One of the more fascinating tales to emerge in the weeks following the World Trade Center attack involves the hero-priest Mychal Judge, who rushed to the scene and was killed by debris alongside firefighters.

Father Judge was gay.

What's fascinating is not Judge's sexual orientation, which is not disputed. Many knew he was gay, including New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, who says Judge told him personally.

What's fascinating is the ho-hum reaction, even in the macho world of the fire department.

Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest and beloved fire chaplain, gave up his life while doing his job on Sept. 11. To firefighters and most everyone else, his sexual orientation did not matter. What mattered was his courage.

Fast forward now to the Vatican's reaction this month to widespread reports about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic priesthood. Ignoring the church's own cover-up of the problem, the pope's chief spokesman instead targeted gays, declaring that gay men should never be ordained as priests not even if they adhere to a vow of celibacy, as Judge's friends say he did.

"People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Vallis in an interview with The New York Times. "That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality. But you cannot be in this field."

Such words beg a question: What about Mychal Judge? If Judge, 68 and a priest for some 40 years, had been defrocked merely because he was gay, New York's firefighters would have been deprived of their comforting chaplain. So would the families of those who died when TWA Flight 800 plunged into the Atlantic in July 1996. Judge offered free counseling for weeks at a Long Island motel.

Here in northern New Jersey, where Judge worked for almost 20 years, Catholic parishes in East Rutherford, Rochelle Park, and West Milford would have felt none of Judge's humanity, not to mention his spiritual guidance. In Manhattan, where he moved in 1986, all manner of ministries the homeless, alcoholics, AIDS, to name a few would have lost Judge's touch.

Mychal Judge clearly was unique. When New York Police Officer Stephen McDonald was shot and paralyzed in 1986, Judge befriended the family. Judge was unashamed to talk about his own battle against alcoholism. He loved to sing Irish ballads and became a fan of Celtic rock music. On walks around the city, he often passed out dollar bills to the homeless.

Some of Judge's friends believe he should be declared a saint by the Catholic church. A Hudson River ferry now bears his name, and the pope accepted his helmet as a memento from visiting New York firefighters.

But if Judge had somehow survived the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, would the Vatican now be asking him to hang up his Franciscan robes and find a new job? To even consider such a question is to understand just how shallow the Vatican's statement on gay priests is and how it ignores deeper roots of sex abuse. And yet, the source of Vatican's statement should not be dismissed either. Joaquin Navarro-Vallis, a psychiatrist, is one of the pope's closest advisers.

Judge did not turn his sexual orientation into his main agenda. Nor did he not hide from it. In the early 1980s, he was one of the first North Jersey priests to reach out to AIDS patients, even conducting funerals for AIDS victims when other priests reportedly refused. In Manhattan, when other parishes banned the Catholic gay organization Dignity, Judge invited the group to his church, St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street. Two years ago, reacting to the longtime policy that barred gays from marching in New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade on Fifth Avenue, Judge marched in an alternative parade in Queens organized by gay activists. He wore his Franciscan robes, too.

On Sept. 11, Judge could have stayed away from the twin towers. He didn't. As last Sunday's CBS documentary showed, Judge paced the North Tower lobby with firefighters. In graphic video footage, shot by a French photographer, Judge wore a priestly collar, a fire helmet, and a look of worry as he prayed.

And then he was gone, killed by debris that cascaded into the lobby.

His death certificate lists him as the first official victim of that horrific day.

A day earlier, Father Judge spoke at the dedication of a Bronx firehouse. His words, recorded on video, were directed to firefighters.

But maybe they were about him, too and us.

"You do what God has called you to do," said Judge. "You show up.

You put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job which is a mystery and a surprise."

In the end, there was no mystery about Mychal Judge's courage. Would the Vatican disown him?

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