Red Mass in Washington

On Sunday at 10 a.m., St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. will host its annual Red Mass. This Roman Catholic service is a votive mass of the Holy Spirit for members of the judiciary and the legal profession. It takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for masses of the Holy Spirit. One has been held in Washington annually since 1939, but both its place and its timing has changed.

The president of the United States does not usually attend the service. But on Sunday, October 2, 2005, President George W. Bush attended with the newly confirmed chief justice, John Roberts.

President George Bush walks out of St. Matthew’s Cathedral with Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts after attending the 52nd Annual Red Mass in Washington, DC, Sunday, October 2, 2005. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Since Judge Brett Kavanaugh is both a practicing Catholic and a member of the Washington judiciary, I expected he has attended many times. If the Senate had already confirmed him, I’d expected to see President Trump joining him at the cathedral to celebrate his confirmation. This would have been the third D.C. church Trump had visited for services as president. (The other two are St. John’s Episcopal Church and Washington National Cathedral.) As it is, it is doubtful that the president will attend.

The Red Mass tradition dates to the middle ages but was first brought to the United States only in 1928 with a liturgy held at St. Andrew’s Church in New York City. The Washington tradition began in January 1939 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of the Catholic University of America. As Thomas Tweed explains in America’s Church, the dean of the university’s law school organized the liturgy in conjunction with the beginning of the new congressional term. The honored guests were members of congress and the executive branch more than they were members of the judiciary. Harry Truman attended when he was a senator and again as vice president in 1945.

The liturgy was moved from the National Shrine to St. Matthew’s Cathedral at the beginning of the beginning of the Eisenhower administration in 1953. At the time, the shrine consisted of only the crypt church, while St. Matthew’s had long been a completed building and became the cathedral of the newly created Archdiocese of Washington in 1940. It was located several blocks from the White House, around the corner from the National Presbyterian Church which President Eisenhower attended on the morning of his inauguration and in which he was baptized on February 1, 1953. The first Red Mass at St. Matthew’s was organized by the John Carroll Society and held two weeks later, on February 15. Eisenhower attended the service the following year.

The liturgy continued to be held in January or February another two decades. On January 26, 1975, President Gerald Ford attended and heard a sermon strongly objecting to the legalization of abortion by the supreme court two years earlier. The drama of the situation generated some controversy and subsequently the service was moved to its present position on the Sunday prior to the opening of the supreme court’s new term on the first Monday in October. The opening of judicial terms has been the customary time of the liturgy for centuries. The Washington service’s move to that date, however, is linked to the Catholic church’s objection to Roe v. Wade.


  1. […] Tomorrow at 10 a.m. EDT, the new Archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, will preach and preside at the 67th Red Mass hosted at the St. Matthew’s Cathedral by the John Carroll Society. From 1939 to 1952, this votive mass of the Holy Spirit for the legal profession was held in January at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. For more details on its history see this post from last year at this time. […]


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