Franciscan Influences: Life is Changed, Not Taken Away

Kelly Ann Lynch Features

This is the ninth in a series of essays from the Province’s partners-in-ministry who want to share their respect for Franciscan values. The previous one, written by Michael Templeton of Providence, R.I., appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of HNP Today.

Below, Kelly Ann Lynch, co-founder of Mychal’s Message, thinks back on her years of friendship with Mychal Judge, OFM, and how that relationship led to many more for her and her family with Franciscan friars and sisters.

“Life is changed, not taken away.” These words were words stamped in purple ink on a white satin ribbon handed to me by Rev. Everett Wabst at the annual Fr. Mychal F. Judge Walk of Remembrance in New York City recently.

For me — and for all those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001 — life is changed. And though the earthly life of Franciscan priest and FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge may have ended abruptly on that fateful day, life is not taken away. Faith offers us the great gift in believing that life has no end and continues for Fr. Mychal in eternity with God, the angels and saints. We also believe that Mychal’s spirit lives on through others who continue to live and share his message — Mychal’s Message.

Forever Changing America’s History
We can all recall where we were on that Sept. 11, a day in America’s history that would forever change the future of a country that believes in freedom, equality and justice, a country whose founding fathers trusted in and relied on God. When unthinkable acts of terror took away the lives of innocent people, including our own Fr. Mychal, life would never be the same. Sadness, fear and anger surfaced that day but were followed almost innately by true acts of compassion, kindness, self-sacrifice and love.

I was in the car coming home from Mass that evening in Lancaster, Pa., when my husband called. I could tell by the sound of his voice that the news was not good.

“It’s Fr. Mychal,” he told me. “He was killed in the Twin Towers attack today.” I could feel my heart sink into a sea of sadness and emptiness.

“They’ve recovered his body,” my husband said. “He’s the first officially recorded death from today.”

I had known Mychal all my life. My father was an altar boy for him back in the 1960s at St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, N.J. My father recently recalled those early years at Mass with Fr. Mychal. “He was happy and joyful in proclaiming the gospel,” my father said, “and my faith is what it is today because of him.”

Saving a Life
Mychal was there for my father’s family, and then he was there for ours. When my father lost his own father, when my parents were married, when my sisters, brother and I were born and baptized, and when my sister died — he was the one who guided my parents, my family. And, years later, when my own daughter, Shannon, was born and needed a liver transplant to survive, Mychal continued to guide us.

Shannon was just seven months old at the time of her transplant when we opted for a new and experimental living donor liver transplant. In only the 17th operation of its kind in the United States, a third of my liver was removed and transplanted into my daughter.

Fr. Mychal blessed Shannon before that transplant and reminded my family to trust God and to let go of unnecessary worry and fear. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” he told us. “God hasn’t even created tomorrow yet.” He explained that I must let go of Shannon so that God could work within her, a difficult concept to grasp for a young new mother of 23, but it was necessary in moving forward.

Shannon survived the surgery, and Mychal continued to track her progress. I can still recall the nurse tip-toeing into Shannon’s hospital room after the transplant in the wee hours of the morning. “I have Fr. Mychal Judge on the phone for you,” she’d whisper. His soothing voice, joyful spirit and prayerful witness of the true presence of God were as much a part of him as his brown robe and sandals. He was the most Christ-like person I’d ever known, and he became the shepherd who would lead us through dark and difficult times with eyes always fixed on God.

When Shannon had to return back to the hospital six years post-transplant with elevated liver labs, I called Fr. Mychal right away. “Let go,” he reminded me. “Let go again.” He prayed for us and with us, and Shannon was started on a new medication that would allow her to heal, grow and live.

Celebrating One Life, Remembering Another
My daughter was 11 when Mychal died. She had a framed photo of him in her bedroom and knew his prayers and presence in her life were integral parts of who she was, of who she would become. And amidst overwhelming sadness and grief for our family, it was Shannon who discovered the way for us to move forward.

As we approached the anniversary of her life-saving liver transplant that January, Shannon said, “I have an idea.” Her idea — to collect socks for the homeless in memory of Mychal — was a way to celebrate her life by remembering his. Our family embraced this simple idea by asking all those we knew to send socks for the homeless to Shannon.

Every day, new packages arrived on our front porch filled with socks for men, women and children — tiny lace socks, slipper socks, socks with patterns, dress socks and tube socks. Before long, Shannon had collected 1,500 pairs of socks. A printed card with Fr. Mychal’s prayer was attached to each pair. And weeks later, as those first socks were being distributed to the homeless on the breadline of St. Francis Church in New York City, we realized that the prayer was as important as the socks: “Lord, take me where You want me to go, let me meet who You want me to meet, tell me what You want me to say, and keep me out of Your way.”

The prayer became Mychal’s Message. He inspired Shannon; Shannon inspired us; and Mychal’s Message was born.

It was during that first socks distribution that a homeless man approached my mother and asked her for underwear. “I know what I want for my birthday this year,” my mother told us later that day. “Men’s underwear.” And our second project —“Blessed Bloomers” — was created.

Socks led to underwear; underwear led to sneakers; sneakers led to coats. As we continued to walk in Fr. Mychal’s footsteps, we began to learn about the needs of some of the men and women he loved so much. I can still recall the homeless man we knew as John. He carried his belongings in several plastic grocery bags in each hand. “I’m hungry,” he told us one day after the breadline’s food and coffee were already put away.

