In Fr. Judge, Jesus was there

  • September 7, 2011

The picture hangs in my home. At first glance it is easy to overlook him. He is slumped down, being lifted out of the rubble in a chair. The men carrying him dominate the scene, their uniforms covered in soot and plaster and ash. They are straining. He is dead.

The photograph of Fr. Mychal Judge being carried out of the World Trade Centre is one of the most enduring images from 9/11, a day when even the most vivid imagination was unequal to the unfolding reality. A Franciscan priest, chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, Fr. Mychal rushed to the World Trade Centre after it had been hit.

He was tending to the wounded in the lobby, blessing, comforting, administering the sacraments. In the photograph his right hand is hanging limp, as though exhausted from the blessing, the comforting, the anointing. When the neighbouring tower collapsed debris struck Fr. Mychal. They carried him out and laid him in St. Peter’s Church, just around the corner from the World Trade Centre. A photographer caught the moment, and it appeared immediately everywhere. Just as immediately it was recognized as a religious image. This was the deposition from the cross in Manhattan.

Fr. Mychal was the first registered death at Ground Zero. He was the only one killed whose dead body was photographed, published, made into posters, reprinted over and over again. I made framed copies of the image and gave them as ordination gifts to my classmates the following summer. I added an inscription: Tu es sacerdos in aeternum. “You are a priest forever.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz, who 70 years ago explained his willingness to sacrifice himself, even unto death, with the simple confession: “I am a Catholic priest.” There in the “Golgotha of the modern world” the Lord Jesus was present in His priest. Ten years ago on Sept. 11, Jesus was present too.

We think of the priest being ordained to act in persona Christi. It is true. The priest does not rely on any human power when he does what only Christ can do; he acts not in his own person but in the person of Christ when at the altar, in the confessional, at the bedside of the dying. The priest acts, strictly speaking, in the person of Christ when administering the sacraments, but the priest’s role in making Christ present ought to extend beyond that.

“Mychal Judge loved to be where the action was. If he heard a fire engine or a police car, any news, he’d be off. He loved to be where there was a crisis, so he could insert God in what was going on,” preached the homilist at the funeral Mass, fellow Franciscan Father Michael Duffy.

How does God insert Himself into what is going on? The great mysteries of the incarnation and redemption are about God inserting Himself into the goings-on of human history, first in the manger at Bethlehem and then upon the wood of the cross at Calvary. God continues to insert Himself into history, through His saints, His faithful disciples, in the work of His Church.

In His priests, so closely identified with Him, the Lord Jesus draws close to all human situations, especially those most wretched and most wicked. In the leper colony Jesus is there in Fr. Damien. In the Soviet gulag Jesus is there in Fr. Walter Ciszek. In the Vietnamese prison’s solitary confinement cell Jesus is there in Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Amid the dead in the devastating Haitian earthquake, Jesus is there in Archbishop Joseph Miot.

Jesus is present in His Church and the Church includes each of the baptized, so Jesus is present wherever Christian faithful can be found; indeed, wherever two or three are gathered in His name. Yet in the priest, called by his ordination to be configured to Christ in a particular way and set apart for a sacred purpose, Jesus gives the world an icon of His own presence. We are given the priest that we may see through him to Christ.

The word “icon” is used rather too easily today, often in reference to some celebrity or other who simply attracts attention. An icon attracts attention in order that we may see through it to a deeper — or higher — reality. Amid the horrors at the World Trade Centre, we needed a powerful icon to see through it all to Christ. In his death, Fr. Mychal Judge became an icon of Jesus Christ crucified. Yes, on Sept. 11, Jesus was there.

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