Five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court attended the annual Red Mass Sunday, a Roman Catholic liturgy organized by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., each year in advance of the start of the new Supreme Court term.
By federal statute, a new term of the Supreme Court begins on the first Monday of October. On the Sunday before the first Monday, the Washington Archdiocese celebrates a liturgy for the justices at St. Matthew’s Cathedral called the Red Mass. Other such services are organized around the country for lawyers, judges, and other officers of the court by Catholic lawyers guilds.
The practice of organizing a mass for judicial officials and practitioners originated in Europe during the high middle ages. The liturgy is referred to as “Red Mass” because the celebrant petitions the Holy Spirit to illumine those present with the gifts of the spirit, among them wisdom, counsel, and fortitude. In Catholic liturgy, the color red is closely associated with, among other things, the feasts of the Holy Spirit.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito attended the mass. Each justice in attendance is Catholic, except Breyer, who is Jewish.
The principal celebrant of the mass was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered the homily. Gomez is widely seen as one of the leading “conservatives” in American Catholicism, and was a priest of Opus Dei prior to his elevation to the bishopric by Pope St. John Paul II in 2001.
The full text of Gomez’s homily is below:
My dear brothers and sisters,
I am so honored to be with you this morning. I bring you greetings from the family of God in Los Angeles, the City of the Angels.
The Church in Los Angeles is the largest Catholic community in the country. We are a global church, an immigrant church, made up of people who come from all over the world. We have about 5 million Catholics in L.A. and every day, we pray and worship and we serve in more than 40 different languages.
The Franciscan missionaries who founded Los Angeles named our city for the Mother of God, the Queen of the Angels.
One of those missionaries was St. Junípero Serra, our newest American saint. St. Junípero was Hispanic, a migrant from Spain, and he entered this country after living for more than a decade in Mexico.
In his time, there were many in the California colonial government who denied the full humanity of the indigenous peoples living in this land. St. Junípero became their champion. He even wrote a “bill of rights” to protect them. And by the way — he wrote that bill of rights — three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.
Most Americans do not know this history. But the Pope Francis does.
That is why, when the Holy Father came to this country in 2015, his first act was to hold a solemn Mass where he canonized St. Junípero. He held that Mass — not in Los Angeles, but right here in the nation’s capital.
Pope Francis was making a point. He believes we should honor St. Junípero as “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”
I agree. I think we should, too. Because remembering St. Junípero and the first missionaries changes how we remember our national story. It reminds us that America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual.
The missionaries came here first — long before the Pilgrims, long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Long before this country even had a name.
These missionaries — together with the colonists and the statesmen who came later — they laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history. A nation conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, ideas and beliefs.
That is why this national Red Mass is so important each year. There is a time for politics and a time for prayer. This is a day for prayer.
We acknowledge today, as America’s founders did — that this is still one nation under God; that his laws still govern the world we live in; and that we go forward still “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”
We ask the Holy Spirit today to open our hearts and help us to see our duties — in the light of God’s Word, in the light of his plans for creation.
The first reading we heard this morning, the story of that first Pentecost — reveals the Creator’s beautiful dream for the human race.
As we heard, there were men and women there in Jerusalem — from “every nation under heaven.” And the Spirit of God spoke to all of them in their own “native tongues.”
Pentecost is the “birthday” of the Church and the first day of her mission. And the mission that Jesus gave her is the beautiful mission of gathering all the peoples of the earth into one family of God.
In God’s eyes, there are no foreigners, there are no strangers! All of us are family. When God looks at us, he sees beyond the color of our skin, or the countries where we come from, or the language that we speak. God sees only his children — sons and daughters made in his image.
My brothers and sisters, the truth is this: Before God made the sun and the moon, before he placed the first star in the sky or started to fill the oceans with water — before the foundation of the world — God knew your name and my name. And he had a plan of love for our lives.
Every life is sacred and every life has a purpose in God’s creation! Every one of us is born for greater things. This is not just a beautiful-sounding idea. This is what Jesus Christ came to teach us! And we are still trying to learn it.
The people who wrote this country’s laws and formed our institutions — they understood this teaching. They understood it so well that they called these truths “self-evident.”
America’s founders believed that the only justification for government is to serve the human person — who is created in God’s image; who is endowed with God-given dignity, rights and responsibilities; and who is called by God to a transcendent destiny.
My brothers and sisters, you all share in the responsibility for this great government. Public service is a noble vocation. It takes honesty and courage. It takes prudence and humility. And it takes prayer and sacrifice.
So today, let us ask the Holy Spirit for his gifts and renew our commitment to this vision of a government that serves the human person.
Let us commit ourselves to an America that cares for the young and the elderly, for the poor and the sick; an America where the hungry find bread and the homeless a place to live; an America that welcomes the immigrant and refugee and offers the prisoner a second chance.
Of course, we can always talk about the ways our nation has failed to live up to its founding vision. From the start, Americans have engaged in passionate arguments about these things, and these conversations are vital to our democracy.
From the original sins of slavery and the cruel mistreatment of native peoples, to our struggles today with racism and nativism — the American dream is still a work in progress.
We have come a long way. But we have not come nearly far enough. That should not make us give in to cynicism or despair. For all our weakness and failure: America is still a beacon of hope for peoples of every nation, who look to this country for refuge, for freedom and equality under God.
Throughout our history, men and women of faith have always led movements for justice and social change.
I am thinking of the efforts to abolish slavery and to give women the right to vote. I am thinking of the civil rights movement, the farmworkers movement, the peace movement and the right-to-life movement. It was a book by a Catholic Worker that helped launch the “war on poverty” in the 1960s.
This is why religious freedom is so essential to who we are as Americans. We should never silence the voices of believers. They connect us to our founders’ vision. Today more than ever, we need their spirit of peacemaking and searching for nonviolent solutions.
In the Gospel passage that we heard this morning, Jesus comes to his disciples, he shows them his wounds, and then he “breathes” on them.
What we are witnessing in this scene — is a new creation.
In the beginning, the Creator formed man and woman in his own image. And then, the Book of Genesis tells us, God “blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”
In this passage we heard this morning, Jesus comes to create a new humanity — a new people formed in the image of his forgiveness and made alive by the power of his Spirit.
This scene is rich in meaning. When Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” — yes, he is giving his Church the power to forgive sins in his name.
But more than that, he is giving every one of us — the power to forgive those who trespass against us.
And that power to forgive — it is the greatest power that men and women possess under heaven. If only we could understand that! Because when we forgive, we are imitating Jesus Christ.
The power to grant forgiveness and show mercy is the image of God. In many ways, to forgive is what makes us fully human.
My brothers and sisters, let me conclude by suggesting that forgiveness is part of the unfinished revolution in American society.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened or excusing what is wrong; it does not mean ignoring what divides us.
True forgiveness sets us free from the cycles of resistance and retaliation; it sets us free to seek reconciliation and healing.
And this is what we need in America today — a new spirit of compassion and cooperation, a new sense of our common humanity.
We need to treat “others” as our brothers and our sisters. Even those who oppose or disagree with us. The mercy and love that we desire — this is the mercy and love that we must show to our neighbors.
May God bless you all for your service to this great country! And may God bless America!
And may Our Blessed Mother Mary, help us all to renew the promise of America. To commit ourselves once again to the truths that our founders entrusted to us.
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