Justice Antonin Scalia was prayerfully offered up by his son Paul and the nation’s political and legal elite Saturday in an ageless funeral Mass that set aside Washington’s usual lessons of power and celebrated devout Christian faith.
Vice President Biden, all of the living Supreme Court justices with whom Scalia served save one, congressional leaders and members of the legal establishment were among the thousands who attended a ceremony that Scalia himself might have designed in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The occasion put aside — momentarily — the partisan battle over the court that Scalia’s death has occasioned and was remarkably free of the encomiums that usually mark the send-offs of Washington’s political class.
Instead, it followed the dictates of religion and placed the emphasis on the Christian promise of resurrection and the sinner’s need for God’s grace.
The Rev. Paul Scalia, a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, told the throng there was a purpose in gathering.
His father “was a practicing Catholic — practicing in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or rather, Christ was not yet perfected in him.”
Because only those brought to perfection may enter heaven, Paul Scalia said. “We are here then to lead our prayers to that perfecting, to that final work of God’s grace.”
Scalia the Supreme Court justice was not prone to humility. He was revered and hated for his strident views, an unfailingly confident sense of right, his sharp-tongued critique of all things liberal, or modern, and a larger-than-life personification of conservatism.
The setting for his funeral was perfect in that sense — the largest Catholic church in North America.
It took all seven verses of “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”— and then some — for his wife, Maureen, his eight other children and his three dozen grandchildren to accompany his body to the altar. An angelic-sounding choir provided song, and it appeared that every priest in the region had donned a white robe to stand at attention.
The day before, 6,000 people, including President Obama, had filed past his flag-draped casket in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. But before the casket crossed what Paul Scalia called “the holy doors,” the flag had been replaced with an ivory pall, and the powerful leader became supplicant.
Paul Scalia set the tone early in his 15-minute homily.
“We are gathered here because of one man,” the priest said. “A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy and for great compassion.”
He paused for the effect his father would have appreciated.
“That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth. It is He who we proclaim.”
It was a fitting service for Scalia, who died Feb. 13 at 79. He was a Catholic and was the member of the Supreme Court most vocal about his religion. He urged fellow intellectuals to be “fools for Christ” and once used an interview to underscore his belief in the existence of the Devil, whose latest maneuver, he said, “is getting people not to believe in him or in God.”
Scalia had made known his view that weddings and funerals, “but especially funerals, are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful but to those who have never really heard it.”
The grand shrine became a (likely brief) demilitarized zone in the partisan wars that have raged since Scalia’s death about whether Senate Republicans will allow an Obama nominee to succeed Scalia. That replacement would tip the balance of the court to the left.
Biden sat in the front along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The rest of Scalia’s colleagues on the Supreme Court were there, too, along with two of the three retired justices: John Paul Stevens, 95, and David Souter, 76. Sandra Day O’Connor, 85 and in frail health, was not there.
Clarence Thomas, a fellow Catholic and the justice most ideologically aligned with Scalia, read Romans 5:5-11.
Of course, politics were not completely absent. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) took time away from campaigning ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina Republican presidential primary to attend, and he and Thomas’s wife, Ginny, hugged in the center aisle. She has endorsed Cruz, who served as a clerk in the 1990s for then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
And Obama’s decision not to be among the mourners has sparked condemnation from conservatives. He and first lady Michelle Obama paid their respects Friday at the Supreme Court, where they viewed Scalia’s casket and met privately with members of the family. Obama and Scalia were not close, and the White House has noted that Biden and Scalia had a personal relationship.
Scalia liked to attend parishes that offered traditional Latin Mass, and on Sundays he could be found at St. John the Beloved, near his home in McLean, Va., or St. Mary Mother of God in Chinatown. But his funeral Mass was conducted in English.
That a Catholic of his stature did not have his funeral Mass celebrated by a high-ranking cardinal or bishop but by his son was seen as important and sentimental, said the Rev. James Bradley, a D.C. priest who blogs on liturgy, homilies and church music.
“It’s quite a beautiful thing to celebrate your father’s funeral. We all dread doing it, but it’s significant,” Bradley said. “If a cardinal or bishop presided, they may feel bound to celebrate the Mass of a public figure. But his son, he celebrates as a Catholic.”
The family plans a memorial service on March 1 that will probably be filled with testimonials, but Scalia’s homily was personal and at times drew laughter.
Paul Scalia thanked God for blessing his father with “55 years of marriage to the woman he loved, a woman who could match him at every stage and even hold him accountable.”
He recounted how his father could not always call the children by the right name — “there are nine of us” — and told of how his father one Saturday afternoon had found himself in his son’s confessional line.
The elder Scalia quickly departed. “As he put it later, ‘Like heck am I confessing to you,’ ” Paul Scalia recalled. “The feeling was mutual.”
Paul Scalia’s remarks became political just once, when he noted that his father agreed that God’s blessings “could be lost when faith is banned from the public square or when we refuse to bring it there.”
One aspect of Scalia’s judicial rulings greeted his mourners. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket the funerals of the famous and infamous, were outside. In 2011, Scalia joined in the majority opinion that said the group had a First Amendment right to protest at funeral services.
“That was his duty to us,” the group said on Twitter. “Now we are doing our duty to him, and all the living pouring in to lie over his dead body.”
Chad C. Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, adjacent to the basilica, said Scalia was something of an ambassador for the Catholic Church.
He promoted the Red Mass, the annual celebration for judges and lawyers that some justices attend on the Sunday before their terms begin in October. And Scalia created a social-media storm when he attended Obama’s second inauguration wearing a hat modeled after one worn by Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians and statesmen.
“This is a very important moment for Catholics in Washington,” Pecknold said.
In his homily, Paul Scalia cited a letter his father wrote that received attention this week when the American Conservative published it. It was praise for James C. Goodloe, a Presbyterian minister who presided at the funeral of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Scalia said flowery eulogies missed the religious significance of funerals.
“Even when the deceased was an admirable person — indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person — praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”
Michelle Boorstein and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.