Father Mychal Judge was a Catholic priest who served as the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. On Sept. 11, 2001, as word spread about the terror attacks, Father Judge rushed to the North Tower of the World Trade Center and began to pray over the bodies, and administer last rites to those who were dying. At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed and sent objects flying into the neighboring building. A large piece of debris hit Father Judge in the head, killing him.
Father Judge exhibited everything that is great about the men who serve in the Roman Catholic Church. He is a saint in all but the strictest terms, his halo made of the dust and glass shards that filled the air on 9/11.
I tell you his story mostly because I want you to remember him, this man who ran into the maelstrom to give comfort during what were his own final hours. I tell you about him because I want you to remember that this is the template of the priests of my faith, the ones who sacrificed their own lives so that others could be brought closer to God.
But I tell you his story for another reason. After weeks of crushing narratives about priests who hurt people, I think it’s important to acknowledge the majority of the men who answered a call. These are men who followed a path that very few are capable of managing with grace, courage, humor, and the indispensable gift of humility.
Before you accuse me of deflection and of an attempt to minimize the pain of abuse victims, you should know that the first version of this column was a reckoning with the institutional church hierarchy for its sins, crimes, and omissions. It was an examination of the accusations against the pope and the suggestion from an Italian archbishop that Francis knew about the victimization of both children and adult seminarians by now-disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. My keyboard came loaded for bear, the callouses on my fingers testify to how hard I pounded away at it.
But then, I took a deep breath and realized that I was one voice among many. Thousands upon thousands have expressed their solidarity with the victims and their fury at the men and women who helped cover up the trail. My own words would simply echo those sympathies.
And so I decided to talk about Mychal Judge, who gave his life for his church and his people. Judge was gay, and struggled to fit into a church that saw homosexuality as evil, but was transformed by the grace of God and the need to create a bridge between that God and the marginalized: sick, homeless, immigrants, the addicted, and those who are gay.
And I decided to talk about Father Frans Van der Lugt, a Jesuit who was murdered when he refused to abandon his small community of Christians in the Syrian town of Homs, a town that was under siege in the ongoing civil war.
And I decided to talk about priests who have been killed by Muslim extremists in France, by terrorists in the Philippines, by drug traffickers in Mexico.
None of this excuses the crimes detailed in the recent grand jury reports. None of this is meant to be a shiny bright thing that steals attention away from the sickening revelations made by Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
This is simply a reminder that there are good men who are unable to speak for themselves because they are silenced by their own sorrow and decency. Even though the crimes were committed by others, often before they themselves were even born, these good priests who stand at the altar and minister to the faithful bear, by proxy, their shame. They have been confronted, like politicians at town hall meetings, by furious parishioners. Some have made public penance, and were met with derision and shouts of “nothing you ever do or say will be enough.”
And the op-ed writers and lawyers and abuse advocates all point fingers and say that only when the constitutions are shredded to eliminate statutes of limitations, and only when we rise up like Martin Luther to drastically change the church, will penance be sufficient.
I’m here to say that as we throw bodies into the mouth of the vengeful beast, we stop and reflect on Mychal Judge and his martyred brothers.