Red Mass

Edward I of England was an arrogant and often treacherous fellow who fought with parliaments and bishops in the late 1200s, amassing enemies on every side. After wars in Wales, France and Scotland, he settled down in his later years and, among other admirable acts, established what came to be known as the “Red Mass,” attended by judges and lawyers of the realm. The celebrant wore red vestments, and the judges were clad in their scarlet robes. The name given to the Mass was inevitable.

In due course, the “Red Mass” crossed the English Channel and took hold in France, where it was first celebrated in the early 1300s in the magnificent chapel that is attached to the Palace of Justice in Paris, “La Sainte-Chapelle.” During the French Revolution, it was discontinued but later restored by Louis Philippe, to the delight of judges, lawyers, law professors and law students of the era, with the judges all in red.

I the 1400s, a variation on the “Red Mass” was introduced in Rome for the opening of the judicial year of what was then called “The Sacred Roman Rota,” the highest court of appeal in the Church. It was, and continues to be, offered by the Dean of the Rota in red vestments, with judges of the Rota present along with lawyers accredited to the Rota and judges and lawyers from various tribunals of the Italian Republic. After the Mass, the Rota judges and their clerks are received in audience by the Holy Father, who delivers an address on a subject having to do with Canon Law. I had the honor of participating in such Masses and audiences as a judge of the Rota from 1972 through 1985.

Today, “Red Masses” for judges, lawyers, professors of law and legal staffs are held in virtually all of the dioceses and archdioceses of the United States. The best known is the one that is scheduled each year in Washington, D.C., for the opening of the judicial year of the Supreme Court. It is offered in the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington, St. Matthew’s, and is regularly attended by justices of the Supreme Court, judges from other federal and local courts, lawyers and professors of law. Twice I delivered the homily at the Washington Mass.

Here in the Archdiocese of New York, our “Red Mass” is offered each year in February in the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue. This year, on February 7, I was principal celebrant and gave the homily with over 200 legal professionals in the congregation. The Mass is sponsored by the Guild of Catholic Lawyers of the Archdiocese of New York, which meets every First Friday in Our Saviour Church for a Mass at 7:45 a.m., followed by a light breakfast and a lecture on a legal topic of the day. Among recent speakers have been John Feerick, Esq., the former Dean of the Fordham University School of Law; William Barr, Esq., former Attorney General of the United States; Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations; Sister Sara Butler, M.B.S.T., Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie; and Judge Joseph W. Bellacosa, Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and a former Dean of St. John’s Law School.

The highlight of the year is, of course, the “Red Mass,” which I have been privileged to offer each year since becoming Archbishop of New York. Following the Mass, all in attendance proceed to the Union League Club for a reception and a ceremony in which the “Charles Carroll Award” is presented to a distinguished New York jurist. The ceremony is chaired by Robert E. Crotty, Esq., the current and extraordinarily dedicated President of the Guild; and the opening prayer is led by Reverend George W. Rutler, Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour and the Guild’s Spiritual Director.

The “Charles Carroll Award” is named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a cousin of John Carroll, the first Bishop and later Archbishop of Baltimore, and the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. This year it was given to Douglas Wyatt, Esq., a past President of the Guild of Catholic Lawyers and Chairman of the Board of Directors of one of the proudest affiliates of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, Lincoln Hall in Somers.

As all knew he would, Mr. Wyatt spent the lion’s share of his words of acceptance of the award speaking about his beloved Lincoln Hall. I have had the pleasure of visiting this remarkable institution and meeting many of its 250 young male residents, all of whom are assigned to Lincoln Hall by courts because of serious infringements of the law. The staff is understandably rigorous in its care and expectations of the young men who live in cottages of 20, pursue regular high school studies and struggle to find their way into a life free of anger and crime. The rate of recidivism is a fraction of what it is in similar institutions of the state; and the atmosphere is serious, yes, but warm and optimistic as well. I remember one resident explaining the demerit system of Lincoln Hall to me in extraordinary detail. From what he said and especially from how he said it, I had no doubt that one day he would leave to be a strong and valuable member of society.<.P>

As Mr. Wyatt described Lincoln Hall, assured us of its healthy fiscal condition, and extolled the excellence of the board and the staff, one could not fail to be both proud and hopeful. With the kind of commitment of time and energy he devotes to this splendid agency of charity and education, there should be no sense of defeat as regards youthful offenders of the law. There is a road to recovery, and Lincoln Hall under the marvelous leadership of Mr. Douglas Wyatt is unimpeachable proof.

As the evening drew to a close, a man approached me and introduced himself as a guest of one of the members of the Guild. It was the first time he had participated in a “Red Mass” and he wondered how it got started in the United States. When he told me that he was from Boston, I tried to respond in as humble a tone as I could manage, lest there might still be some sting left from the Giants-Patriots “event” on February 3rd.

“It started in New York,” I observed somewhat hesitatingly, “in St. Andrew’s Parish Church in Lower Manhattan in 1928. Patrick Cardinal Hayes celebrated the Mass; and it quickly became a tradition first in Boston, then in Chicago, then in New Orleans, then in San Francisco, and finally in Washington, D.C.”

“Well, at least Boston came in second,” he quipped.

All sorts of retorts flooded into my head, and all were properly rejected. Like Edward I, who started the whole thing, I have grown kindlier in my advanced years.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York