The Red Mass

One of the great and ancient traditions in the Church is the offering of the Red Mass for the opening of the courts of law. It was my privilege to preach on the occasion of the opening of the 4th Judicial District Court in Monroe, Louisiana. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Michael Duca of Shreveport, with several priests concelebrating. The pictures below are from the Monroe News Star, and the text of my sermon follows.

Procession into St. Matthew's Church, Monroe, Louisiana
The sermon for the Red Mass
Bishop Michael Duca and priests concelebrating the Red Mass

Bishop Duca, thank you for according to me the honor of preaching on this great occasion, and to concelebrate this Mass with my brother priests. Reverend Fathers and Reverend Deacons, thank you for your welcome.

What a privilege it is, to be part of this ancient tradition of celebrating the Red Mass, the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, for the intentions of all those who serve in the judicial system. For some seven hundred years or more, the Church has asked for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you and your professional forebears – you, who are dedicated to the dignity of the law and to the eternal beauty of justice. In this venerable tradition, we recognize that man’s law is founded upon the Divine Law, and we honor the high calling of those who mediate this law within human society. We call upon the Holy Spirit to inspire your minds and to inflame your hearts, and the Church does this because of her profound regard for the judicial institutions which carry out the principles of justice for the keeping of good order and for the maintaining of human dignity.

In our first reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah (Is. 32:15-20). He tells us, “The spirit from on high will be poured out on us.” That’s no small promise, and it’s no small gift. As God’s spirit comes upon us, the natural gifts we have are enriched and magnified – God multiplies what we have – and then uses those gifts and talents for His glory and His purpose.

Now, before we explore that, I want to ask a question which no doubt been has asked of you before: “Why did you choose a career in the law?” Maybe it was for the pure motive of wanting to work for justice for all; maybe it was because of family tradition; maybe it’s because you’re a frustrated actor, and you love the drama of the courtroom! Whatever the reason, there must have been some sense that you have certain talents, certain gifts, which make you suitable for a life in the law. But those talents – those gifts – are only the raw material. It’s when they’re turned over to the Divine Giver of those gifts that some truly remarkable things can happen.

To pick up on that thought, Isaiah goes on to say, “The desert will become an orchard, and the orchard be regarded as a forest.” That’s the result of the pouring out of God’s spirit – and that’s one of the reasons for us to be here, doing this, today – that by the power of His Holy Spirit, God will take the talents and gifts each one of you has, and magnify them – enrich them – so that a gift which starts out as adequate, will become something remarkable – something that can be used by God for the good of all.

You know better than most people that the social and cultural pluralism of our day makes the work of judges and lawyers very difficult. You hardly need to be reminded that the constant and sometimes-merciless public scrutiny to which your profession is subjected can weigh down the already heavy load you carry. There are incompatible interests and opposing moral positions that try to pull you in all sorts of directions. That’s one of the reasons we’re here, praying for you today – that in the face of difficult decisions and competing values, the Holy Spirit will assist you in maintaining your personal integrity and your dedication to that which is objectively good and right, which has been revealed through the Divine Law of God. Once again, the prophet Isaiah reveals the way for that to happen: “Right will dwell in the desert,” he says, “and justice will bring about peace; right will produce calm and security.” And the result of all that? “My people will live in peaceful country, in secure dwellings and quiet resting places.”

You’ve dedicated yourselves to what is right – and it’s that “rightness” which produces calm and security in our society and in our own lives. You’ve committed yourselves to justice, and it’s that justice which brings about peace – peace in society and peace in all our lives.

Positive law rests on certain principles which reveal our participation in the Divine Law itself. And because of that, any honest pursuit of the common good requires a respect for the natural law; an understanding of the dignity of the human person; an appreciation of the sanctity of marriage; a dedication to the inviolability of innocent human life from conception to natural death; a devotion to justice for the poor and for those who cannot assert their own rights. It’s the fact that there is such a thing as the natural law which allows us even to speak of those things. Positive law – the law you administer and apply – may change over time in its details, but the fact that it flows from the natural law may never change. If the law ceases to stand on its foundation, then it becomes subject to the whims and fancies of changing winds and tides and opinions, and can no longer serve society in an even-handed and just way. Therefore, to a certain extent, you have a role in being the guardian of true justice – justice which flows from God Himself.

You, in the legal profession, have been given the trust to discern justice and to administer the rule of law according to objective principles – and they’re principles not of your own making; indeed they are principles which are not of anyone’s making, other than God Himself. These are the principles which inspire any great democracy, and they transcend any religious or cultural differences – because they are principles which are true for every person, in every time, and in every place.

So, as we invoke the Holy Spirit today, it’s a prayer for the wisdom to assert and uphold those profound truths about human nature that form the very foundation of our common life. As we call upon God, we do so in the knowledge that it’s not the state which confers basic human rights, nor is it the state which outlines the fundamental duties of man within society; rather, it is God Who is the source.

Of course, increasingly in our day, this truth has been maimed and obscured. The idea that man can find his fulfillment and freedom only apart from God is a twisted understanding of humanism, which is actually an anti-humanism. When man seeks to divorce himself from God, that’s when he’s in the most danger. To try and live without the objective principles which come from God isn’t a means of liberation; rather, it’s the road to being enslaved to whoever happens to be in power at the time.

So then, that’s why we’ve come here to celebrate this ancient and beautiful ritual of the Red Mass, invoking the Holy Spirit. It’s to ask that you may be guided and protected; to be enlightened and consoled; to be comforted and refreshed – because you are on the front lines for the protection of freedom – the true freedom which comes from keeping our society’s laws firmly attached to God’s Divine law. Whether you judge a case or argue a case, or are engaged in work that supports those who do those things, may God’s Holy Spirit protect you, and guide you, and keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

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