A Catholic priest and the first recorded victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center could become the first gay saint in recognition of his work to provide comfort and aid to folks living with HIV.
Mychal Judge, then 68, was the chaplain of the New York City fire department in 2001 when terrorists flew two planes into both towers of the World Trade Center. He was in the lobby of the North Tower praying for the safety of firefighters rushing past him as well as praying for those people who had chosen to jump from the windows of the burning building rather than perish in the flames. When the South Tower collapsed, debris crashed into the lobby of the North Tower, striking Judge and hurling him across the lobby. His lifeless body was discovered and carried out by firefighters.
“He knew he was going to die,” Father Christopher Keenan, a fellow Franciscan, recalled to NPR in 2011. “He knew something was coming down. He said to me two different times, ‘Chrissy, the Lord's going to be coming for me.’”
However, it was Judge’s work with folks living with HIV before his death that is leading many to call for his canonization as a Catholic saint. At a time when people shunned gay men while they were suffering, Judge would enter a patient’s room and rub their feet. It became his calling card and established he was not afraid to touch or embrace them.
Salvatore Sapienza worked with Judge helping folks living with HIV during the 1990s.
“Four of us would minister to people with AIDS in the hospitals,” Sapienza told American Magazine. “We would have a Wednesday night prayer group with people with AIDS and their caregivers. We had, in the closet there, a small pantry where people with AIDS could come and get canned goods and toiletries.”
Sapienza recalled there was “a lot of conflict between the gay community and the Catholic Church” at the time and described their work as “challenging in the sense that oftentimes we would walk into a hospital room to visit with someone with AIDS, and we would be asked to leave.”
He also said Judge deserves credit for helping start the church’s ministry to people living with HIV.
“I think the AIDS ministry kind of came about because of his being part of the gay community and loving the gay community and really feeling like the church had kind of abandoned the gay community,” Sapienza said.
Judge was a celibate gay man. He was open about his sexuality with close friends but was unafraid to help the community and even marched in Pride parades. It wasn’t until after his death that most people learned he was gay.
So far, the friars of Judge’s Franciscan order have declined to assist in the efforts to canonize their late brother, but others who knew and worked with him like Sapienza persevere in their cause.
“I think that would be very powerful for gay people of faith, gay Catholics especially, to be able to say, ‘The church is canonizing this person that I can relate to,’” he said.