Editor's note: Father Mychal Judge was a Franciscan priest who served as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. He was killed on September 11, 2001 ministering to the firefighters he loved after the World Trade Center was attacked.
Fox News Legal Analyst and attorney Peter Johnson, Jr. delivered a remembrance and appreciation of his friend at Father Judge’s funeral mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan a few days later.
The mass was celebrated by Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York and was attended by former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. family and friends and hundreds of New York City’s bravest and finest.
TRIBUTE TO FATHER MYCHAL F. JUDGE
Your Eminence, Cardinal Egan, President Clinton, Senator Clinton, Mayor Dinkins, Mr. Controller, Mr. Public Advocate, Family, Friends, Firefighters and Friends. ``Don't worry about me. Help the thousands.'' Mychal says to us.
I see him kneeling gently, hear him speaking in a firm and lilting whisper, his large hands making reassuring contact with a dying firefighter, his warm eyes focused and loving and deep, communicating the wisdom of almost seventy years and the spirituality of a millennium. Enveloped in the unshakeable concentration of the prayers he knew and lived so faithfully, shrouded in his own mystical but practical Catholic belief, oblivious to the risk of harm that rained from the sky, he died as he lived, trying to save a life, to save a soul in our city on a sunny, not so perfect September morning.
Friar's friar, firefighter, warrior for the Lord and New Yorker--I can't help believing that Erin and Dymphna, your beloved Emmet, who wanted to be a priest at the age of four, our beloved Mychal--in the swirling and fiery wind tunnel of the majestic twin towers, helmet off in respect to our creator, lifted his lovely tenor voice and uttered a final Alleluia as he rode the winds aloft, smiling broadly as he shot one final mortal glance at what his model St. Francis of Assisi called ``burning sun with golden beam and silver moon with softer gleam.''
Father Mike, it's not that we hardly knew ya that makes you leaving this earth so hard. It's that we all knew you so well and depended on you so much that hurts so much.
Though you were neither a husband nor a father, you became a model for husbands and fathers.
Though you never trained on a hose on a fire or experienced the pain of being a firefighter's widow, you became a model for firefighters and the widowed.
Though up until recently you never felt the anxiety of sickness, you became a guide for the sick.
You taught us that the St. Francis Prayer was not merely a bookmark but a living, speaking roadmap for our daily lives as New Yorkers. We saw your greatness up close and personally. But we respectfully ask why were you so strong?
As Father Pecci pointed out last night at the wake service maybe it was the countless windows and shoes you polished and shined on Dean Street in Brooklyn as a child. Or was it the constancy and strength of example of your mother who balanced the needs of a dying husband, a house and three young children in the Depression?
I have not seen your sisters Erin and Dymphna for some time. So I asked Dymphna last night, what made Mychal great? She said it best: ``With Michael there were no narrow truths. There was only wide open possibility.''
As I stepped outside onto 32nd Street near Penn Station last night to get some air, I was struck by the wide world of possibilities that Mychal lived in. I noticed how much more alive the street has become in just in twenty-four hours.
A saxophone could be heard--``Amazing Grace''--the musician played. The smell of fried food in the air. Taxis racing down the street. Men and women laughing in conversation near a parked delivery truck. Mychal would say ``How marvelous. What a strong and dynamic people we are!''
And I looked at the faces on the street behind us. In Mychal's words: ``Peter, look at these faces. Brown and black and yellow and white. Such good minds, such strong hands, such hard workers. Such a resilient city. There is nothing like a New Yorker. We're back.''
In that moment I had an understanding of the incessant activity that Mychal often heard from his room on 31st Street. The same vitality that so energized him even when he was bone tired from caring for the families of the victims of Flight 800 when he would answer the phone or pager and respond to an emergency to support a stricken firefighter. And that was Mychal too. He naturally saw the very best of himself in others.
And in a strange way we slowly but surely began to see a little bit of Mychal in all of us. His dynamic strength, his good mind and his strong hands were always in evidence. Whether he was helping lift his dear friend paralyzed hero Detective Steven McDonald onto a rough stone road in Northern Ireland, to go another ten miles on the path to peace and reconciliation.
Or riding Splash Mountain at Disney with Conor McDonald, who helps serve the mass.
Or at the bedside of his friar friend forever, Patty Fitzgerald, in an Israeli hospital--fifty years of friendship on Saturday.
Or anointing the forehead of a sick man with aids in a small Chelsea studio apartment.
Or arm in arm with our missing hero Patty Brown, comforting the family of hero firefighters like the late Captain John Drennan in a New York Hospital burn unit, Mychal was equally at home in the brown robe and sandals of a friar or the uniform of a New York City fire officer and always in an encouraging and positive way motivating us to do bigger and better things.
He was comfortable visiting President and Senator Clinton or President and Mrs. Bush in the East Wing of the White House, the portico of Gracie Mansion with Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani and the Cardinal's Residence with the late Cardinal O'Connor and now Cardinal Egan.
But he was really at home in a Times Square shelter for single mothers conducting Midnight Mass on Christmas eve, cradling a small plastic doll in its role as the baby Jesus or in a firehouse kitchen helping reunite a couple whose marriage was strained by the job.
This church is full of families he united. Being at Ground Zero--wherever it was-- was his life, and his death.
