Pope to honor Father Mike in Ground Zero visit

Newsday - April 20, 2008

by Ellis Henican

What? You thought the pope could come to Ground Zero and not meet Mychal Judge?

World Trade Center Victim 0001, the late Franciscan friar is sometimes called.

But honestly, it's impossible to think of Father Mike as a victim of anything. And no one phrase could ever sum up his multifaceted priesthood.

Fire Department chaplain. High-spirited Irishman. Recovering alcoholic. Early AIDS fighter. Charismatic presence wherever he went. Tireless comforter of the depressed, the impoverished, the angry, the forgotten, the grieving, the abused, the disease-ridden and anyone else who ever showed up at his door near Penn Station, just needing someone to talk to. In his brown robe and sandals, he was the ultimate street priest of New York, always remembering that Jesus didn't spend his days with the pure and the haughty. Mike too did his work among lowly, struggling sinners, a group that on any given day will include most of us.

And now Pope Benedict XVI is coming to this special place where Mychal Judge died. This special place where more than 2,700 others perished. This special place that, 6 1/2 years later, still needs all the holy love it can find.

Sacred ground, indeed.

There's no need to dwell on that day again, Sept. 11, 2001. Just know that Judge was at the site of action, the way he always was, standing with his people, helping as he could. Only this time, he never made it back to the rectory.

Of the thousands of photos taken that day, perhaps the most iconic shows the lifeless body of Mychal Judge being carried from the wreckage by the men he'd served so faithfully. That image, by Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton, is the closest thing we have here to Michelangelo's Pieta, which sits in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City and depicts Mary cradling her son's body after the Crucifixion.

On his visit to America, Pope Benedict has taken some heat for his chilly personal style. To many Catholics, he hasn't exuded the natural warmth of John Paul II or the priestly openness of Paul VI.

But as his trip has moved through Washington and New York, there have been glimmers - blessed glimmers - of this pope's quiet humanity. His willingness to address the priest-sex scandals. His insistence on meeting some of its victims. His gentle charm in front of the large crowds.

Could the powerful spirit of Mychal Judge already be taking hold?

That may be too much to ask. But the groundwork has surely been laid.

Back in November 2001, some of Father Mike's friends made a pilgrimage to Rome. Firefighter Patrick Burns presented Judge's fire helmet to Pope John Paul II.

"May Almighty God grant the bereaved families consolation and peace, and may he give you and your fellow firefighters strength and courage to carry on your great service to your city," John Paul said in English at Mass that day.

In the meantime, others who knew Judge have been urging that he be canonized, pressing the case first with John Paul and more recently with his successor, Benedict. There's even a Web site now, SaintMychalJudge.com.

Last night, on the eve of Benedict's arrival at Ground Zero, another group of Judge's friends decided to assemble nearby in his name.

"It's not a protest," organizer Brendan Fay said of the candlelight gathering. "It's a vigil of hope. Mychal Judge's heart was as big as New York with room for everybody."

When Pope Benedict reaches our sacred ground, he could do a whole lot worse than calling up the saintly spirit of Mychal Judge.

At that point, it will just be the two of them. Mychal and Benedict, two Catholic priests.

One from Germany and the Vatican, the other a man utterly of New York.

Representing such different traditions of the faith they both chose to serve.

The majestic and the everyday. The old church and the new. The top-down and the bottom-up.

God bless you, Benedict.

God bless you, Mychal.

God bless us all.