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.

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 a year 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.

Welcome to the journey!

I’ve been pursing the history of religion in America for almost thirty years. It is high time to offer a blog of that journey.

On our road trips across the U.S., particularly between Alabama and New England, my wife, Martha, and I often “chase churches.” A phrase we coined one memorable day in Petersburg, Virginia, as we spotted one spire after another in the distance and went zipping along the city streets to discover and photograph them.

Of course church buildings rarely move. To say we “chase” them might seem odd. But in the thrill of the hunt, it does seem like you are chasing them. And they do disappear.

Disappeared Churches in D.C.

Much of my attention is focused on Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress has preserved a marvelous 1892 bird’s eye view of Washington by Currier and Ives.


A careful look at the central area of Northwest Washington shows the prominent place of churches. At least twelve identifiable churches are located between Massachusetts Ave. (running horizontally across the center of the frame) and Pennsylvania Ave. (along the bottom).


Of these only four still stand. (Two are at the eastern end of the area, St. Mary’s (Catholic) and Fifth Presbyterian (now housing the Chinese Community Church. Two Episcopal churches are at the western end, Epiphany and Ascension (now Ascension and St. Agnes).) The congregations of two others (New York Avenue Presbyterian and First Congregational) have new buildings on the same site. The rest of the buildings have disappeared and been replaced by other structures or parks.

Still other churches belong in this 1892 view, but were not included by the artist. These include Luther Place Memorial Church and Vermont Avenue Christian Church (now Mt. Olivet Lutheran).

Chasing churches requires a lot of detective work both on the ground and in the archive. I hope you’ll follow my journey.

–David Bains