Sylvia Kiep of Springfield, Va., kisses the hand of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as he makes his way into the 66th annual Red Mass in Washington. At the Mass, one embattled institution — the Catholic Church — celebrates another, the Supreme Court. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As the nation focuses on the bitter fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, Washington’s Catholic cathedral held its annual Red Mass honoring Supreme Court justices and the judiciary on Sunday — with nary a word about the debate over whether to confirm President Trump’s pick.

Kavanaugh has brought up his Catholic faith throughout his nomination hearings, including on Thursday when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to an allegation that he sexually assaulted a fellow high schooler in the early 1980s. But Kavanaugh, who was invited to the Mass as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was not spotted in the pews.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, another figure of controversy at the moment, was also absent from the special Mass that he would typically lead.

Instead, Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville celebrated the Mass in the ornate St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and Monsignor Peter Vaghi preached a homily that focused on the Holy Spirit and on the Declaration of Independence.

“Could there not be a better time, both in our church and our nation, to benefit from the healing power of the Holy Spirit?” Vaghi said in his only nod to current controversies. “It is a power that treats the anger and divisions that so need the healing touch of our God if we are to continue our respective missions with love, genuine love for each other, and effectiveness.”

Each year, the cathedral hosts the Red Mass, named for the red garments that clergy wear in attendance at the start of the Supreme Court’s fall term. Supreme Court justices, local judges, and members of Congress and the Cabinet regularly attend. At this year’s Mass, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer attended, along with Anthony M. Kennedy, whose retirement from the court created the vacancy that Trump nominated Kavanaugh to fill.


Protesters yell "I believe Christine Ford," who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault, in front of St. Matthew's Cathedral after Sunday's Red Mass in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Members of the John Carroll Society, the Washington-area Catholic professional organization that hosts the annual Red Mass (as well as a Rose Mass to honor medical professionals), said afterward that they were pleased that the service steered clear of politics. But others said they entered the cathedral with the morality play that is unfolding in the Senate weighing on their minds.

“I was really offended that the homily didn’t mention” Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh assaulted her, Melissa Byrne said.

Ford alleges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago, when they were high school students in suburban Maryland.

Byrne, who said she was raised Catholic, attended the Mass wearing a bright purple shirt that said “I believe survivors.”

“They had an audience of people that had actual power, and didn’t use the homily to talk about the children who are incarcerated, to talk about believing women. It was a waste of the power of the church,” Byrne said.

Another woman exiting the Mass at the same time as Byrne cut in: “I totally disagree. It’s a church. Church is not meant to be political.” The woman, who did not want to provide her name to a reporter, then criticized the small group of protesters who were standing across the street from the cathedral chanting, “We believe survivors.”

“Why don’t these people go to church?” she asked. The fact that Vaghi did not mention politics in his homily, she said, was “the best part” of the Mass.

Another woman who also declined to give her name said she wasn’t thinking about Kavanaugh “at all. God is on our mind at Mass.”

Will Brantley, one of the many law students who attended the Mass, said that he was excited to catch a glimpse of the Supreme Court justices in attendance but that he didn’t think the Kavanaugh confirmation fight should have come up. “The church isn’t partisan,” he said.

A few protesters tried to hand out pink buttons saying “I believe Christine Blasey” to attendees as they walked into Mass, but most people declined to take them. “We want the people that are closest to Brett Kavanaugh and actually support his nomination to see that the opposition to him is genuine,” Brian Fallon said as he tried and failed repeatedly to get attendees to take a button. “We need to be everywhere: in the airport when senators are flying in and out of Washington, in their offices in their states.”

Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, would not say why Wuerl did not lead the Red Mass, which he has celebrated most years of his 12-year tenure as archbishop of Washington. Nor would she say whether Wuerl, who traveled recently to the Vatican, has returned to Washington.

Wuerl has faced mounting criticism in the archdiocese since a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August indicated he had a mixed record of removing abusive priests from ministry. He wrote in a letter to priests of the archdiocese shortly after Labor Day that he would go to the Vatican to discuss his potential resignation with Pope Francis, but the Vatican has made no announcement yet. Only Francis can decide whether Wuerl should leave his post.

Vaghi, as the chaplain of the John Carroll Society, was the homilist in Wuerl’s absence. At one point, he used a phrase echoing the motto of Kavanaugh’s Catholic high school, Georgetown Prep, which the judge has quoted during the nomination process.

The Holy Spirit, Vaghi said, helps the judges and lawyers in attendance fulfill their charge to be “men and women for others.”

This post has been updated.