When the news reports told of the Fire Department chaplain I was not surprised that it was Fr. Mychal Judge. He died the way he lived.
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - I met Fr. Mychal Judge at LaGuardia Airport in 1999. I was out of breath, sweating and irritated. He was at peace.It was an unusually hot day, and I was literally running to make the plane. I almost missed the flight on Ireland's finest, Aer Lingus. Fr. Mike greeted me with that gregarious manner and those smiling Irish eyes that I would soon come to cherish because they revealed the essence of this wonderful priest of God.
"Glad to finally meet you, I have heard much about you," he said. "Cool down, you have made it." With those few words he calmed my spirit and seemed to lower my body temperature at least twenty degrees.I felt immediately comfortable in his presence. It was those smiling eyes and the presence of the God whom he served so well. Joy and peace seemed to emanate from those eyes.
We began a trip together that would forever change my view of life, the Church, the world and my own sense of a call to promote reconciliation in the Body of Christ, the Christian community and through her, to the world.I had been invited to be a part of a mission team to Northern Ireland called "Project Reconciliation" by Dennis Lynch, a friend and a true patriot.At the time I was serving the Presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. The mission (entirely funded by an anonymous gift from another great American whom I will now name—Steve Forbes) was a peace mission led by a contemporary hero of mine, Detective Steven McDonald.
Steven's story has been told and retold. I believe that it should be required reading for all who over the next few weeks seek to make sense out of the horrible violence that has besieged our beloved country.A police officer with a great career ahead of him, Steven had been on duty years ago as one of New York's finest. We have all experienced the quality of New York Officers over these last weeks.
While interrupting a robbery already in progress, young Steven McDonald was shot at point blank range by a young black assailant. He, his family, and many, many others would never be the same.Steven was rendered quadriplegic and left in a coma. During his extraordinary time of recovery, while he struggled with the understandable rage, anger and profound depression that often accompany such injury, the Lord visited with Steven and told him that forgiveness was the only path to peace.
When he was shot, Detective McDonald's beautiful wife, Patti Ann, was carrying their first child, a son, whom they would name Connor. All three of them carried someone else within their hearts, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.Though faithful Catholics, they never imagined that their faith would be tested like the Saints, by the fire that came upon them on that violent day. But, like all saints and heroes, the fire itself forged them into the gold of heaven on earth.
Since the shooting, Steven has been an instrument of peace like Francis of Assisi. He proclaims to anyone who will listen from the weakest to the most powerful, that forgiveness is the only path to peace. And they do listen. Steven has visited several nations and has been given citizenship in his beloved Ireland.When Steven speaks, you have to listen closely because he has a tracheotomy tube for breathing and has to speak in a whisper. But he doesn't really have to use words; he has eyes that radiate the peace that fills his weakened body. Just his presence with his loving wife and son by his side speaks volumes about the mystery and beauty of forgiveness and love.
He began to learn the truth of the message himself when the Lord who had visited his bed asked him to first forgive the young man who had shot him. He did so out of obedience at first, but he found a joy unspeakable—an enemy became a friend. Since that day, Steven has been a peacemaker and has experienced the blessing promised to those who accept the invitation.
The whole McDonald family reached out to this young man and he became a friend of the family—until he himself was taken by a senseless act of street violence.So they continue their campaign for peace through forgiveness, traversing the globe with missionary zeal. They, like others who have trodden this path, have gathered friends around them.
One of those friends was Fr. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest who was the Chaplain to the Fire and Police Departments. Then Cardinal O'Connor (of blessed memory) was so moved by Steven's mission, that he asked Fr. Mychal to provide ongoing priestly care to this modern day missionary.They were, as my dear mother says, "two peas in a pod" Steven and "Fr. Mike." Two Irish men with smiling eyes, a love for Ireland (and America) and hearts full of laughter. Fr. Mychal loved Steven. He knew that though racked with constant pain, Steven had found the path to peace and the balm of the Saints.
He pushed Steven's wheel chair with both gratitude and a dignity that one had to experience because words cannot express the beauty. Steven loved Fr. Mike. Theirs was a friendship unlike any I had experienced.Fr. Mike became a member of the McDonald family, playing with young Conner and affirming the extraordinary tough sanctity of Steven's beloved and beautiful wife Patti Ann.He also became a mentor to each of us on that missionary trip. He taught by both his actions and his words. His message was love.
