Many Americans are familiar with the fact that Roman Catholics in Washington, D.C., hold a special church service, known as the Red Mass for the color of vestments used, to mark the opening of the U.S. Supreme Court each October. Every four years it is also traditional for the president to attend a church service shortly before he is inaugurated. Interestingly, there is no such tradition at the opening of the U.S. Congress. But there once was.
When the Red Mass was first held in Washington, it occurred in January and marked the opening of the legislative branch. From 1939 until 1952 the service was sponsored by the law school at Catholic University and held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (which at that time only consisted of the crypt church). In 1953, at the beginning of the Eisenhower Administration, the service moved to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle near the White House and was sponsored by the John Carroll Society, a local organization of Roman Catholic attorneys. It was still held near the beginning of the calendar year, and thus the beginning of a new year for the executive and legislative branches.
Presbyterians began their own alternative to the Red Mass in 1947 after they had designated an existing congregation and building around the corner from St. Matthew’s as the “National Presbyterian Church.” Both the Red Mass and the Presbyterians’ “Service of Intercession and Communion” drew lawmakers from various denominations. For example, Harry Truman, a Baptist, attended the Red Mass as vice president in January 1945 and the Service of Intercession and Communion as president in January 1949. Yet whereas government officials simply sat in the pews as worshipers at the Red Mass, those who were Presbyterian elders took an active role in the Presbyterian service. This resulted in striking leads for newspaper articles such as “President Eisenhower yesterday received communion from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Sen. Edward Martin” (Washington Post, January 6, 1955).
The End of the Congressional Services
These two services ceased to be held at the opening of Congress in part because religion became a more politicized force in American life. On January 26, 1975, four days after the second anniversary of the decision in Roe v. Wade, President Gerald Ford attended Red Mass at St. Matthew’s. The sermon strongly protested Roe’s legalization of abortion and thereafter the service was moved away from the Roe anniversary to the opening of the Supreme Court’s term in October.
Two years earlier, Presbyterians who believed that because of war Christ was “being crucified afresh in Vietnam” protested outside the Service of Intercession and Communion because they were not permitted to speak during it (“A Plea to Presbyterian Members of Congress,” Congressional Record, January 6, 1973, 447). This did not end the Presbyterian’s annual service, but it did take much of the energy from it. So too did the relocation of the National Presbyterian Church away from central D.C. to Nebraska Avenue. Within a couple of decades the service had been discontinued.
By this time, the National Prayer Service in early February had become a well established tradition. Though held in a hotel ballroom, not a church, members of Congress presided at it and officially hosted it, thus it carried some of the weight of the earlier congressional services. Furthermore, since it was not hosted by a church it was able to present itself is broadly non-denominational or perhaps even interfaith. Ironically, its usual venue, the Washington Hilton, sits on a track of land where the National Presbyterian Church once planned to build its new home.
Biden’s Choices amid Covid-19
It remains to be seen what church services, if any, President-Elect Joe Biden will attend as part of his inaugural schedule. Since 1985 each president has attended two services, a private one on inauguration morning, and a public one a day or two later at Washington National Cathedral. The tradition of the inauguration morning service dates to 1933. Most commonly it has been held at Saint John’s Episcopal Church one block from the White House (and from Blair House where the president elect traditionally stays). St. John’s was thrust into even greater prominence on June 1, 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. President Donald Trump walked across Lafayette Square to St. John’s in order to pose with a Bible after the square and the church’s courtyard had been cleared using tear gas. Four days later, the mayor of D.C. renamed the street in front of the church, “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
Nearly half of the presidents since 1933, however, have worshiped in another place on inauguration morning. Biden’s fellow Roman Catholic, President John F. Kennedy, attended mass at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. If Biden chooses to attend church on January 20, he will face an interesting choice between a Catholic mass in which is own piety is rooted or a service in a church on Black Lives Matter Plaza.
One option that could accomplish both goals would be to hold the public televised, interfaith service a day or so after the inauguration not at the cathedral but at St. John’s. Covid precautions will limit the large crowd that normally attends the service at the cathedral as well as the travel of religious leaders from around the nation to help lead it. The diverse group of leaders (in 2017, twenty-seven from seven different religions and many denominations) could be linked through video and because of adjustments due to Covid, St. John’s is now equipped to broadcast services from its intimate historic building. Whatever, schedule is follows given tradition and his own habit of church going even amid Covid, it is likely that Biden will include some church service as part of his inaugural schedule.