What Is the Red Mass?

History Q & A

Ms. Pawlikowski is an HNN intern and a graduate student at Duquesne.

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Last Sunday the 52nd annual Red Mass was held in Washington D.C.’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. As the symbolically rich ceremony marks the beginning of the Supreme Court’s term, attendants included President George Bush, newly appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, along with associate justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer.

For the most part the Red Mass is like any other Roman Catholic Mass. A sermon is given, the message which is delivered has an overlapping political and religious theme. The Mass is also an opportunity for the Catholic church to express its goals for the coming year. The most significant difference between the Red Mass and a traditional Mass is that the focuses of prayer and blessings concentrate on the leadership roles of those present. Guidance from the Holy Sprit is asked to be bestowed on the congregants. Other blessings that are commonly requested to prevail in the minds, offices, and court rooms are Divine strength, wisdom, truth, and justice. Peace and friendship are exchanged among the congregation, the sacraments are given, and the Mass is commenced.

With over half of the Supreme Court's justices participating in this event, at a time when the Supreme Court has and will continue to face cases involving the separation of church and state, the event is considered controversial by some, even hough it attracts leaders from different religious backgrounds. (President Bush is an evangelical Protestant, Justice Breyer is Jewish.)

The Red Mass is called such due to the red vestments worn by Royal Judges participating in the Pope’s tribunal. Additionally the use of red garments continues today because of it’s representation of the Holy Sprit in Roman Catholic ritual. The tradition of the Red Mass extends back well before the establishment of the Supreme Court, to the Medieval Era. Although it is believed that the first Red Mass was held around 1200, it was not until 1245, in Paris, that the Mass was actually documented. As of 1310 the Mass had become an annual tradition in England to commemorate the beginning of each new Court term. From England the tradition of a yearly Red Mass spread throughout Europe. The tradition was adopted in the United States in the early 20th century.

The first American Red Mass was organized to promote Vatican policies. It was held at the Church of St. Andrew in New York City in 1928. After 1928 only a few Red Masses were held. But since 1953 Red Masses have been held annually in Washington DC. One of the principal reasons the Red Mass did not gain an earlier foothold in tradition in the United States may have been because of the widespread prejudice that existed against Catholicism. Although Catholicism is now regarded as a mainstream religion, prior to the 1950's Catholicism was treated by many Protestants as sacrilegious if not pagan. A key turning point in the way Catholicism was regarded in the United States came in the 1950s when leading Catholic thinkers became identified with the anti-Communist movement. Faced with an outside enemy Protestants and Catholics united in a show of religious tolerance and Christian unity. (The first Catholic appointed to the Supreme Court was Roger Taney, who was appointed by Andrew Jackson. At the time of the 1953 Red Mass there were no Catholics on the Supreme Court. Today there are four: Roberts, Thomas, Kennedy, and Scalia.)

The Red Mass is now celebrated annually in more than half the states of the United States.

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