In the fifth year of his AIDS ministry, Father Mychal Judge received a call concerning two brothers who had died of the disease within six weeks of each other and felt so shunned by the Catholic Church that they had chosen to be cremated without ceremony.
The surviving siblings of Arthur and Willie Busk had decided that they wanted to hold a memorial, but had been unable to find a priest willing to preside. Mychal immediately agreed and on a day in May of 1992, he traveled from the Franciscan friary on West 31st Street in Manhattan to the Busk family home on Long Island.
The Mass was to be held in the downstairs den and a crowd of seemingly all ages and persuasions and faiths spilled over into the laundry room. Mychal presided with an intimate warmth that made even nonbelievers feel entirely welcome. He ended by placing his hand over his heart and singing a song everybody knew but nobody expected at a Mass in exile.
“God bless America…”
After a stunned moment, people began to join in.
“Land that I love…”
Then everybody was singing, gay and straight, young and old, black and white, Catholic and otherwise.
“Stand beside her
And guide her
Through the night with the light from above…”
And they were not just murmuring as they might if he had closed the Mass with a hymn. They were belting it out with a patriotism as heartfelt as if this rec room were an American Legion hall.
“From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam…”
Eyes were welling and tears were streaming down cheeks, for everybody understood the message Mychal was delivering along with the song. He was saying that this is also their America, that this is everybody’s America.
“God bless America
My home sweet home…”
Three months before, Mychal had become the FDNY chaplain. The many Masses he would subsequently say in that capacity would include one at the rededication of a renovated firehouse in the Bronx on Sept. 10, 2001. Mychal stood behind a folding table covered with a white cloth, wearing the same vestments as he had for the rec room Mass. His homily was inspired not by Gospel, but by a fire two nights before where the firefighters had made two rescues.
“You do what God has called you to do,” Mychal told the gathering. “You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job—which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small.”
He went on, “You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
Mychal then closed by singing just as he had at the memorial for the Busk brothers.
“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!”
The song was different, but the sentiment was the same, as was Mychal’s message as everybody joined in.
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”
Mychal and more than a dozen of those present at the firehouse Mass were killed the very next morning at the World Trade Center. His was one of the few bodies left intact and he was officially recorded as the first fatality, case DM0001. The image of him being carried from the burning ruins by a group of first responders was called the modern Pieta.
The country was never more unified than in the days ahead. President George Bush and Mayor Rudy Giuliani were cheered in Manhattan after visiting Ground Zero. An American flag lapel pin marked you a patriot, but not necessarily a conservative.
The divisions too quickly reasserted themselves. And we come to our nation’s 242nd birthday a fractiously divided people.
One side sometimes loses basic civility. The other too often imagines that might makes right. Our sense of ourselves is challenged, not least by the cries of children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the border.
Even so, Mychal’s message remains for all of us. America the beautiful is everybody’s America.
God bless her.