The mission was a mission of peace to the North of Ireland. Our team consisted of Catholics, Protestants and members of the Bruederhoff community whose leaders had found solidarity with Steven's message of peace.The week came on the heels of the now famous Good Friday accords and included moments that I will never forget. They included meetings with Jerry Adams; Stevens profound message to the Stormont (The Parliament of the North); an ecumenical prayer meeting on the day of the decision concerning the accord; a bomb scare… and an evacuation, on the day that the commission on parades issued its report on marches. That is only the beginning.
I have, all these years later, only begun to unpack the prophetic depth of the experience. I saw in the streets of Belfast, in the bombed out buildings, the physical manifestation of the brokenness of the Body of Christ. I came home to my beloved America with an even keener commitment to help heal the wounds in the Body of Christ.I came to see that what was visible in the bombed out buildings in the North of Ireland is hidden in the hearts of Christians in America who still sin against the Body of Christ by harboring hate and wounding one another with words.
Little did I expect to see the bombed out buildings in New York that week.It reminded me of Belfast and of Fr. Mike.I guess when I heard that a priest had died giving the last Sacrament to a firefighter, I was not surprised to hear that it was Fr. Mike. Neither was Fr. Mychal I am sure. He was ready.He died the way he lived, as a saint and an instrument of peace. We now know that he removed his hat to honor his fallen comrade and as he pronounced the prayers of the Church he joined him in the loving embrace of the Father of us all.
Throughout the week we spent in Ireland, "Fr. Mike" always had an insight, a spiritual message, a joke, or just an encouraging word. Like a trained servant he was always there to make sure that Steven was cared for, fed, not overly drained of the little energy he miraculously multiplies by faith. He watched out for Patti Ann and for Connor. He never complained of fatigue but served, pouring himself out like the One of whom Saint Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi:
"Who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped but emptied Himself becoming as a Servant…" That "emptying out" is from the Greek word "kenosis," and it literally means being poured out. That describes Fr. Mike, always poured out for others.
And He was real—not an ounce of pretense in Fr. Mychal Judge. When we visited the Lord mayor of Belfast or when we had the privilege upon our travels to the South to meet with the President of the South, he was always the same, a priest and a pilgrim with no pretense, only the dignity of his priestly soul.And of course, those eyes, smiling for all to see.
His loyalty and real, earthy, gutsy sanctity were like a sweet aroma in a country that has been besieged by the horrible stench of death and despair. He loved as the Sacred scriptures say "in word and in deed"—and those who had the joy of meeting him were embraced by the moment. Like the founder of his religious community, Francis, Fr. Mike was (is) a true peacemaker sowing love where there was hate, pardon for injury, and joy on the fertile fields of sorrow that are the streets of Belfast and the country side of the North.
On the only day that rest was planned during our trip, after a tiring and emotionally intense week, Fr. Mike made sure that Steven found his ancestral home and worked until all were settled for the night.And in it all he found time for me, coming to my room one night when I was struggling and offering a fatherly and brotherly heart, priestly counsel and a couple of great jokes!
Most of the time, Fr. Mike wore the habit of his religious community, the Franciscans. But one night a few of us were to meet for a casual dinner, and he came in his jean jacket and blue jeans. He took an almost childlike delight in dressing that way. It revealed his innocence. Not naiveté mind you, this man had tasted the depths of death in his ministry and was himself a recovered alcoholic. He understood suffering and saw the face of Jesus in those who were schooled in its path. It was real honest to goodness innocence and humility. He understood how to play.
When the news reports told of the Fire Department chaplain who had responded with the kind of love written of in the text of the Sacred Scripture: "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brethren"—I was not surprised that it was Fr. Mychal Judge.Then I saw those smiling eyes, and I wept.
Days later Cardinal Egan proclaimed in a profound homily that "Ground Zero" had become "Ground Hero." Amen! And Fr. Mike is leading the throng in songs of joy in the presence of the One whom He served so well.Well done good and faithful servant, priest of God.Well done.
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