First Posted: Sept 30, 2012
Jan 20, 2020

Red Mass

Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C. has a Red Mass every year on the Sunday before the first Monday in October (the Supreme Court convenes on the first Monday in October). Today, September 30, 2012, my husband, Bill, and I stopped in front of St. Matthew to take pictures for this site. We were on our way to the gym. Traffic was stopped on the street, the press was set up as you can see from my pictures and the secret service police were visibly present.

Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us
Press and Secret Service Vehicles

Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us
Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us

Image: Copyright DupontCircleReflections.us

A Red Mass is a Mass celebrated annually in the Catholic Church for judges, attorneys, law school professors, students, and government officials. The Mass requests guidance from the Holy Spirit for all who seek justice, and offers the opportunity to reflect on what Catholics believe is the God-given power and responsibility of all in the legal profession. Originating in Europe during the High Middle Ages, the Red Mass is so-called from the red vestments traditionally worn in symbolism of the tongues of fire (the Holy Spirit) that descended on the Apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Additionally, Judges of the High Court of England and all doctors of law wore red robes or academic hoods.


The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of Paris in 1245. From there, it spread to most European countries. Around 1310, during the reign of Edward II, the tradition began in England. It was attended at the opening of each term of Court by all members of the Bench and Bar. In the United States, Red Mass was first held in 1877 at Saints Peter and Paul Church, Detroit, Michigan by Detroit College, as the University of Detroit Mercy was known at the time. UDM School of Law resumed the tradition beginning in 1912 and continues to hold it annually. In New York City, Red Mass was first held in 1928 at the Church of St. Andrew, near the courthouses of Foley Square, celebrated by Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes, who strongly advocated and buttressed the legal community's part in evangelization.

In Canada, the Red Mass was recommenced in Toronto in 1924. Its sponsorship was assumed by the Guild of Our Lady of Good Counsel in 1931 and by The Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Toronto since 1968. It was re-instituted in Sydney, Australia in 1931.

Red Mass Today

One of the better-known Red Masses is the one celebrated each fall at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. on the Sunday before the first Monday in October (the Supreme Court convenes on the first Monday in October). It is sponsored by the John Carroll Society and attended by some Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, the diplomatic corps, the Cabinet and other government departments and sometimes the President of the United States. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is Jewish, used to attend the Red Mass with her Christian colleagues but no longer does so due to her objection to a series of homilies opposing abortion. In the 2011 St. Matthew mass, all three female members of the Court -- Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- stayed away, while the six male members attended. Also attending the mass conducted by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who called it "an opportunity to pray 'for all of those involved in the administration of justice'", were White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "[P]ublic officials were urged to serve God as they serve others."

On September 25, 2012, the oldest continuously-celebrated Red Mass in the United States will hold its 100th anniversary in Downtown Detroit at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, Saints Peter and Paul Church, 629 Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. The Honorable Michael Cavanagh, Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, will deliver the Renewal of the Lawyer's Oath of Commitment.

In Ireland, the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit (the Red Mass) is held annually on the first Monday of October, which is the first day of the Michaelmas Law Term. The ceremony is held at St. Michan's Roman Catholic church, which is the parish church of the Four Courts. It is attended by the Irish judiciary, barristers and solicitors, as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps, Gardaí, the Northern Irish, English and Scottish judiciary. The judiciary do not wear their judicial robes, although formal morning dress is worn.

In Scotland a Red Mass is held annually each autumn in St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh to mark the beginning of the Scottish Judicial year. It is attended by Catholic judges of the High Court of Justiciary, Sheriffs, advocates, solicitors and law students all dressed in their robes of office. The robes of the Lords Commissioner of Justiciary are red faced with white. The Mass is presided over by Cardinal Keith O'Brien.

In the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, Xavier University - Ateneo de Cagayan, and other Jesuit schools have also celebrated the Red Mass annually as the "Mass of the Holy Spirit".

Other Masses

In the United States, the liturgical custom of holding a Red Mass has more recently led to annual Masses for at least two other occupational groups; "Blue" Masses for police officers and others engaged in public safety, as well as "White" or "Rose" Masses for doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals.

In Popular Culture

Controversy over the constitutionality of the Red Mass and attendance by American officials has been dramatized in such shows as The West Wing ("The Red Mass") and Law & Order by John Munch, a character known for his obsession with conspiracy theories.