The Reverend Salvatore Sapienza is a hardworking and popular pastor with the United Church of Christ in Michigan, noted for his eloquent preaching and sensitive pastoral care. He’s also an author, spiritual teacher, and motivational speaker who’s led retreats and workshops across the US.
But it’s a somewhat different vocation from the path he was planning.
Salvatore had been a dedicated Catholic all his life, educated for 12 years in Catholic schools and entering the Marists after graduating in English from New York University. But eventually he left the order after feeling increasingly conflicted over his sexual orientation as a gay man and the church’s teachings on homosexuality.
During his time as a Marist, Salvatore worked closely in New York City with the legendary Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan fire chaplain killed by falling masonry in the Twin Towers on 9/11 as he stayed close to his men on that fateful day. Salvatore was devastated by the news, for he had supported the friar’s valiant and pioneering work during the AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
More than 30 years on, in his church office at Douglas, he keeps on display a photograph of Father Mychal, often glancing across at him for inspiration as he faces his own pastoral challenges. He says that just as the Franciscan lived from a position of surrender and trust, simply looking at his picture reminds him to strive to live from that place, too.
The year after Father Mychal’s death, Salvatore received in the post a copy of a prayer the Franciscan had written, and began using it every morning:
Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say,
Keep me out of Your Way
“It somehow embedded itself in my consciousness, becoming my mantra throughout the day,” he recalled. “Over many years, it transformed me into a more peaceful, loving, joyous and trusting person. For that prayer alone, I am grateful. But I am also blessed by my memories of Mychal, especially remembering how bravely and authentically he lived his life. When I need to summon courage, I often call upon his presence and power.”
A decade after Mychal Judge was named the first official victim of 9/11, Salvatore wrote a book, Mychal’s Prayer, encouraging readers of all faiths and belief systems to assimilate the friar’s words into their daily lives, believing they had “deep meaning for all who seek to grow in consciousness.”
Whether he was talking with a fireman’s widow, a wealthy socialite, a displaced immigrant, or a homeless man on the teeming streets of Manhattan, Father Mychal discerned the light within each person. “He saw them the way God sees them, and I often pray for this vision,” Salvatore told me, pointing out that the inclusively minded priest never backed down from his commitment “to serve all of God’s people, even those—especially those—who had been marginalized by the church.
“At the time of our working together, Mychal would often start his day on the breadline ministering to the homeless people right outside his door and later he’d often be seen embracing his regulars—the elderly women parishioners who attended daily Mass.”
St. Thomas of Celano in The Second Life of St Francis records that once when Francis was asked for help by a poor man, he had nothing to hand, so he unsewed the border of his tunic and gave it away in the conviction he was called to follow in the footsteps of the poor Christ. In a similar fashion, Mychal Judge’s care for the poor and the outcast became legendary in the Big Apple. He thought nothing of handing out clothes and blankets at whim to those who needed them more than he did. A homeless friend told the St. Anthony Messenger newspaper: “Mychal Judge didn’t hide in the sanctuary; he brought the sanctuary out to us.”
Salvatore remembers a time when the two of them were approached by a couple of homeless men asking for money. Rather than merely distributing a few dollars and continuing on their way, Mychal suggested treating the men to a meal at a fast-food restaurant. As the quartet made their way through the crowds—Mychal and Salvatore in their religious habits, the others in tattered clothing—the friendly friar engaged the men in banter, remarking: “Such a beautiful night, isn’t it?”
Once seated with their meals in front of them, the men said grace following Mychal’s lead. After their time together, learning about each other’s lives, Mychal hugged the men, gave each a blessing, and reassured them explicitly that God loved them.
Twenty minutes later, Mychal and Salvatore found themselves in the gold-ceilinged ballroom of a plush midtown hotel for an AIDS benefit, surrounded by high society tycoons and show-business celebrities. When the Superman actor Christopher Reeve came up to the priest, Mychal greeted him as though he were a lifelong pal. “Such a beautiful night,” he smiled.
