A Red Mass is a Mass celebrated annually in the Catholic Church for judges, attorneys, law school professors, students, and government officials. The Mass requests guidance from the Holy Spirit for all who seek justice, and offers the opportunity to reflect on what Catholics believe is the God-given power and responsibility of all in the legal profession.
Originating in Europe during the High Middle Ages, the Red Mass is so called from the red vestments traditionally worn in symbolism of the tongues of fire (the Holy Spirit) that descended on the Apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Additionally, Judges of the High Court of England and all doctors of law wore red robes or academic hoods.1
The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of Paris in 1245. From there, it spread to most European countries. The tradition began in England around 1310, during the reign of Edward II. It was attended at the opening of each term of Court by all members of the Bench and Bar. In the United States, the first Red Mass was held in 1877 at Saints Peter and Paul Church Detroit, Michigan by Detroit College, as the University of Detroit Mercy was known at the time. UDM School of Law resumed the tradition beginning in 1912 and continues to hold it annually. In New York City, a Red Mass was first held in 1928 at the Church of St. Andrew, near the courthouses of Foley Square, celebrated by Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes, who strongly advocated and buttressed the legal community's part in evangelization.234
In Canada, the Red Mass was first celebrated in Québec City in 1896, in Toronto in 1924 and in Montréal in 1944. Its sponsorship was assumed by the Guild of Our Lady of Good Counsel in 1931 and by The Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Toronto since 1968. It was re-instituted in Sydney, Australia in 1931.
In Ireland, the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit (the Red Mass) is held annually on the first Monday of October, which is the first day of the Michaelmas Law Term. The ceremony is held at St. Michan's Roman Catholic church, which is the parish church of the Four Courts. It is attended by the Irish judiciary, barristers and solicitors, as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps, Gardaí, the Northern Irish, English and Scottish judiciary. The judiciary do not wear their judicial robes, although formal morning dress is worn.
In the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan, and other Jesuit schools annually celebrate the Red Mass, which they call "Mass of the Holy Spirit." The University of Santo Tomas and the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, both Dominican institutions, also celebrate the Red Mass, known as Misa de Apertura, that is followed by the Discurso de Apertura to formally open the academic year.
In Scotland, a Red Mass is held annually each autumn in St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh to mark the beginning of the Scottish Judicial year. It is attended by Catholic judges of the High Court of Justiciary, sheriffs, advocates, solicitors and law students all dressed in their robes of office. The robes of the Lords Commissioner of Justiciary are red faced with white. The Mass is presided over by Archbishop Leo Cushley.
One of the better-known Red Masses is the one celebrated each fall at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. on the Sunday before the first Monday in October (the Supreme Court convenes on the first Monday in October). It is sponsored by the John Carroll Society and attended by some Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, the diplomatic corps, the Cabinet and other government departments and sometimes the President of the United States. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is Jewish, used to attend the Red Mass with her Christian colleagues but no longer does so due to her objection to a series of homilies opposing abortion.5 In the 2011 St. Matthew mass, all three female members of the Court — Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who is Jewish), Sonia Sotomayor (who is Catholic) and Elena Kagan (who is Jewish) — stayed away, while the six male members attended. Also attending the mass conducted by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who called it "an opportunity to pray 'for all of those involved in the administration of justice,'" were White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "[P]ublic officials were urged to serve God as they serve others."6 On September 30, 2012, six of the nine justices were at the Red Mass, tying the number who attended in 2009.7 Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Breyer, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Kagan were present, while Justices Alito, Ginsburg and Sotomayor did not attend.7
On September 24, 2013, the oldest continuously celebrated Red Mass in the United States held its 101st anniversary in Downtown Detroit at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, Saints Peter and Paul Church, 629 Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. The Honorable Robert P. Young, Jr., Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, delivered the Renewal of the Lawyer’s Oath of Commitment.8
In the United States, the liturgical custom of holding a Red Mass has more recently led to annual Masses for at least two other occupational groups; "Blue" Masses for police officers and others engaged in public safety, as well as "White" or "Rose" Masses for doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals.9
- Controversy over the constitutionality of the Red Mass and attendance by American officials has been dramatized in such shows as The West Wing ("The Red Mass") and Law & Order by John Munch, a character known for his obsession with conspiracy theories but Munch confused it with a Black Mass.
- School of Law to Celebrate 97th Red Mass University of Detroit Mercy
- History of the Red Mass Thomas More Society of South Florida
- John M. Swomley, Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics
- 'A Tale of Two Priests' (print edition); 'Priests Spar Over What It Means to Be Catholic' (online), November 16, 2009, TIME Magazine, p. 36. Accessed December 3, 2009.
- "Supreme Court justices attend Mass before new session...", Associated Press via kxnet.com, October 2 2011, Retrieved 2011-10-02.
- "University of Detroit Mercy School of Law to Celebrate 101st Annual Red Mass"
- St. Anthony Messenger, monthly Catholic magazine, January 2008, p. 46.
- Legal Drawings by Simon Fieldhouse, illustrating Red Mass
- 2010 Red Mass at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law