By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 6:39 PM
On the eve of a Supreme Court session that will feature six Catholic justices for only the second year in its history, five members of the court joined Vice President Biden at a traditional kickoff Mass Sunday at a downtown cathedral.
The so-called Red Mass, a service dedicated to jurists and lawyers, dates to the 13th century in Europe and has been a first-Sunday-in-October custom in Washington for 57 years. Led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the justices lined two front pews in the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle as judges, lawyers and law school students filled the church. The dean of the Georgetown University Law Center led a prayer, and a federal judge served as an usher.
"Your presence here is witness to the importance our nation places on the rule of law," Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said from the pulpit. The service began with a flag procession by purple-plumed members of the Knights of Columbus and ended with the singing of "America the Beautiful."
In a homily by an American cleric serving in the Vatican, justices heard that the tradition began at time of civic strife similar to the current judicial mood.
"The Church understands the nearly overwhelming complexity of the climate which envelops the practice of law and the administration of justice today," said Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia. "Our enactment of this ancient ritual of the Red Mass joins us to the generations of judges and lawyers who pursued their professions conscious of their need for divine grace and guidance."
The justices attending the service included four of the court's Catholics: Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas. Stephen G. Breyer, one of the court's three Jewish members, also attended. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor, who are both Catholic, were not present, although Sotomayor was there last year, according to the church. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan did not attend the Mass.
"Chief Justice Rehnquist was Lutheran and he used to come every year, but since the court has become more Catholic it's become more difficult to have a more diverse group," said Susan Gibbs, spokesperson for the archdiocese.
Gibbs said most recent presidents have attended the Red Mass at least once during their terms, including Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. President Obama has not been to the service, although Biden has attended in each of the past two years.
"I think the significance of this event is that so many of them come," said Wuerl, standing outside on the sidewalk after the service as protesters across the street shouted and held signs condemning the church's recent sex scandals. "They come to ask the blessing of the spirit before the new session, but also to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy, particularly that we are a nation of laws."
Wuerl declined to place any special significance on the six-strong Catholic contingent sitting on the court.
"I'm very proud of the accomplishments of all our Catholic faithful," he said. "But I have tremendous respect for all the justices on the court."