'The Happiest Man on Earth,' the Eulogy for Father Mychal Judge
On 9/11, the beloved New York priest was one of the first to die. At his funeral, his friend offered these inspiring words.
BY: Father Michael Duffy
He would say to me once in a while, "Michael Duffy” –– he always called me by my full name –– "Michael Duffy, you know what I need?" And I would get excited because it was hard to buy him a present.
I said, "No, what?"
"You know what I really need?"
"No, what Mike?"
"Absolutely nothing. I don’t need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth." And then he would go on for ten minutes, telling me how blessed he felt. "I have beautiful sisters. I have nieces and nephews. I have my health. I’m a Franciscan priest. I love my work. I love my ministry." And he would go on, and always conclude by looking up to heaven and saying, "Why am I so blessed? I don’t deserve it. Why am I so blessed?" But that’s how he felt all his life.
Another characteristic of Mychal Judge, he loved to bless people, and I mean physically. Even if they didn’t ask. A little old lady would come up to him and he’d talk to them, you know, as if they were the only person on the face of the earth. Then, he’d say, "Let me give you a blessing." He put his big thick Irish hands and pressed her head till I think the poor woman would be crushed, and he’d look up to heaven and he’d ask God to bless her, give her health and give her peace and so forth. A young couple would come up to him and say, "We just found out we’re going to have a baby." "Oh, that’s wonderful! That’s great!" He’d put his hand on the woman’s stomach, and call to God to bless the unborn child. When I used to take teenagers on bus trips, he’d jump in the bus, lead the teenagers in prayer, and then bless them all for a safe and a happy time. If a husband and wife were in crisis, he would go up to them, take both their hands at the same time, and put them right next to his and whisper a blessing that the crisis would be over.
He loved to bring Christ to people. He was the bridge between people and God and he loved to do that. And many times over the past few days, several people have come up and said, Father Mychal did my wedding, Father Mychal baptized my child. Father Mychal came to us when we were in crisis. There are so many things that Father Mychal Judge did for people. I think there’s not one registry in a rectory in this diocese that doesn’t have his name in it for something, a baptism, a marriage or whatever.
But what you may not know, it really was a two-way street. You people think he did so much for you. But you didn’t see it from our side, we that lived with him. He would come home and be energized and nourished and thrilled and be full of life because of you.
He would come back and say to me, for instance, "I met this young man today. He’s such a good person. He has more faith in his little finger than I do in my own body. Oh, he’s such good people. Oh, they’re so great." Or, "I baptized a baby today." And just to see the new life, he’d be enthused. I want just to let you know, and I think he’d want me to let you know, how much you did for him. You made his life happy. You made him the kind of person that he was for all of us.
It reminds me of that very well known Picasso sketch of two hands holding a bouquet of flowers. You know the one I mean –– there’s a small bouquet, it’s colorful and a hand coming from the left side and a hand coming from the right side. Both are holding the bouquet. The artist was clever enough to draw the hands in the exact same angle. You don’t know who’s receiving and who is giving. And it was the same way with Mychal. You should know how much you gave to him, and it was that love that he had for people, and that way of relating to him, that led him back to New York City and to become part of the fire department.
He loved his fire department and all the men in it. He’d call me late at night and tell me all the experiences that he had with them, how wonderful they were, how good they were. It was never so obvious that he loved a group of people so much as his New York firefighters. And that’s the way he was when he died.
On Tuesday, one of our friars, Brian Carroll, was walking down Sixth Avenue and actually saw the airplane go overhead at a low altitude. And then a little further, he saw smoke coming from one of the trade towers. He ran into the friary. He ran into Mychal Judge’s room and he says, "Mychal, I think they’re going to need you. I think the World Trade tower is on fire." Mychal was in his habit. So, he jumped up, took off his habit, got his uniform on, and I have to say this, in case you really think he’s perfect, he did take time to comb and spray his hair.
But just for a second, I’m sure. He ran down the stairs and he got in his car and with some firemen, he went to the World Trade towers. While he was down there, one of the first people he met was the mayor, Mayor Giuliani. Later, the mayor recounted how he put his hand on Mychal’s shoulder and said, "Mychal, please pray for us." And Mychal turned and with that big Irish smile said, "I always do."
And then kept on running with the firefighters into the building. While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died. The firemen scooped him up to get him out of the rubble and carried him out of the building and wouldn’t you know it? There was a photographer there. That picture appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News and USA Today on Wednesday, and someone told me last night that People magazine has that same picture in it. I bet he planned it that way.
When you step back and see how my friend Mychal died, when we finish grieving, when all this is over and we can put things in perspective, look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing, we’re always saying, Jesus come, Jesus forgive, Jesus save. He was talking to God, and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful.
The firemen took his body and because they respected and loved him so much, they didn’t want to leave it in the street. They quickly carried it into a church and not just left it in the vestibule, they went up the center aisle. They put the body in front of the altar. They covered it with a sheet. And on the sheet, they placed his stole and his fire badge. And then they knelt down and they thanked God. And then they rushed back to continue their work.
And so, in my mind, I picture Mychal Judge’s body in that church, realizing that the firefighters brought him back to the Father in the Father’s house. And the words that come to me, "I am the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Greater love than this no man hath than to lay down his life for his friends. And I call you my friends."
So I make this statement to you this morning that Mychal Judge has always been my friend. And now he is also my hero.
Mychal Judge’s body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number one on the top. I meditated on that fact of the thousands of people that we are going to find out who perished in that terrible holocaust. Why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal’s goal and purpose in life at that time was to bring the firemen to the point of death, so they would be ready to meet their maker. There are between two and three hundred firemen buried there, the commissioner told us last night.
Mychal Judge could not have ministered to them all. It was physically impossible in this life but not in the next. And I think that if he were given his choice, he would prefer to have happened what actually happened. He passed through the other side of life, and now he can continue doing what he wanted to do with all his heart. And the next few weeks, we’re going to have names added, name after name of people, who are being brought out of that rubble. And Mychal Judge is going to be on the other side of death to greet them instead of sending them there. And he’s going to greet them with that big Irish smile. He’s going to take them by the arm and the hand and say, "Welcome, I want to take you to my Father." And so, he can continue doing in death what he couldn’t do in life.
And so, this morning we come to bury Mike Judge’s body but not his spirit. We come to bury his mind but not his dreams. We come to bury his voice but not his message. We come to bury his hands but not his good works. We come to bury his heart but not his love.
Never his love.
We his family, friends and those who loved him should return the favor that he so often did to us. We have felt his big hands at a blessing. Right now, it would be so appropriate if we called on what the liturgy tells us we are, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And we give Mychal a blessing as he returns to the Father.
So, please stand. And raise your right hand and extend it towards my friend Mychal and repeat after me. Mychal, may the Lord bless you. May the angels lead you to your Savior. You are a sign of his presence to us. May the Lord now embrace you and hold you in his love forever. Rest in peace. Amen.