The Saint of 9/11 and the “Gifts and Qualities” of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Catholics

Since last month’s Synod on the Family propelled the lesbian and gay community into the spotlight and sparked conversation about their role in the Catholic Church, there is no better time to be talking about what invaluable gifts they bring to the Church.

The Relatio attracted both applause and controversy after positive language (like “gifts and qualities”) was removed from it and replaced with more neutral language. The midterm report courageously asked, “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” Members of the lesbian and gay community already fill invaluable spaces in our communities but unfortunately their “gifts and qualities” often go unnoticed.

Across the United States, gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics are doing work that is at the very heart of the faith—advocating for justice, serving the poor, ministering to the sick, and welcoming the excluded. Often experiencing the pain of social and—at times—ecclesial exclusion, so many of these Catholics act as authentic and compelling stewards of the faith.

There is no better example of a gay or lesbian Catholic acting as a steward of the faith than Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the “saint of 9/11,” who spent his life ministering to the excluded.

Judge was appointed as a chaplain of the New York City Fire Department in 1992. In that capacity, he was a first responder on September 11th and rushed to the scene immediately after hearing word of the attack. Considered “Victim 0001,” Judge was killed while ministering to the victims of the attack and performing last rites to the dying. Judge died a hero, but his heroism began well before his final hour.

Judge ministered to people of all kinds without discrimination, and was well known for reaching out to those alienated by society. He worked with the homeless, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, immigrants, and those in the LGBT community, among many others. Judge did not minister to the excluded with a blindness to their experience. Rather, he was personally familiar with their stories and their pains. As a recovering alcoholic and a gay man, Judge knew too well the shame of being an outsider in society. Instead of letting these experiences define him, he drew strength from them. After he became sober, he shared his story in order to help others facing addiction, and supported young lesbian and gay Catholics as they worked through feelings of shame about their sexuality.

Friar Brian Carroll, discussing shame and his sexual orientation, said, “Mike taught me how to come out as a young man. And how to see sexuality as an important part of who I am. He took away the shame. For some people, sexuality is a part of their shame. Or homelessness is a part of their shame. Or addiction is a part of their shame. Mychal helped people embrace all the shame parts of themselves and turn them into something good.”

When the Catholic LGBT rights group Dignity was banned in diocesan churches in New York City by Cardinal John O’Connor, Judge welcomed the group’s AIDS ministry program to his own parish, St. Francis of Assisi. He often held masses in public venues such as Penn Station, so that everyone could have access to the Church’s sacraments. For Judge, God’s love didn’t discriminate. No one was excluded from it.

Judge did not shy away from the grittiness of life. A man for all seasons, he was always faithful to the joy and the love of the Gospel. He once saw a homeless person without a jacket on a cold winter night. His response? He gave away his own. When a man of dying of AIDS asked Father Judge if God hated him, Judge responded by picking him up, holding him, kissing him, and telling him that God never tired of loving him.

So what “gifts and qualities” do gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics offer the Church and society? The gift of their witnesses and the sanctity of their lives. Without their presence in our Church, surely our communities would be colder and less just.

Jennifer Labbadia is a Jesuit Volunteer who lives and works in Washington, DC. Jennifer graduated from Fairfield University in 2013 with a degree in politics and English literature.