The 2018 Red Mass for the Supreme Court

The annual Roman Catholic mass marking the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term proceeded yesterday without some of its usual leaders. Most years, the archbishop of Washington presides and a bishop from another diocese preaches. But yesterday, Washington’s auxiliary bishop Mario Dorsonville presided in the place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Monsignor Peter Vaghi preached in place of the originally scheduled Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre.

Both Wuerl and Barres were criticized last month by a Pennsylvania grand jury for their handling of sexual abuse allegations while they were bishops of dioceses in that state. The accusations against Wuerl were more extensive and he has recently journeyed to Rome to discuss his resignation with Pope Francis. Today, the Washington Post reported new evidence suggesting Wuerl’s knowledge of sexual misconduct by his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Still, the liturgy provided an important opportunity for Catholics and others to engage in civil religious piety and protest. Katherine Frey of the Washington Post captured an image of a Virginia woman kissing the hand of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as he entered the cathedral. Her colleague Julia Zauzmer reported on others attempting to hand pink “I believe Christine Blasey” buttons to worshipers.

Monsignor Vaghi, the substitute preacher, is the long time chaplain of the John Carroll society which sponsors the liturgy, former pastor of St. Patrick’s Washington’s oldest Catholic church and current pastor of Little Flower parish in suburban Bethesda. His sermon, as reported by Crux, urged the need for national unity, the role of Holy Spirit in achieving this, and the “self-evident” divinely ordained truths of natural law on which the country was founded. It was a classic uniting text of American civil religion offered at a tumultuous moment in the life of the nation and its highest court.

Members of the supreme court attending the liturgy were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. The recently retired Anthony Kennedy also attended the service. His embattled would-be successor Brett Kavanaugh was not seen there. The Red Mass takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for votive masses of the Holy Spirit. The tradition of such masses marking the beginning of judicial terms dates to the fourteenth century, but the D.C. tradition only to 1939. Over the years, various denominations have offered special services for government officials in Washington, but the Red Mass is the only annual service that still claims a prominent place in Washington’s civil religious rituals. While Roberts, Thomas, and Kennedy are Roman Catholic, the service succeeds in claiming the attendance of non-Catholic leaders as well including Sessions, a United Methodist, and Breyer, who is Jewish.

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