“As I watched him in action, I came to the realization that Mychal was no different here than he was with the homeless men,” Salvatore recalled. “Regardless of class or race, Mychal looked at each person with deep interest and concern, holding their gaze and being completely present. No person was a stranger because Mychal recognized the Oneness which binds people together.”
For all his confidence and charm, though, Mychal Judge was said to “walk around with his wounds.” Within the recovery movement of Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Step program, he had found guidance and understanding, being helped to accept his powerlessness over alcohol. Through those AA meetings, Mychal was also able to confront the codependent relationship he’d had with his mother and how Irish guilt had contributed to his addiction in trying to overcome feelings of self-esteem, self-worth, and a constant striving for perfection.
While researching a biography of the friar in the months after 9/11, I was told that AA proved to be a safe space where he could be himself as a gay man for the first time in his life. Gradually, everything he had shielded, disguised, or denied about himself came out into the open and, as a result, he began to feel more secure about himself. AA brought him to the place where he could be his most honest self.
New York City in 1989 wasn’t the ideal place to be both Catholic and gay. The AIDS crisis would claim more than 5,000 people in Manhattan in that year alone, and church leaders were unreserved in their condemnation of homosexual lifestyles. But Father Mychal ignored the official line and dared to go where some priests feared to tread.
Running one of the few Catholic AIDS organizations in the United States—the first AIDS ministry in New York City had been set up by Father Bernard Lynch in 1982—Father Mychal mobilized money, resources, and people to care for men and women in the first wave of the pandemic.
The team visited patients in hospital rooms, praying for them and holding their hands. At a time when some doctors were fearful of treating or even touching patients with the illness, and nurses and orderlies flatly refused to take in food for them, Father Mychal was at the vanguard of human compassion, cradling dying men in their arms, administering the Eucharist and the last rites, speaking at their funerals, and comforting their families and friends.
When Father Mychal walked into the rooms of AIDS patients wearing his Franciscan robes, he would often run into hostility. So, he had to figure out carefully how to bring them God’s message without preaching because he recognized that he was unacceptable to them. His style, however, raised some eyebrows. Despite the state of the patients’ bodies, he would reverently pull back the blankets and gently massage their feet with holy oil. Many were afraid to be in the same room as a patient or even engage in conversation but, completely bucking the trend, Father Mychal insisted on physical contact as part of his ministry of nonjudgmental love and healing.
Once when he was anointing a man dying of AIDS, the patient asked the priest if he thought God hated him. Father Mychal, I was told, picked him up, kissed him, and silently rocked him in his arms. On another occasion, he paid the rent for an immigrant who had AIDS and treated him “like the mayor of Dublin.”
In their work together, Salvatore Sapienza watched in awe as the friar cared relentlessly for dying people at hospital bedsides, always making them aware that God loved them unconditionally. “Mychal exuded that unconditional love to a group of people who were so feared and ostracized. I, too, was grateful to be on the receiving end of that unconditional love,” said Salvatore.
Father Mychal had formed the St. Francis AIDS Ministry not only to uphold people with the ignominious disease but also to support their families, caregivers, and friends at a time of sheer paranoia. As fear and panic gripped the city, he suggested setting up a support group, “AIDS and the Gospel,” which took the form of monthly evenings when all affected by the disease could gather, reflect, and pray. After dimming the lights and placing a candle in the middle of a circle, the volunteers said formal prayers before encouraging people to share their worries, fears, and anger, but also their blessings.
A Facebook page dedicated to campaigning for Father Mychal Judge to be canonized has received broad endorsement. “Canonization would mean that Mychal’s message and charism would reach many more people,” Salvatore pointed out. “Saints, though, are people who have transcended the ego, so accolades are certainly not necessary. We put them on pedestals, literally and spiritually, to serve as examples of holiness for us.
“I look at Mychal’s photo each day, remembering how I used to watch him ministering to those in need in New York City all those years ago. It was so inspirational—and still is. He acted without fear and was entirely in the moment. The love and affection he showed was wholehearted and sincere. For me, saints are people who embody wholeness: within them, the human and the divine are not two but one. Mychal’s light was so strong because he lived from this place of oneness.
“In my eyes, he is already a saint.” ♦
Michael Ford may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.