2016-06-30
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One of the many crushing losses of the World Trade Center attack was the death of Father Mychal Judge, 68, a Franciscan friar and a chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, who was killed by falling debris on Sept. 11 while giving last rites to a dying firefighter. Father Mike, as he was known, was a close friend and spiritual advisor of Police Detective Steven McDonald, who in 1986 was shot in Central Park by a 15-year-old he was questioning about a stolen bike. McDonald remained near death for months, unable to speak. Each day a priest came to his hospital room to say mass with the young detective and his wife, who was expecting a child. Often that priest was Father Mychal. Paralyzed from the neck down and still on a ventilator, McDonald later reached out to his assailant and publicly forgave him. He has since made it his mission to speak about the healing power of forgiveness. McDonald spoke with Wendy Schuman, Beliefnet's family producer, about how Father Mike influenced his life and his faith.

Father Mike's death was the first one officially recorded at the World Trade Center. Tell me about your relationship and what he meant to you.

I'm sure there were people who died earlier when the plane exploded, but Father Mike's was the first death certificate recorded. That was significant, because he was already on the other side bringing in those people who died and suffered so terribly. Father Duffy, his good friend, said in his eulogy that Father Mike never could have dealt with the deaths of more than 300 of his men if he hadn't gone ahead to greet them all. That's what his whole life was about. It wasn't about Father Mike, it was about helping everyone else, and that's why he was so loved. He had an AIDS ministry before he became a fire chaplain.

Why do you think Father Mike was taken at that time?

Because God needed him more than we did, and He's making good use of him. I'm sure there are many people who believe that this is all there is, the world we live in. I don't believe that this is it. And Father Mike is there in that next life comforting those people that have passed on from this terrible tragedy. His work has just begun. God is using him in ways we can't even begin to imagine. I once heard someone say that the pain we carry with us to the next life is the love we leave behind in this life. So if that's true, then Father Mike is helping them understand that everything will be OK.

Have you seen Newsweek? Look in the back, Father Mike is there. In the summer of '96, Flight 800 went down. Father Mike and I usually talked around midnight, and that night I called him and he didn't yet know what was going on. I said, Father Mike, did you hear what happened? A plane just crashed in the ocean off Long Island. Right away he had to get off the phone and went to Kennedy Airport. He was there for two weeks or more with those families, and for the last five years he's been very important to them. In Newsweek there's a great picture of Father Mike looking out on the Atlantic Ocean, and underneath the picture it has a quote from him: "When they look down, they see your love." He was consoling people here, and now he's up there consoling those who are carrying that pain with them. What they're experiencing is far better than what we can ever imagine, but still they know the loved ones they left behind are in pain. Jesus is using Father Mike to comfort them.

I know that forgiveness is something you care deeply about. You forgave your attacker. In the present situation, what can you say about forgiving those who have caused so many people such harm?

That's something that Father Mike helped me so much with. I was angry and frustrated, unable to talk because of the gunshot wounds. I was really locked into my body, the paralysis and all. And from that came my hostility, which I'm sure the young man was the focus of. Father Mike would come over and say mass, and his homily was about Christ's love. Forgiveness is not easy even for us Christians, though we have the greatest example of forgiveness.

Holding on to feelings of hatred and revenge destroys you inside. And talking about it helps the healing process as well. I do talk about it a lot, I'm out talking to children and adults about what I went through and the process of forgiveness. I don't think it's possible to ever forget what happened to you. But if you forgive the person, organization, or whatever it is you forgive, you're releasing yourself from those very difficult emotions. We're made out of love, God's love, and we're made to love. I think by doing this and sharing with others we return to that love.

What about the idea of justice-are you saying that those who hurt us should go unpunished?

No--I believe in justice as well. The family of my assailant wanted me to help him get out of prison. I said if I do that, who is going to help him steer clear of trouble? A judge had returned him to his family and to a social agency once before when he was arrested for attempted robbery. The judge hoped it would turn him around, but that didn't happen. A year or two after I forgave him he called from prison and he apologized to my wife and to me. Father Mike was a big part of this. I would call him up and I would tell him what I was going through, what I was struggling with, and he would come over for dinner just to talk. He would bring that Franciscan faith, that simple faith in Christ. He was a living example of Jesus Christ for me. Christ's parting gift to us was an act of forgiveness on the Cross. Father Mike was the living face of Jesus Christ in our lives. It's true he had a great sense of humor, he was clever, smart, loving, but what's more important than being God for each other?

Your son Conor has known Father Mike since birth. What has he said about him and about the World Trade Center attack?

Conor's very upset, he's devastated. They were very close. Early on in my hospitalization I was unable to travel so Father Mike, my wife Patti Ann, and Conor went to Disneyland. Conor was three years old and Father Mike was like the father figure. We have some great pictures of Father Mike and Conor going on some kind of saucer ride. When I told him Father Mike was dead, Conor ran out of the house screaming, and he ran all the way to his grandmother's.

Why would a loving God allow this to happen? The answer we're given as Catholics is because of free will. God gave us free will and those men determined that they were going to destroy human life. But the reward, if I can say it that way for those people on the plane, those in the Trade Towers, is that now they're experiencing eternal life with the Father and it's better than any trip to Disneyland could ever have been.

God has been very good to me my entire life, especially in the 15 years I've been like this, and I keep thinking how can I say thank you to God, how can I show him how grateful I am? I want to give my son as a gift to him and I tell people all the time, "Pray that Conor will answer his call with a vocation to serve God as a priest." And when Conor would hear me say that he'd roll his eyes and say, "Dad, jeez, would you leave me alone" or "Give me a break." Now he's 14, he just started high school, and a week ago he was at mass with Patti Ann after Father Mike passed, and he said, "You know, Mom, I think I'd like to be a friar." Maybe that's just at the moment, just because of everything he was experiencing, Father Mike's death. But I said, Wow, if there is an increase in vocations it'll be because of Father Mike's sacrifice, his giving his life for others as a priest. That story will circulate far and wide, and it could be a reason why some people answer that call.

If you could give a message to the families whose loved ones died, what would you say?

I have my problems, but nothing like what they're going through. I have made it these 15 years by turning my life over as best I can, in an imperfect way, to God. My wife said hours after I was shot, "I'm going to trust in God." I also say, Allow people to help you. Many of us have difficulty in doing that. You'll find a stronger, deeper self when you turn yourself over to God and the help of others.

I have my problems, but nothing like what they're going through. I have made it these 15 years by turning my life over as best I can, in an imperfect way, to God. My wife said hours after I was shot, "I'm going to trust in God." I also say, Allow people to help you. Many of us have difficulty in doing that. You'll find a stronger, deeper self when you turn yourself over to God and the help of others.

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