The Catholic Church, throughout the world and here in the United States, offers its members numerous opportunities to celebrate special occasions in addition to ordinary Sunday worship services. These most often take the form of liturgical masses connected with weddings, baptisms and funerals, which frequently see both Catholics and non-Catholics in attendance. Catholics consider the mass an extremely holy, reverent and mystical occasion, which may help explain to non-Catholics why it carries so much meaning for Catholics.
Beyond these more common special occasions, another tradition is for the Catholic Church to organize special masses that celebrate specific groups of professionals. These events are often known colloquially by various colors. “Blue” masses bring together police officers, firefighters and other first responders, and frequently include a large entrance procession of individuals in their “dress blues” entering the church together. “Rose” masses bring together doctors, nurses and others in the health care profession. The legal profession gathers under the color of a “red” mass.
First held in the 13th Century in France and England, the masses were scheduled to coincide with the start of annual judicial terms. Priests, bishops and cardinals would wear red robes to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit, while judicial officers and lawyers would wear their own corresponding robes. Biblical readings with justice themes would be selected and the homilist would inspire attendees by praying for God’s blessings to all involved in the administration of justice: judges, lawyers, law professors, government officials, legislators, and court staff to name a few.
The tradition of the Red Mass eventually made its way to the United States, with the first one held in Detroit in 1877. Over the decades, most major cities have established an annual Red Mass, including Seattle. The most prominent Red Mass in the United States is in Washington D.C. Held the Sunday before the first Monday in October, the event corresponds with the start of each U.S. Supreme Court term.
Supreme Court justices, the attorney general and other senior government officials regularly attend — whether they are Catholic themselves or not. In many locations, the mass is followed by a brunch or reception that often celebrates pro bono legal work of both lay and Catholic organizations.
A Red Mass unfortunately can sometimes bring controversy. For example, concerns have been expressed that the gatherings violate the spirit of separation of church and state, even with their optional participation by government officials. Another concern arises when homilists at the pulpit preach about religious policy positions such as overturning Roe v. Wade.
Such instances are the exception though. I’ve been attending Seattle’s Red Mass for many years and can report that it shines a light on the great opportunities that the legal profession has to advance social justice issues such as ending homelessness, abolishing the death penalty, and serving the less fortunate. The Red Mass is an ecumenical gathering designed to reach and inspire a broad audience with diverse beliefs. As a Catholic myself, I am always moved when I see people of all faiths (or no faith) come together for this gathering.
In Seattle, Red Mass will be celebrated this year on Thursday, October 17, starting at 4:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. James, 804 Ninth Avenue. The newly installed archbishop of Seattle, Paul Etienne, will be the principal celebrant and homilist.
KCBA President Jennifer Payseno will deliver the first reading of the Mass (the KCBA president is traditionally invited to serve this role). A good number of local and statewide judges, law school representatives, and other leaders in the bar usually attend. Immediately following the Mass there will be a complimentary reception with light refreshments for all attendees, hosted by the Archdiocese of Seattle.
To learn more about Seattle’s October 17, Red Mass, see the Archdiocese’s announcement on page 22 of the paper issue of the Bar Bulletin. Everyone is welcome to attend.
Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (206-267-7061).