I have spent the last forty-eight hours in New York. Aside from meeting Old Rossallians and visiting a number of schools, I made a difficult journey to Ground Zero. Back in the summer of 2000, I visited New York with an Irish choir. We performed at the beautiful Church of St Francis of Assisi in Manhattan. Welcoming us on that hot summer’s day was the gregarious and ebullient Franciscan priest, Father Mychal Judge. His wide smile and twinkling eyes exuded a hospitable warmth. It is true to say that we were utterly charmed by his generosity and good humour.
It was only much later that I discovered that Father Mychal was a very well-known figure in Manhattan. In particular, he was respected for his pioneering work with AIDS patients during the dreadful epidemic that beset the city during the late 1980s. His kindness was legendary and there are many stories that attest to the simplicity and humanity of his vocation. For much of the 1970s he struggled with alcoholism and, at times, he also struggled to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. He had grown up in poverty during the worst years of the Great Depression and his affinity with the downtrodden was always central to his pastoral mission.
Alongside his ministry at St Francis of Assisi, Father Mychal was chaplain to the New York Fire Brigade and, unsurprisingly, he was amongst the first to rush to the scene in downtown Manhattan on that dreadful morning of September 11th, 2001. Tragically, he died in the North Tower entrance hall, having been struck by falling debris from the South Tower’s collapse. He lost his life whilst heroically serving the people of the city. Like so many of those who lost their lives on that dreadful day eighteen years ago, Father Mychal demonstrated the most extraordinary courage. He was the first certified fatality of the attacks and his death is recorded as ‘Victim 0001’.
The searing pain of 9/11 is still apparent at Ground Zero and it is difficult not to feel emotionally overwhelmed. As I ran my fingers over Father Mychal’s name on the memorial, I closed my eyes and reflected upon his example of love and courage. We should never lose sight of our common humanity and we definitely need heroes like Father Mychal, for they inspire us to become better people in every regard. Over the years, I have often thought of Father Mychal and struggled to comprehend the suddenness with which he was taken from this world. Consequently, I knew that this was a journey that I simply had to make. As I stood there amidst the noise of the city, I stared down into the plunging darkness of the memorial and felt a rising tide of sorrow consume me. Yet it was at that moment that I comprehended afresh that whilst Father Mychal may have left this mortal world all too abruptly, he was eternally transfigured by his sacrifice. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Ground Zero, for amidst the devastation and unfathomable loss, you will find countless examples of self-sacrifice. So many firemen lost their lives whilst desperately trying to rescue their fellow citizens. Men serving on ‘Ladders’ in the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens and beyond, all rushed to the scene without so much as a second thought for their own safety. The incredible spirit of this wonderful city represents humanity at its very best.
Greater love hath no man than this: than to lay down his life for his friends