A Vigil of Hope on Eve of Pope's Ground Zero Visit recalls Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge

by: Brendan Fay

I joined other New Yorkers for a “Vigil of Hope” at Ground Zero on April 19 the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the site. Our vigil honored Franciscan Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge, who died during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

John Maynard played slow airs on the bagpipes outside St Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero on the corner of Broadway and Fulton, as Raymond Lefebre, Nicholas Cimato and myself reverently unfurled a seven foot painting by Brooklyn artist Ian Hart. The banner depicts scenes from the Fr. Mychal Judge's ministry, including: caring for Golden Venture Chinese immigrants, as a Fire Chaplain, at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland,walking with his St. Francis AIDS Ministry in a gay pride parade and embracing Henry a homeless man outside St Francis of Assisi Church.

“Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York. There was room for all. To all he met from the streets of New York to the White House he was a man of tender compassion,” I said “From Flight 800 to the AIDS crisis Mychal was a source of hope and healing in the midst of personal and national pain and tragedy.

“He was a witness for peace in Belfast and in Jerusalem. To his fellow firefighters he was father, priest and friend. He was a familiar face in metro AA meetings and counseled many like himself struggling with addictions. For the Catholic gay community he was family as well as our priest. We called on him during the darkness of AIDS crisis. When exiled and excluded by the institutional Church he provided the sacraments in our living rooms and community centers”.

Other shared stories and prayers. Jamie Manson offered a personal reflection as a lesbian Catholic excluded from ministry. She shared a prayer from St Theresa of Avila (God has no body but yours!) and challenged all of us present to work for change and become the church we want to see in world."

Barbara Mohr former nun of 18 years and parishioner of St Nicholas of Tolentine in Queens, who worked with Mychal in his AIDS ministry, read from Corinthians 13. Between stories and prayers they sang a Taize chant: Ubi Caritas et Amor – Deus ibi est! (Where charity and love are, there is God). Many of those passing by paused and others touched the image. Tom McLoughlin of Dignity NY gave out postcards of the image with Mychal’s prayer on the back.

Led by piper John Maynard the small vigil solemnly processed to the corner of Church and Vesey, where the Rev. Mychal Judge's body was placed on 9/11 and where firefighters and police officer Jose Rodriguez prayed the last rites.

After a moment of silence Sr. Ceilia recalled her days as part of Judge’s outreach to homeless persons with AIDS. Stanley Rygor, 83, choir member and traditional Irish musician traveled from Astoria to join the tribute to the Franciscan and in support of the gay community . He gave thanks for the service of priests like Judge, who helped Rygor’s family accept his gay son Robert before his death from AIDS in January 1994. Irish transgender woman Samantha Kavanagh also joined the gathering.

Quietly or together there were prayers for all who died on 9/11, for families in Iraq who have lost loved ones, for families of deceased service members, for the wounded and brokenhearted. We prayed for a change of heart, for an end to prejudice against gay persons, for understanding, for peace and reconciliation.

The humble and heartfelt Vigil concluded with an exchange of peace beneath the steel cross from ground Zero at St Peters Church on Barclay Street.

Pope Benedict visited and prayed at Ground Zero on Sunday morning. Dymphna Jessich sister of Mychal Judge was among the representative of 9/11 families personally greeted by the Pope.

Vigil organizer Brendan Fay is finishing an edited collection of stories, letters and photographs about Mychal Judge. You can reach him if you have one to share (718-721-2780 or brendan@stpatsforall.com)