Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Saint of 9/11 – Moved Me More than “Passion of the Christ”

There’s a well-known picture from September 11th that features the firefighters carrying out the first person who died at the World Trade Center site, other than those in the airplanes. That man was Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and Fire Department chaplain. He is the subject of Saint of 9/11.

What many people didn’t know before 9/11 about Father Mychal Judge was that he was also a gay man. He didn’t hide this fact, but he also didn’t offer it up to people. Those that knew him well knew his orientation, and that he was celibate. Although former NYC Fire Commissioner Tom Van Essen speaks of knowing about Father Judge’s orientation, he also makes the point as to why Father Judge didn’t want others in the Fire Department to know about it. He was afraid it would hinder his ministry to these men if it were more well-known. When his orientation became known to more people following 9/11, it’s a tribute to the open-mindedness of New York City that his memory has been held in the same high regard. I don’t know if that would be true in all places in this country.

One of his friends make the point that Only one part of his personhood was his sexuality. It was something he wasn’t afraid to talk about it because it humanized him. It was out of that need and want that we all have to connect, to touch, to feel. That was what empowered him in good part to be such an effective minister.

Father Judge’s ministry included those in the gay and lesbian community. He specifically reached out to those groups and wasn’t afraid of how it would reflect on his own sexual orientation. He also reached out to those recovering from alcoholism as a recovering alcoholic himself. His dedication to the needy was well-known, and it wasn’t surprising for him to return at the end of the day without a coat after giving it away to someone less fortunate.

Father Judge was not a conventional priest. He was known to go against the orders of the Bishop, believing his actions helped to draw people back to the church. The back of his Fire Department vehicle contained all sorts of items for the needy.

People wanted to rule over other people and have God on their side and if you’re not on their side then God’s not on your side and all these sides. When you think about it, it is a tremendous waste of time and energy, and all it does is cause all these wars and then people get killed and families get divided, and everything goes wrong… – Father Mychal Judge talking about Northern Ireland

Sir Ian McKellen narrates the documentary which features testimony by the people who knew him, as well a former NYC Fire Commissioner Tom Van Essen, Shannon Stapleton (who took the famous photo), Malachy McCourt, disabled NYPD Officer Steven McDonald, his fellow priests, and members of the NYC Fire Department who knew him.

Saint of 9/11 starts out a bit slow with the playback of a radio broadcast from 9/11 set to scenes from New York. There are scenes from that day, including of Father Judge at the World Trade Center. It moves to tributes to him and then goes back to his biography.

There’s a nice scene of the dedication of the Memorial Peace Park to him in the town in Ireland where his father came from. There are also scenes of his presiding at the funeral of a fallen firefighter that brought tears to my eyes.

Not all of Saint of 9/11 focuses on Father Judge’s orientation. It focuses on him as a person and his ministry. Particularly moving was the testimony of the families of victims of the TWA 800 plane crash who talk of how much he meant to them and how his nightly masses transcended the differing religions and beliefs.

His ministry to the gay community at the height of the AIDS crisis is detailed. He was unafraid at a time when hysteria was present. Listening to this after knowing his background as a person, it seems that he would have done this regardless of his orientation. His sense of what he was called to do was quite different from many other priests and he followed the path he believed he was called on. He reached out to people regardless of their place in the world.

The quotes of his and about him are wonderful, as I’ve tried to illustrate here. His opinions of the church and it’s place in the world is quite refreshing. McKellen delivers Father Judge’s words quite nicely.

I’m not even Roman Catholic and this moved me more than anything I’ve seen in a long time; more than any of the other movies about 9/11. I had tears running down my cheeks during the credits. I recently viewed Passion of the Christ for the first time and didn’t understand the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t the least bit moved by what I saw. What I saw in Saint of 9/11 was more spiritual than that epic. I only rented it for now, but I will be purchasing it very soon.

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