Five Supreme Court justices, dozens of lower federal court judges, law school deans and lawyers along with foreign ambassadors and at least one Cabinet secretary were in attendance this morning for the pomp-filled Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in D.C.
It's one of the majestic annual rituals of D.C., complete with clouds of incense, soaring choir music and the pew-rattling sounds of the church organ. And red lots of red in the vestments of the priest of others in the D.C. Roman Catholic hierarchy, along with parishioners in red dresses or red ties. Red, in church doctrine, symbolizes the tongues of fire that indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit, according to the archdiocese. The mass is timed for the day before the opening of the Supreme Court's new term, and is meant to convey the Roman Catholic church's blessing on the judicial and civic leaders of the community.
"It's one of the great traditions of our nation," said Archbishop Donald Wuerl toward the end of the 90-minute mass. For so many civic leaders to gather for such an event, said Wuerl, symbolizes the importance of religion to the nation. "We recognize how dependent we are on God's grace, God's light, God's guidance."
Sitting up front were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and his wife Jane, who is on the board of governors of the John Carroll Society, which sponsors the mass, now in its 55th year. The other justices attending were Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Other judges spotted in the pews or as ushers included: Judge Francis Allegra of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, former Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and Magistrate Judge John Facciola. Kimberly Moore of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit gave a reading. The Cabinet member attending was Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.
Cardinal John Foley, a Vatican official with roots in Philadelphia and in journalism, offered the homily or sermon. He spoke of the parallels between the legal profession and religious callings. "We both seek to challenge people to recognize their dignity and to live according to it. We both consider law as a guide to a well-ordered society." Foley also noted that the Supreme Court itself has said, "We are a religious people." (That sentence comes from the 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson, which ruled that New York City could release public school students for religious instruction during school hours.)
Foley told an interesting anecdote about a visit he had from Justice Scalia and his wife in Rome several years ago. Recalling his doctoral dissertation on natural law, Foley said he offered examples to Scalia of cases in which the Warren Court had "transcended mere positive law" to reach its results. In both Brown v. Board of Education and Gideon v. Wainwright, Foley said, the Court resorted to principles of equality that went beyond written law. Foley said Scalia disagreed with him until his wife Maureen interjected, "Oh admit it, Nino, the archbishop was right." As the audience laughed, Foley added that Mrs. Scalia is "a woman of exceptional taste and discernment."Correction: An earlier version of this post described Judge Thomas Hogan as the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Royce Lamberth is the current chief judge.