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What is the Red Mass?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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The Catholic Church holds many special masses each year, each designed to celebrate some thing or some aspect of life. One of these special celebrations is called the Red Mass. It is celebrated yearly, though there were times when it was certainly barely observed, as a special means to seek guidance for those who work in the legal system like lawyers, judges and law students and also for those who work as government officials. The goal of the Red Mass is to ask the Holy Spirit to guide each person toward acting in a way that is most just and most God-given.

The reason the mass is called the Red Mass stems from the colors worn by the priests administering the mass. The red color is also in reference to particular scriptural passages. 50 days after Jesus had risen from the dead, the apostles were together in a room when they were suddenly met with tongues of fire, which filled each with the Holy Spirit. The tongues clearly meant that they were to go forth to proclaim the work of Jesus, and the fire, that they were to do so with great passion. Evoking the tongues of fire by the color red is a plea that all who act in decision of others' lives will do so in a Christlike manner.

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The earliest Red Mass was celebrated in Paris in the 13th century, and its popularity spread to other European countries by the early 14th century. For a time, especially during the Protestant reformation, the Mass fell out of fashion, but it was revived in Sydney, Australia in 1931. The US wouldn’t hold its first Red Mass until the 1950s.

Today, about half of all states in the US hold a yearly Red Mass, and the tradition has begun again in a plethora of countries. The largest Red Mass held in the US is the annual Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which is located in Washington D.C. Many people who work in either Congress or the judicial system attend this mass, which is always held on the first Sunday of October. Further many of the attendees are not Catholic, but certainly are aligned with the idea that guidance is needed in their profession. Attendance of this mass isn’t obligatory, and anyone who works as a government official or in any level of the judiciary system attends the mass as a private individual, specifically to stress that they are not trying to combine church and state.

Some politicians purposefully avoid attending the mass, since it would seem to contradict separation between church and state, and would preference Catholic viewpoints on a variety of touchstone issues. Many others feel that attendance is just spiritual relief, and though they may not share all Catholic viewpoints on political issues, they humbly feel that a little guidance from the divine is not such a bad thing when it comes to creating public policy, making judgments, defending others, or deciding the fate of individuals.

Many of the larger Red Mass gatherings are not held to make a political point, but to help politicians and those in the legal profession reflect on what guides them to make decisions. These masses tend not to canvass for new members to Catholicism, but to honor the sacred role of humans in dispensing justice, which many Christians (and many other religious groups) believe to be one of the gifts given by God to his people.

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