Since the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands died at sites in lower Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington, the people of New York City have read about and talked about the person who was listed as the first to die that day — Mychal Judge, OFM. Recently, two men who knew him compiled their thoughts about the friar who served as chaplain of the Fire Department of New York for close to 10 years before being killed by falling debris while giving last rites at the World Trade Center.
The first reflection is by Salvatore Cassano, a firefighter since 1969, who served as FDNY commissioner from 2010 to 2014. The second was written by Michael Daly, a newspaper reporter and columnist who wrote The Book of Mychal: the Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Mychal Judge, published in 2008.
Salvatore Cassano Recalls “the Good Father”
Fr. Mychal was a special person who happened to be one of our chaplains in the FDNY. He touched so many people in the department in ways that people never knew. He was a moving force at the funerals, plaque dedications, memorial services and many other functions at which he officiated, through his powerful yet comforting words. However, it was what Fr. Mychal did behind the scenes that won the hearts of the FDNY’s members and their families.
If someone was having a problem in their personal lives, he had a way of finding out and showing up at their house ready and able to assist them. He had a way of reaching people at the worst times of their lives and helping them work through their problems. We all knew that Fr. Mychal would be there for us and never question what we did, and that his only concern was how he could help.
There were occasions when I would meet Fr. Mychal at a firehouse or get a call from him and hear his voice pleading for leniency for someone who may have broken the rules. It was typical Fr. Mychal, always seeing the good in people and being ready to forgive and forget. At an awards ceremony that Fr. Mychal attended, a good friend of mine was a recipient. Fr. Mychal had never met him, and yet he made him feel like the most important person in the world. He talked with and listened to him as if he had known him for years, and my friend has never forgotten his one encounter with Fr. Mychal. This is the same reaction that anyone had who was lucky enough to meet the good Father.
On Sept. 10 2001, Fr. Mychal gave his famous last homily at the dedication of a newly renovated firehouse. It was almost like he saw a tragedy approaching and reminded everyone in attendance — active or retired — of their responsibilities to the job and each other. On Sept. 11, 2001, Fr. Mychal responded to the World Trade Center when he was notified of the attack. I met up with him on nearby West Street and spoke briefly with him before he went to comfort the firefighters on the scene. Just his presence there meant the world to us. The rest is history.
We were blessed to have Fr. Mychal Judge as one of our chaplains and doubly blessed to have him there as our shepherd at the World Trade Center on September 11.
Michael Daly Describes “Bridge” Who Connects People
In the waning days of the last summer of his mortal life, FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge finished a single scoop ice cream on Coney Island and began the long walk back to the friary in Manhattan.
I was tagging along that day, having first met Mychal back in 1994, when FDNY Captain John Drennan was terribly burned in a fire and fought a biblical 40 days before succumbing. I had quickly come to recognize him to be a fire chaplain in the way Babe Ruth was a baseball player. And I had since learned that he was equally magnificent in his ministering to the homeless and people with AIDS. Mychal was no longer young, but his step still possessed a young man’s vigor, and I had to work at keeping pace with him as we started across the Brooklyn Bridge. The office spires of Manhattan rose before us, most prominently the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which gleamed in the sun off to the left.
But to Mychal, the most marvelous structure was the one under his Franciscan sandals.
“There is just something about the Brooklyn Bridge,” he often said.
Mychal saw magnificence not in soaring skyward but in reaching across, as this bridge did from shore to shore, as he himself did from person to person, both with the same unadorned, yet elegant grace.
He never seemed to be much taken with the city’s skyscrapers. He was forever thrilled by its great swirl of people and he delighted in spanning their differences — religious, social, economic, racial, sexual.
As he now came off the bridge into Manhattan, Mychal gave no sign of even noticing the Twin Towers. He smiled on seeing a ragged figure who would be taken by most passersby as a pitiable symbol of homelessness.
“Hello, Richard,” Mychal said.
The man lit up.
“Father Mychal!” he said.
And then it appeared between them, a bridge built of small talk and smiles that was more remarkable than any structure of steel and glass. The span was anchored at each end by mutual recognition and engineered by a theology as universal as the principles employed to construct the Brooklyn Bridge.
In Mychal’s view, God is to be found in goodness just as the devil is to be found in evil. He was of the belief that we can find God in others by recognizing the good in them. And in that very recognition, we make good and therefore God stronger.
At the end, Mychal handed Richard one of the dollar bills that he made sure to carry for such encounters. The bill was as always nearly folded lengthwise, a crease of ritual care carrying a faint shimmer of the Mass. The dollar seemed as transubstantiated as anything so unconsecrated as money could ever be.
Not a month later, Mychal was in the lobby of the stricken North Tower, a presence recognizing the good, the God, of the firefighters who were ascending unto hell on high to save people of whatever persuasion, differences at this moment meaning nothing at all.
The photo taken that morning of Mychal’s mortal remains being carried from the ruins struck many as a holy picture. He was officially recorded as the first fatality and in the years that followed, his spirit has remained a symbol of the day that perfect good rose in response to absolute evil.
Mychal’s name is inscribed along with the names of all the 9/11 dead around the edges of the twin memorial pools that mark the footprints where the two towers once stood.
A single steel and glass tower has now risen there, but the place to go is the Brooklyn Bridge, which continues to span from shore to shore, as Mychal did from person to person.
In truth, Mychal was himself a kind of bridge, one that still extends by the power of spirit and example between the differences that separate us.
Histories of New York note the changes that came when the Brooklyn Bridge joined Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Mychal changed New York by connecting us one to another, most dramatically at our darkest hour, but also on all the days that he walked among us.
The connections remain. We need only recognize them.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, holy day or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. The previous reflection, about a summer experience in Africa, was written by George Camacho, OFM. Additional friar reflections can be found on the Spiritual Resources page, as well as on the blogs of HNP members and ministries.
- “Sept. 11 Observances Planned, Mychal Judge Remembered” — Aug. 29, 2015, HNP Today
- “Achievement Award, Book Recognize Mychal Judge” — Dec. 3, 2008, HNP Today
- “New Mychal Judge Statue to be Dedicated June 14” — May 27, 2015, HNP Today