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On eve of huge Supreme Court term, a prayer from on high

Hundreds attend the annual Red Mass on Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in D.C. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

If any government entity needs thoughts and prayers these fractious days, the Supreme Court might be the most deserving.

On Sunday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was the sole member of the Supreme Court to join hundreds of other Washingtonians at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for the Red Mass, a ceremony typically held on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, the opening of the high court’s term. The purpose of the ritual, which at the Washington cathedral dates to 1953, is to “invoke God’s blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials,” according to the event’s program.

The Supreme Court may need those blessings. On Monday, the justices will return to the courtroom for their first in-person session of oral arguments since the start of the pandemic. Their docket is explosive, to put it mildly: One case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, will ask the court to overrule Roe v. Wade to preserve a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Another case, backed by the National Rifle Association, is challenging a New York law that limits gun usage by requiring law-abiding citizens who want a permit to carry a concealed firearm outside their home to demonstrate a “proper cause.”

In political spotlight, Supreme Court embarks on extraordinarily controversial term

On top of the consequential docket, the court is mired in other volatility: In recent weeks, justices have been delivering public speeches against accusations of partisanship. (Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., nominated by President George W. Bush, said media and political commentary on the court’s emergency decision docket makes it seem like a “dangerous cabal” is making decisions outside the normal process.) A presidential commission is weighing proposals to change lifetime tenure for justices and even expand the number of seats on the bench. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is an 83-year-old Bill Clinton appointee, is facing pressure to step down so President Biden can replace him with another liberal who is younger.

And, if all of that weren’t high-stakes enough, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who has been fully vaccinated since January, tested positive last week for the coronavirus. In a statement Friday night, the court said he was showing no symptoms. He will participate in oral arguments by telephone from his home.

During Sunday’s ceremony, though, the particulars of the court’s problems were not aired inside the soaring cathedral. Instead, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, spoke in general terms about the need for “fraternity,” “justice” and “mercy.”

Caccia also lauded the Red Mass as a “powerful reminder that justice has to do with something sacred, and that those who practice its administration are at the service of something larger and greater than themselves.” At one point, he also cautioned, “Today, like at the time of Jesus, there is the risk to exploit justice instead of deliver it . . . if we do not place ourselves before God in this way, there is the risk to ‘use’ even God for our own ends instead of serving Him.”

In previous years, more justices have attended the Red Mass, which is named for the red vestments that are worn by clergy during the ceremony and that represent “the tongues of fire symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit,” according to the event’s program.

In 2018, for instance, Roberts attended, but so did Justices Breyer and Clarence Thomas. In 2010, then-Vice President Biden plus five justices showed up: Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Antonin Scalia — all of them Catholic — plus Breyer, who is Jewish.

After Sunday’s service, celebrants filed outside and chatted beneath the steps to the church entrance. The road had been blocked off to traffic. Bystanders stood outside taking photos, and protest signs were propped up on the sidewalk.

Jacob Thayer, 31, a federal government attorney from Alexandria, described himself as antiabortion and a supporter of the Second Amendment. He said he was not steeped yet in the details of the court’s upcoming cases but hoped that the justices’s eventual opinions “are rooted in law” and that they can “help bring us together.”

Chris Huff, a law student at Catholic University, said he believed abortion rights deserved a reexamination.

Roe v. Wade is based on science from the 1970s,” he said. “We might have a better understanding of the science of personhood now.”

His girlfriend, Nicole Schaeffer, also a Catholic University law student, said as far as the abortion case goes, “I’m praying they make the right decision. But the chances of it being overturned are unlikely due to Roe being a precedent.”