As we listened, we discovered that John didn’t need any food. He had a bag full of canned foods from the food pantry. What John needed that day was a can opener. Mychal’s Message has given away over 300,000 new items to the homeless and poor since 2002, but we have only given away one can opener. That day, we witnessed how a simple can opener eased one man’s hunger.

Forging New Friendships
Walking in Mychal’s footsteps has allowed us to meet many Franciscan priests, brothers and sisters, and we have experienced something described best by Michael Duffy, OFM, in his homily at Mychal’s Mass of Christian Burial. Fr. Michael described the Picasso painting of two hands holding a bouquet of flowers. “The artist was clever enough to draw the hands in the exact same angle,” Michael said, “so you don’t know who’s receiving and who’s giving. It’s the same way Mychal related to people.”

Michael was one of the first people I called after learning of Mychal’s death. We were hurting, grieving and feeling an unexplainable loss deep within our souls. Fr. Michael understood our pain. He felt it, too. Setting aside his own grief that day, he shared words of comfort, love and support with our family.

On the breadline, Thomas Cole, OFM, was one of the first Franciscans we would meet. With exuberant joy, he embraced our family and our ministry. And as I witnessed a new friendship between my children and a Franciscan brother, my heart began to experience newfound joy.

Cassian Miles, OFM, greeted us early one bitter cold February morning on the breadline. A gentle, kind and humble servant of God, Fr. Cassian was a classmate of our own Mychal Judge. “I had to come and meet this family,” he later told us, “who had traveled all the way from Lancaster, Pa., to help the breadline in New York City.”

That day, my children witnessed a Franciscan priest greeting homeless men and women in the same fashion that they greeted their friends back home, and they learned lessons that could never be learned in a classroom. Cassian embraced our family and our new ministry; a friendship was made that would last forever; and life’s journey would be forever changed because of the positive impact Fr. Cassian had on all our lives.

Michael Carnevale, OFM, would become a liaison between us and the homeless men and women, sharing messages and making us aware of the needs of our homeless brothers and sisters. “You inspire us,” we told him, “with your faith witness and life of service to God.” Fr. Michael still greets us in the early morning hour, when we arrive with loaded vans to the breadline.

Jerome Massimino, OFM, while pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, invited me into his office one September day — the same room Mychal had lived in until his death. As I entered the room, tears began to fill my eyes. With such sensitivity, Jerome began to explain how the room looked when Mychal was there. “His desk was here,” he shared, “and his closet, his mirror were here. He combed his hair, standing right here, before he left this room for the last time.”

Taking the Walk
Each year, on the Sunday before Sept. 11, hundreds gather as a faith community to honor and remember Fr. Mychal Judge and all those who gave their lives on that fateful day. In an annual “Walk of Remembrance,” led by NYPD detective Steven McDonald, his wife Patti Ann, their son Conor and friend Captain John Bates, the walk begins by praying the rosary and celebrating Mass. We retrace the final steps of Fr. Mychal to Ground Zero. Christopher Keenan, OFM, leads us in prayer as we stop along the route and remember those who gave their lives. The immeasurable value of that walk comes in remembering, in sharing stories that changed lives, and in the recognition that we do not walk alone.

The Franciscan priests, brothers and sisters have witnessed to us, guided us, and supported us on this life’s journey. On Sept. 11 this year, I observed the most beautiful conversation between my daughter, Erin Mary — now 10 years old, and Fr. Christopher, as he explained in words she could understand how Mychal died. An inquisitive child who was born just months before we lost our friend, Erin Mary’s life has been one of ministry, with her first trip to the breadline at just 11 months old.

“Did Fr. Mychal suffer?” she asked Chris. “Was he afraid?” With patience, love and sensitivity, he answered each of the many questions Erin Mary had.

Fr. Mychal Judge exuded for us a true Franciscan spirit in the way he lived his life in “preaching the gospel every day, using words only when necessary.” In 2007, Paulist Press published a children’s picture book. Written by me and illustrated by my friend M. Scott Oatman, He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge was written to allow a new generation of children to know the man who simply loved and simply changed lives.

kelly-rIn 2009, my mother and I were professed into the Secular Franciscan Order, a blessing and an honor that could not have been realized without Mychal’s influence in our lives. To be counted among the same Franciscans we respect, honor and love is for us a gift beyond measure. Those fellow Franciscans allow us to see Christ on earth and make him present to us each day in their simplicity, joy and faith.

Life is changed, not taken away for me, my family and my children. As I watched my son serve on the altar at Mass before the Walk of Remembrance this year, I wondered if he realized what an honor that was. “We know,” my husband told me. My children have grown up with summer vacations and Broadway shows. They have visited the Vatican and the White House. But the experiences they have had in soup kitchens and on breadlines and in knowing the Franciscan priests, brothers and sisters we now call friends are beyond measure in their spiritual growth. There, they have learned to judge not and to love simply in the true spirit of Fr. Mychal, the Franciscans and Jesus Christ.

— Kelly Ann Lynch, co-founder of Mychal’s Message and author of He Said Yes: The Story of Father Mychal Judge, lives in Lancaster, Pa., with her husband, Joseph, daughters, Shannon and Erin Mary, and son, Christopher (shown in photo behind the image above).