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The Red Mass

Supreme Court Chief Justice and Mrs. Warren Burger greet Washington Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle at the 1970 Red Mass held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. (Photo from the Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington) 

The tradition of the Red Mass is one that stretches back to the Medieval period.  It traditionally marked the beginning of the judicial year of the sacred Roman Rota, the tribunal of the Holy See.  The ceremony derives its color-coded name from the vestments worn by the clergy.  The red vestments in this case symbolize the burning fire of God’s love and because of that, they are worn on Pentecost, among other liturgical celebrations and feast days.  The Red Mass was first celebrated in the United States in 1928 in New York.

In Washington, the Red Mass began with the Canon Law faculty at the Catholic University of America and was held at the then-Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on their campus.  On February 15, 1953, the first Red Mass was celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.  Then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington was the celebrant, and Father John Courtney Murray, S.J. was the homilist.  The lawyers committee of the newly-formed John Carroll Society began sponsoring the Red Mass.  The John Carroll Society had been formed two years earlier in 1951 to enhance fellowship among Catholic leaders, help them learn more about their faith, be of assistance to the archbishop of Washington, and to enlighten and inform people from a Catholic perspective the vital questions of the day.

The Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington holds the archives of the John Carroll Society.   The JCS archives contains the records of the organization but also items related to their history.  Shown here is the invitation from the 1974 Red Mass at which Washington Cardinal William Baum presided.  Also shown is an entrance ticket for the 1962 Red Mass.  (Archives of the John Carroll Society, Archives of the Roman Catholic Archives of Washington)

President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower first attended their Red Mass the next year in 1954.  An editor’s note in the Catholic Standard described the scene and is quoted below.   

“The big black Chrysler limousine swung around into Rhode Island Avenue from 17th Street and bore down on the cleared area in front of St. Matthew’s Cathedral.  ‘Here he comes.’ The cry went up from the knot of photographers massed at the top of the steps at the church.  The traffic marshal rushed excitedly out to a bewildered driver on the street, sweeping wildly with his arms and yelling, ‘Keep moving! Keep moving!’  There were a thousand or so people gathered around the entrance to the cathedral, many on the sidewalk, kept back from the church steps by a police line, and hundreds more on the curb, walk and lawn across the street…The president stepped out of the limousine first, then Mrs. Eisenhower. Cameras went into action…Two men in black frock coats and striped pants stepped smartly down to greet the distinguished guests. The president gave his famous grin to John L. Sullivan, former Navy Secretary, who was one of the escorts.  Mr. Sullivan is the president of the John Carroll Society, which was sponsoring the Red Mass that was about to begin.  At the door of the cathedral, the president shook hands with Msgr. (Philip) Hannan, chaplain of the of the John Carroll Society, and Msgr. (John) Cartwright, the cathedral rector….Then, with Mrs. Eisenhower and the two priests, he walked down the center aisle of the cathedral to his place in the first pew on the Gospel side.”  

Anyone attending the Red Mass in more recent years would have been faced with a very different sight on Rhode Island Avenue. There is no traffic marshal anymore.  Cars and crowds are no longer allowed around the Cathedral of St. Matthew for the Mass.  The security is much tighter than described above.  

Wearing a face mask in accord with COVID-19 safety guidelines, then-Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory processes to the altar during an Oct. 5, 2020 Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. The annual Mass seeks God’s blessings on those who work in the administration of justice and in the legal profession. (Catholic Standard photo by Andrew Biraj)

Since 1977, the Red Mass has been held on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, the traditional start to the term for the United States Supreme Court.  Many of the justices commonly attend, particularly as currently six of the nine justices are Catholic.   

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)