Mychal loved Christ and loved his family and yes, he loved us, the people of New York. This morning, we unfortunately see only his casket. But I dreamt the other night of Mychal, walking and walking and walking; I guess the constant motion of his life: In a power walk from 31st Street and Seventh Avenue to Coney Island and the Atlantic Ocean, in his crisply pressed uniform on a blustery Saint Patrick's day waving, to the crowd like a matinee idol, hands outstretched to hug our children for a moment, flashing a knowing, almost shy smile and then jogging back to the line of march. Walking the streets greeting on a first name basis the homeless and friendless, many of whom wore the Christmas and birthday gifts that many in this congregation wrapped so nicely for Mychal to wear.
He loved to watch the fireworks, a ride on a fire boat, a thick deep piece of apple pie with ice cream.
Both most of all, he loved the call to service, the romance of duty, the necessity of honor. He was a bridge between people. Friars and firefighters, Christians and Jews, able and disabled. He grafted spirituality onto our Bill of Rights.
You see, Mychal was proud to be an American. Not in the quaint sense of a Norman Rockwell painting or in your face flag waver, although flag waving is good too.
I recall two connected events to demonstrate his palpable pride. I urged Mychal to become the Fire Chaplain, to fill late Friar Father Julian Deeken's large shoes.
Shortly after he assumed his duties, there was a report of a ship run aground, and yes, even a landing of Chinese nationals with guns, according to the Park Police, in the Rockaways. I was an honorary firefighter and pro bono adviser to Mayor Dinkins, and so Mychal called me, said he would be by to get me in a few minutes and we took off in the middle of the night.
Just as we started to get to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the radio started to crackle with confirmation of a large ship aground with passengers in the water. Mychal gunned the Chevy, hit the lights and sirens, both which reflected and reverberated off the tunnel walls. I felt like I was in the middle of Studio 54. I said ``Mike, what are you doing? Slow down.'' He looked straight ahead laughed and said: "No this is good. I'm not sure what we've got here but we can do good things together.''
I'll never forget what we saw that chilly morning. Helicopters in the air. A large broken ship battered by the waves off shore and a beach full of shaking, shivering and soaked Chinese men who had paid dearly and almost with their lives to reach the safe haven of America. They did not speak a word of English and he did not speak Chinese, but it did not deter Mychal.
Within a few minutes he was handing out blankets, coffee and telling jokes. And they laughed. An immigration officer warned him of the dangers of disease from the men--tuberculosis, hepatitis. Mychal said thank you, ignored the warning and continued on as he was inclined to do.
We returned home to Manhattan later that morning and ate an enormous breakfast, ``Mychal, you're a bright guy. They could be very sick.'' To which he replied: ``When I travel half way round the world I get a blanket and a cup of coffee. They're our guests and they deserve no less. They only want what we were born into.'' As usual Mychal had done good things.
Maybe we know why: A few days after July 4th, our daughters Blanche and Veronica, eight and six, received a handwritten note addressed to them. Blanche recognized the distinctive note paper and handwriting and read to her sister at the kitchen table:
"Friday evening, July 6, 2001, 10:00 p.m. My dearest Blanche and Veronica Felicity. Earlier this evening I walked to the new walk along the Hudson-Little West 12th Street to the Battery. It is a wonderful promenade and a great place for Bladers--Someday both of you will be most proficient at that and you'll be there often'' And they will. The letter continued: "I sat and gazed at Lady Liberty--so majestic with her torch burning brightly and thought of the great feelings of joy and happiness and hope that my mother and father experienced when they saw her as their boat came into New York Harbor--it was their dream come true. 1921--oh so long ago. They had no idea of all the blessings and a few sorrows that lie ahead of them. They were so brave and had such faith and trust in God, that, that he brought them to these shores and that he would care for them.''
The note paper and the distinctive penmanship were those of Mychal Judge, friar and firefighter. And it was then when I heard our oldest daughter read these simply eloquent words to our youngest daughter that I began to understand Mychal's rush to the Rockaways.
As he and the late Captain Grethel and late Firefighter Weinberg raced down Seventh Avenue did Mychal think about his little rollerbladers, Blanche and Veronica?
Did his mind rush back to pleasant barbecues and lasagna dinners in Northern New Jersey?
Did he think of the woman who came to this church and presented Father John Pierce with a tiny American flag in honor of Mychal who had guided her so well when she lost her son last year or of Erin or Dymphna and the prospect of a trip to see them in Maryland, reading books and just talking? Of the people he had not yet met who would need his services at the friary that day upon his return? Of how he could be made an instrument of peace or consolation or harmony? Or as he pondered the blazing twin towers and the desperate New Yorkers ending their suffering by jumping sometimes arms linked from the inferno, did he try to summon and recreate the innocent but great feelings of joy and happiness and hope that his parents felt when they saw the Lady in the Harbor?
We'll not know the answer on this Earth.
But we do know that Mychal died as he lived and as his parents lived-- bravely, having such faith and trusting God and loving this land that God made.
Mychal, you taught so many of us that we can only be enslaved, victimized or terrorized by our demons if we so consent. In the coming months we will call upon your memory and your inspired example of faith, sacrifice and determination and rely upon your prayers to help strengthen and console and raise all of us up.
Today, from the well of our sorrow filled with the bitter tears of our loss, we will tend to our garden, emboldened by the faith and trust in God you exemplified and from which the joy and happiness and hope you aspired to will flower again. In an even more resplendent but Mychal Judge less American century.
Peter Johnson Jr. is a lawyer and Fox News legal analyst.