Religion and Public Life at the "Red Mass"

By: Masha Goncharova

October 4, 2011

Last Sunday I attended The John Carroll Society's Red Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. It could be seen as the “judicial version” of the Red Mass held on Healy lawn before school began, which invoked God’s blessing on the upcoming school year.
Before attending the event, I had breakfast with a Jesuit at Georgetown and, as I’d never been to the mass, asked how and why this mix of church and state could happen. I couldn’t understand the concept of granting church blessing upon those who carry out functions of the state. He did his best to explain to me the historical weight of the Red Mass, first celebrated in Paris and spreading to Europe during the Middle Ages. He also told me that the reason for red is the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit.

Once there I spotted some Georgetown chaplains and undergraduate and law students. We happened to be standing in line with another student from Georgetown who was meeting up with his friends from American University. Their reason for attending was curiosity, and they also had distant desires to consider law as a profession. It made me wonder how a blessing administration of justice and on all public officials couples with Georgetown's own Jesuit ideals.

The church, a few blocks from the White House, housed a ceremony to bless lawyers. Well, isn’t the purpose of law to bring justice to the unjust? If injustice didn’t exist, lawyers would be out of a job.Why these thoughts were blazing through my head at the start of the ceremony startled me. The structure of the mass helped me to see its substance and purpose. Justice in society seems to draw a distinct path in the realm of spirituality versus the state.

Speaking about this to my friend who was raised in Latin America and moved to the US in grade school, it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. During Leo’s dinner on Sunday, we talked about the structure of the US – it strives to separate church versus state, but to what degree could it be said to achieve this? It seems inevitable that religion somehow imports at least its main ideas into the state. Later that Sunday I read an article by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. She wrote of Justice Scalia, who was in attendance at the mass, because he recently defended religion in public life.

That which we find in religion, even if we are not relgious, correlates to the ideals we seek in life – peace, harmony, justice and unity. "In the end, it is in our relationship with the Lord in which we find the spiritual health that reveals and makes possible true balance, true integrity," said Reverend Sartain from Seattle, who read the homily to every Supreme Court Justice, the White House Chief of Staff, and the Secretaries of Defense and of Transportation.

In a sense, I believe that the ideas of law and those of justice transcend the sometimes-rough dialogue between church and state. As a student, it was fascinating to observe the close collision between the two, but I felt too distant from understanding it to ‘judge’ its right or wrongness.

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Religion and Public Life at the "Red Mass"