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At St. Matthew’s 70th Red Mass, a celebration of God and good work

Church members in the processional at the conclusion of the 70th Annual Red Mass to bless the work of judges, lawyers and civil servants at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

To the soaring strains of ancient hymns and patriotic songs, hundreds of worshipers gathered in Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Sunday for a traditional Red Mass meant as a reminder to believers — and especially judges, lawyers and other civil servants — of a higher power stretching far beyond themselves.

On the day before the start of a new Supreme Court term in an America wrestling with deep divisions, Washington’s Catholic leaders reprised a celebration of God and good work that has stretched 70 years.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, retired justice Stephen G. Breyer and other government officials for the Red Mass, a centuries-old tradition hailing from Europe named in part, organizers noted, for the color of fire symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

That spirit drew Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Junius P. Fulton III to make the drive from Norfolk with his wife Darnell for a morning of contemplation. It provided, he said, a reminder of how not to “lose humanity around how we treat people,” whether a criminal defendant or a civil litigant.

“Power tends to corrupt. This is a reminder of that,” Fulton said.

District resident Aiseosa Osaghae knew nothing about the tradition of the Red Mass before she started at Georgetown as a law student in 2019. But after graduating in May and starting work as a health law fellow at the university, she still finds it refreshing to have a Mass targeting lawyers and public servants.

“It’s just a nice thing to come to a Mass with people who share that passion for the betterment of people,” Osaghae said.

Prayers were offered for judges and law enforcement, “that the Holy Spirit may constantly draw their attention to the least among us.” They were offered for “peace in our world, especially in Ukraine,” and for those affected by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian.

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Brett Palmer, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and works at the Department of Energy, is a regular parishioner at St. Matthew’s cathedral, named after the patron saint of civil servants. President John F. Kennedy’s funeral was held there.

“It’s a very dignified place to worship,” said Palmer, who was moved by the consecration and Holy Communion Sunday.

“Having that blessing helps keep our priorities in order,” Palmer said. “We’re here to serve the American public, not to enrich ourselves or enjoy grand positions in life.”

The Red Mass is traditionally timed for the day before the Supreme Court’s new session. It came this year at a time of discord over the legitimacy of the nation’s highest court, which in June overturned the Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion.

A recent Gallup poll recorded a sharp decline in Americans’ trust in the judicial branch and found just 40 percent of Americans approve of the way the Supreme Court is doing its job.

The partisan scars over the court’s direction and makeup were bypassed in Sunday’s service, which was hosted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the John Carroll Society, a group of Catholic professionals.

The homily from Bishop John O. Barres cited the theologian Romano Guardini’s observation that the greatest things “are accomplished in silence — not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision.”

Then, Barres asked: “What's all this got to do with the practice of law?”

His answer was that a deeper discipline in prayer “animates and focuses dedication to civil law responsibilities.” Barres cited the example of zero-sum games in public life, such as “the difficulty the government currently has in balancing care for the environment against reducing inflation and allowing for affordable energy.”

To best balance those goals, Barres said, “we need wise counselors to guide us, and most especially, that wisest of counselors — the Holy Spirit who brings us the gifts of wisdom, understanding, and counsel to let us see through our selfishness and past the boundaries of our own limited intellects.”

The worshipers sang the national anthem and later, after Communion and a concluding rite, followed with America the Beautiful, in verses reaching beyond spacious skies and the fruited plain.

America! America! God

mend thine ev-‘ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in

self control, Thy

liberty in law.