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.
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.
In the 2011 St. Matthew mass, all three female members of the Court — Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — 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.
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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.
When the Mass started in 1953, in Washingon, D.C. there were no Catholic members of the Supreme Court. The service’s traditional “Catholic seat” had to be filled at the time by Justice Sherman Minton, a Protestant whose wife was Catholic. Today, there are six Catholic justices, three Jewish justices and, for the first time in history, no Protestant justices.
On September 25, 2012, the oldest continuously-celebrated Red Mass in the United States will hold its 100th 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 Michael Cavanagh, Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, will deliver the Renewal of the Lawyer’s Oath of Commitment.