Delivered at Funeral, September 15, 2001, St. Francis of Assisi Church, New York City
After all that has been written about Father Mychal Judge in the newspapers, after all that has been spoken about him on television, the compliments, the accolades, the great tribute that was given to him last night at the Wake Service, I stand in front of you and honestly feel that the homilist at Mother Teresa’s funeral had it easier than I do.
We Franciscans have very many traditions. You, who know us, know that some are odd, some are good. I don't know what category this one fills.
One of our traditions is that we’re all given a sheet of paper. The title on the top says, "On the Occasion of Your Death." Notice, it doesn’t say, in case you die. We all know that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. But on that sheet of paper lists categories that each one of us is to fill out, where we want our funeral celebrated, what readings we’d like, what music we’d like, where we’d like to be buried.
Mychal Judge filled out, next to the word homilist, my name, Mike Duffy. I didn’t know this until Wednesday morning. I was shaken and shocked … for one thing, as you know from this gathering, Mychal Judge knew thousands of people. He seemed to know everybody in the world. And if he didn’t then, they know him now, I’m sure. Certainly he had friends that were more intellectual than I, certainly more holy than I, people more well known. And so I sat with that thought, why me … and I came down to the conclusion that I was simply and solely his friend … and I’m honored to be called that.
I always tell my volunteers in Philadelphia that through life, you’re lucky if you have four or five people whom you can truly call a friend. And you can share any thought you have, enjoy their company, be parted and separated, come back together again and pick up right where you left off. They’ll forgive your faults and affirm your virtues. Mychal Judge was one of those people for me. And I believe and hope I was for him.
We as a nation have been through a terrible four days and it doesn’t look like it’s ending. Pope John Paul called Tuesday a dark day in the history of humanity. He said it was a terrible affront to human dignity. In our collective emotions, in our collective consciousness, all went through the same thing on Tuesday morning.
I was driving a van in Philadelphia picking up food for our soup kitchen, when I began to hear the news, one after another after another. You all share that with me. We all felt the same. It was at 2 o’clock in the afternoon that I came back to the soup kitchen, feeling very heavy with the day’s events. At 4:30, I received a call from Father Ron Pecci. We were serving the meal to the homeless. And he said, "It’s happened." I said, "What?" And he said, "Mychal Judge is dead."
At that moment, my already strained emotions did spiritually what the World Trade towers had done physically just hours before. And I felt my whole spirit crumble to the ground and turn into a pile of rubble at the bottom of my heart. I sat down on the stairs to the cellar, with the phone still to my ear and we cried for 15 minutes.
Later, in my room, a very holy friar whom I have the privilege to live with gently slipped a piece of paper in front of me and whispered, "This was written thousands of years ago in the midst of a national tragedy. It’s a quote from the Book of Lamentations. "The favors of the Lord are not exhausted. His mercies are not spent. Every morning, they are renewed. Great is his faithfulness. I will always trust in him."
I read that quote and I pondered and listened. I thought of other passages in the Gospel that said evil will not triumph, that in the darkest hour when Jesus lay dying on the cross, that suffering led to the resurrection.
And so today I have the courage to stand in front of you and celebrate Mychal’s life. For it is his life that speaks, not his death. It is his courage that he showed on Tuesday that speaks, not my fear. And it is his hope and belief in the goodness of all people that speaks, not my despair. And so I am here to talk about my friend.
Because so much has been written about him, I’m sure you know his history. He was a New Yorker through and through. As you know, he was born in Brooklyn. Some of you may not know this, but he was a twin –– Dympna is his sister. He was born May 11th, she was born May 13th. Even in birth, Mychal had to have a story. He just did nothing normally, no.
He grew up in Brooklyn playing stickball and riding his bike like all the little kids then. Then he put some shoe polish and rags in a bag, rode his bicycle over here, and in front of the Flatiron building shined shoes for extra money. But very early on in his life, when he was a teenager –– and this is a little unusual –– because of the faith that his mother and his sisters passed on to him, because of his love for God and Jesus, he thought he would like to be a Franciscan for the rest of his life. And so, as a teenager, he joined the friars. And he never left. He never left because his spirit was truly, purely Franciscan, simple, joyful, life loving and laughter. He was ordained in 1961 and spent many years as a parish priest in New Jersey, East Rutherford, Rochelle Park, West Milford. Spent some time at Siena College, one year I believe in Boston.
And then he came back to his beloved New York. I came to know him ten years after he was ordained. This is ironic: My 30th anniversary of ordination was Tuesday, September 11th . This always was a happy day for me, and I think from now, it’s going to be mixed.
My first assignment was wonderful: I was sent to East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Mychal was there doing parochial work. In the seminary, we learned a lot of theory, but you really have to get out with people to know how to deal and how to really minister. So, I arrived there with my eyes wide open, my ears wide open. And my model turned out to be Mychal Judge. He was, without knowing it, my mentor and I was his pupil. I watched how he dealt with people. He really was a people person. While the rest of us were running around organizing altar boys and choirs and liturgies and decorations, he was in his office listening. His heart was open. His ears were open and especially he listened to people with problems.
He carried around with him an appointment book. He had appointments to see people four and five weeks in advance. He would come to the rec room at night at 11:30, having just finished his last appointment, because when he related to a person, they felt like he was their best friend. When he was talking with you, you were the only person on the face of the earth. And he loved people and that showed and that makes all the difference. You can serve people but unless you love them, it’s not really ministry. In fact, a description that St. Bonaventure wrote of St. Francis once, I think is very apt for Michael: St. Bonaventure said that St. Francis had a bent for compassion. Certainly Mychal Judge did.
The other thing about Mychal Judge is he 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. That was his way of doing things.
I remember once I came back to the friary and the secretary told me, "There’s a hostage situation in Carlstadt and Mychal Judge is up there." I got in the car and drove there: A man on the second floor with a gun pointed to his wife’s head and the baby in her arms. He threatened to kill her. There were several people around, lights, policemen and a fire truck. And where was Mychal Judge? Up on the ladder in his habit, on the top of the ladder, talking to the man through the window of the second floor. I nearly died because in one hand he had his habit out like this, because he didn’t want to trip.
So, he was hanging on the ladder with one hand. He wasn’t very dexterous, anyway. His head was bobbing like, "Well, you know, John, maybe we can work this out. This really isn’t the way to do it. Why don’t you come downstairs, and we’ll have a cup of coffee and talk this thing over?"
I thought, "He’s going to fall off the ladder. There’s going to be gunplay." Not one ounce of fear did he show. He was telling him, "You know, you’re a good man, John. You don’t need to do this." I don’t know what happened, but he put the gun down and the wife and the baby’s lives were saved. Of course, there were cameras there. Wherever there was a photographer within a mile, you could be sure the lens was pointed at Mychal Judge. In fact, we used to accuse him of paying The Bergen Record’s reporter to follow him around.
Another aspect, a lesson that I learned from him, his way of life, is his simplicity. He lived simply. He didn’t have many clothes. They were always pressed, of course, and clean, but he didn’t have much. No clutter in his very simple room.