A Giving Priest Who Was Very Much Human

With a debut screening last Thursday of “Saint of 9/11” at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Glenn Holsten and co-producers Brendan Fay and Malcolm Lazin offered up a wonderful gift to humanity and to history.

In a gently told story that glides elegantly across the remarkably diverse stages occupied by the late Father Mychal Judge, these men have provided America with an earnest and well-observed look at a life many will find paradoxical—a Catholic priest who was a proud, even if discreet gay man; a rough and ready chaplain to New York’s firemen who lovingly ministered to many men suffering with AIDS; a pastor who made intense spiritual connections with others but struggled with the demons of his own alcoholism.

From Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner at the time Judge perished at the World Trade Center, we hear a remarkably candid account of his discussions with his chaplain about Judge’s homosexuality—and how the priest chose not to trouble his firefighter flock with a distraction he feared might impede his pastoral duties. We listen to an account of Judge picking up and cradling a man ravaged by AIDS at the moment of a private blessing with his family on hand. We see the chaplain accompanying Steven McDonald, a New York police officer paralyzed in the line of duty, to Northern Ireland on a peace mission. Alcoholics who once lived on the streets describe the 12-Step work that was part of Judge’s ministry.

For Brendan Fay, the work in making the film a reality was a labor of love. Along with his husband Tom Moulton, Fay was a close confidante of Judge’s and in the days after 9/11 the longtime Irish-American gay and AIDS activist faced considerable criticism from others, particularly in his own Irish-American community, for trying, in their view, to score political points off the death of a man they said belonged to them. Fay of course was simply bearing witness to the life of a friend.

For Holsten and Lazin, who runs the Equality Forum that stages a rich annual gay pride conference in Philadelphia each May, “Saint of 9/11” is the third in a distinguished line of LGBT documentaries. “Gay Pioneers” told the story of the first organized gay rights rallies in America—held at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall each Fourth of July from 1965 until 1969. “Jim In Bold” is a redemptive tale chronicling the tragic suicide of a rural Pennsylvania teen, Jimmy Wheeler, and the way in which activists affiliated with Young Gay America five years later made the lessons of his story the centerpiece of a road trip they took to reach out to LGBT youth in small towns across the nation.

Critics and skeptics might come away from “Saint of 9/11” wondering if Judge’s life has not been presented too much as hagiography. Indeed one could argue that no man or woman’s humanity is appropriately viewed through the lens of sainthood.

I would have liked to have learned more about Judge’s struggles—for the film makes clear that they were ever-present in his life. We learn that during a period in the 1980s he was overcome by his drinking, and see that outreach to fellow sufferers became a hallmark of his life. But we learned very little of that dark night of his soul, and having the opportunity to gain insight on that point would likely provide as much inspiration as the recovery we can see so clearly in his later life.

And then, there’s the white elephant that’s always lumbered about in the background of Judge stories—his expression of his sexuality. Gay men who knew Judge well say that he was sexually active with other gay men, in contravention of his priestly vows. The dilemma of balancing the demands of his church and of his heart and soul could certainly be instructive for all of us who live in the flesh—not merely gay men.

It is of course hard to imagine exactly how to tell that story without the account taking on a voyeuristic shade that in the end would amount to nothing. And, if the film is to have the broad cultural impact for which it certainly has the potential, examining that part of Judge’s life might well be asking too much.

But that doesn’t make the enormity of the question go away.

“Saint of 9/11” is a film every American should see. New Yorkers have one more chance at Tribeca—Friday night, May 5 at 6 p.m. at Regal Cinema Battery Park 11. That same evening in Philadelphia, Equality Forum presents the film at Gershman Hall, University of the Arts, Broad and Pine Streets, at 8 p.m. (for both screenings, visit saintof9-11.com). On Tuesday evening, May 9 at 6:30 p.m., New York Times reporter David W. Dunlap will moderate a panel discussion featuring Lazin, Von Essen, author Malachy McCourt, who appears in the film, and Ron Buford, director of the United Church of Christ Still Speaking Initiative at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street (888-NYT-1870).

Let’s hope that Tuesday’s discussion is the first of many about this important new documentary.

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