laid on the altar while the tragedy unfolded.
It is not only the last few moments of Father Judge’s life that are worthy of admiration. He spent decades pouring himself out for the poor, the marginalized, the foreigner, and the despondent in emulation of Jesus’ own kenotic self-emptying.
Although not in a program myself, I am intimately aware of the life-changing effects of 12 Step programs which serve as means of escaping the shackles of addictive patterns of behavior for millions worldwide. Father Judge was a recovering alcoholic and involved in helping others achieve sobriety and peacefulness from the specters that haunt the heart and psyche of those realizing their lives have become unmanageable due to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling or other addictions. Someone once told me that AA’s “Big Book” was the most printed book of the 20th century, surpassing even the Bible, although I have found no reliable statistics to support such a claim. Regardless, one cannot deny that it has touched countless people and positively impacted innumerable spiritual crises, which addictions always are.
Father Judge was deeply in communion with his own Higher Power, which as a Catholic priest he recognized in the triune God, a figure utterly transcendent and yet intimately personal. I often tell my students that there is nothing wrong with denying the image of a bearded man on a throne in the clouds zapping people with lightening or cancer. That’s not denying God — that’s denying Zeus, and a perfectly legitimate intellectual and theological refusal at that. It’s quite a different thing to deny the pulsating energy that created the worlds and that rationally grounds all of reality; the purposeful direction that serves to counter the theory that the end of the narrative is pain and meaninglessness, whether of that fateful day a decade ago or of the eventual destruction of our planet in fire or ice; the committed Love itself for whom all of our experiences of earthly love are merely prelude and bright reflection.
When it comes to the physical and metaphysical universe, as both Erasmus and Carl Jung put it, and Father Judge lived out amidst suicidal frenzy and crumbling buildings, “bidden or not, God is present.”
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.