By FATHER TIMOTHY A. GADZIALA, J.C.L., Commentary | Published September 7, 2006
Imagine the scene: a grand choir chanting the Veni Creator Spiritus and a great procession, including numerous dignitaries, magistrate judges, public officials—all garbed in their academic robes, with flowing red garments. The clergy, together with the archbishop, all dressed in scarlet red vestments.
Together, they enter into the church to pray. It is a grand occasion that brings out the many citizens of the area to pray together for peace and justice, to pray for those in public office to have a renewed vigor to exercise virtue in respect to their office entrusted to them.
After the solemn celebration, the procession of red vestments and grand robes exit the church, with bells ringing. The numerous dignitaries and officials, together with the clergy, then gather together at a luncheon to give thanks to the Lord and to celebrate their common purpose to administer justice and peace in society.
Sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, a Catholic lawyers’ organization, this event—the “Red Mass”—will start with a procession in downtown Atlanta in front of Sacred Heart Church at
11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28.
All judges will receive a red stole to mark their office in procession, as well as special seating. Immediately following the Red Mass, a luncheon will be held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta for those invited guests who serve in public offices and in the judicial system. At this luncheon, two judges or public officials will be recognized for their exemplification and commitment to justice and humanity in difficult circumstances while serving in office.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, SLD, is the host of this annual event and has invited the Cardinal Justin Rigali, JCD, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to be the principal celebrant and homilist this year. Prior to serving as the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Rigali served as the Archbishop of St. Louis, and has served in Rome, Italy, as the Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. He has also served as president of the Academia, the school of the Vatican Diplomatic Corps. Cardinal Rigali is a canon lawyer.
Invited to this year’s Red Mass are the various judges, civil magistrates and public officials who serve Atlanta and the state of Georgia. Catholics and non-Catholics are invited to this celebration. Additionally, the canon lawyers and judges who serve in the Metropolitan Court of Atlanta are invited as well.
The Red Mass originated centuries ago in Rome, Italy, and spread throughout Europe to Paris and London. This special liturgy enjoys a very rich history. Its name derives from the traditional color of the vestments worn by the celebrants of the Mass and also exemplifies the scarlet robes worn by the royal judges of England, the various magistrates of the kings of Europe, and by the ecclesiastical judges of the Roman Rota that attended the Mass centuries ago. Historically, the Red Mass marked the official opening of the judicial year of the Sacred Roman Rota, the Sacred Tribunal of the Holy See.
During the reign of Louis IX (St. Louis of France), La Sainte Chapelle in Paris was designated as the chapel for the Mass and is now used only once during the year solely for the annual Red Mass in Paris. Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing even through the Second World War, English judges and lawyers have attended the Red Mass, devoting the day to prayer for the Courts and for their endeavors in service to the execution of justice in the name of God and in the name of the State. Today, the Red Mass is celebrated annually at Westminster Cathedral in England.
In the United States, the Red Mass was inaugurated in 1928 at old St. Andrew’s Church in New York City. Since then, the event has been celebrated annually there and increasingly in many cities across the United States. In 1953, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., celebrated the first Red Mass in the archdiocese at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Since then, it has become the custom for the president of the United States, leading federal jurists, cabinet officials, congressmen and women, as well as diplomats, to attend the annual Red Mass in the nation’s capital.
In addition to the civil officials, the Red Mass has become an occasion too for the ecclesiastical canon lawyers and judges to gather for prayer as they invoke God’s blessings as they carry out the task of rendering justice to the People of God through their ministry working in the Tribunal.
In Washington, D.C., celebrating the annual Red Mass is customary on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, which marks the opening of the Supreme Court’s annual term. Its purpose is to invoke God’s blessing on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials who serve the common good of the this nation.
Since 1995, Atlanta has had the tradition of celebrating the Red Mass to pray for those who administer justice and for those who hold public office amid the territory of the local church of Atlanta. This year, however, will be the first year that Atlanta will have a Red Mass that rivals those celebrations of other major cities in the United States.
Since its inception, the annual Red Mass has been the ceremonial highlight of the St. Thomas More Society of Atlanta. Liturgically, the Red Mass is celebrated as the Solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit. The red color of the vestments worn by the clergy symbolizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the People of God. It is the sure and certain hope that as participants gather for this year’s Red Mass, the spirit of the Lord will come upon them in a most special manner in order to strengthen those persons who serve as public officials and those who serve ecclesiastically and civilly in the judiciary in our area.
Father Timothy A. Gadziala, JCL, is the chaplain for the St. Thomas More Society.