69th Annual Red Mass Sponsored by the John Carroll Society
Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC
October 3, 2021
Your Eminence, Excellencies,
Esteemed Brothers and Sisters,
It is a great and humble joy to be with you today as we celebrate this Mass imploring the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially for those involved in the administration of justice.
I would like to congratulate you for the tradition of this Red Mass in the nation’s capital, which since 1953 has marked the beginning of the new term of the Supreme Court. It is a powerful reminder that justice has to do with something sacred and that those who practice its administration are at the service of something larger and greater than themselves.
This is an important perspective, because today, like at the time of Jesus, there is the risk to exploit justice instead of deliver it. In the Gospel today, Jesus was approached by the Pharisees with a question: “Is it lawful?” Immediately afterward, St. Mark tells us, “They were testing him.” Justice was being used as a pretext to challenge and condemn — or, we could say, to do injustice. Jesus nevertheless enters into discussion with them. They confront Him with another question about the law of Moses. Jesus, however, tries to lead them on an exodus from what He calls the “hardness of their hearts.” He invites them to place themselves in the presence of God with an openness to understand what is God’s plan, declaring: “From the beginning of creation, God made them….”
This expression recalls the first phrase of the Bible, when we read in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It is also the first phrase in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” By this expression we are not being asked to go back in time, but to place ourselves in the presence of the Master of time and to understand that there is a “Logos,” a “reason,” a “logic” built into us and into all of reality that is at the basis of justice.
If we do not place ourselves before God in this way, there is the risk to “use” even God for our own ends instead of serving Him. This is the very attitude that distinguishes a truly religious person from an apparently religious one, like the Pharisees in the Gospel today. There are in the end only two kinds of persons: those who try to “grasp” God and take Him in their hands for their own goals – like little children grasping for water, only to have it escape through their fingers – and those who “ask” God and welcome Him with open, cupped hands, allowing them to retain water and imbibe it. We can ask ourselves: “What kind of person am I: Someone who tries to ‘grasp’ God or someone who ‘asks’ and ‘receives’ Him?”
Those who receive God and draw near to Him, draw near to His justice, which is one of His Biblical attributes. Without this humble attitude, we risk repeating what the ancient Romans expressed with the aphorism, “Summum ius, summa iniuria.” Even just laws, they asserted, can result in injustice when unaccompanied by a just heart. Moreover, it is only by looking to God, by trying to go to what is “in the beginning,” that we can understand what we pray in the Psalms: “You, Lord, are just in all your ways” (Ps 145) and in You, Lord, “Mercy and truth will meet, justice and peace will kiss” (Ps 85).
This is why it is fitting to start the new judicial year with this request for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives us true wisdom and joy, and generously bestows his guidance on all those who turn to him with a pure intention.
In this journey of truth and continual conversion, we very soon discover that what is true for our relationship with God applies also to our human bonds. Every time we treat others as objects that we can “grasp” and use for our own purposes, we lose them. If we, however, receive them as a gift, we can start a relationship that may last a lifetime.
This is what today’s second reading emphasizes, when the Letter to the Hebrews, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, says that Jesus, “for whom and through whom all things exist,” “suffered to bring many children to glory.” The passage concludes, “He, therefore, is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers.’” And if He is not ashamed to call and treat us as brothers and sisters, then that must impact the way we interact with each other. This is the relationship that God envisages for us “in the beginning,” and we are called to embrace this revelation with gratitude and let it inform our whole life.
A year ago tomorrow, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis published his Encyclical Letter “Fratelli Tutti,” taken from a phrase of the poverello meaning “Brothers and Sisters All,” precisely to propose to our humanity, wounded by so many divisions and in which we often are ashamed to call each other brother or sister, a “new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (6).
In contrast to the Biblical villain Cain, who justified his indifference and homicidal envy toward his brother Abel with the words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” Pope Francis proposes the way of the Good Samaritan, in which, following Jesus’ famous parable, we not only draw near as neighbor to those in need but take responsibility for them as a brother or sister.
“There are only two kinds of people,” Pope Francis writes: “Those who care for someone hurting and those who pass by,” adding, “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders.” Each day we determine whether or not we’re ashamed to treat others as brothers and sisters.
And the Holy Father emphasizes, “The decision to include or exclude those lying along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging” political, economic, social and religious domains (69-70), and, we can add, for evaluating justice, too.
In fact, justice without fraternity is cold, blind and minimalistic. Justice infused by fraternity, on the other hand, never remains an abstract application of norms to situations; rather it is transformed into an attentive application of laws to persons we care about. Fraternity is what makes it possible for justice to be perfected by mercy for all involved, since the restoration of justice is always ultimately the resolution of a “family dispute,” considering we are all members of the same human family.
As we celebrate this Red Mass, we pray that the Holy Spirit will come down upon each of us and all those involved in carrying out the sacred responsibilities of justice, public service and diplomatic work, and renew through this work the face of the earth. As we contemplate God the Father, the Just One “in the beginning,” we ask for the grace to grow in justice as his beloved sons and daughters. And as we behold Jesus, who took on our nature and was not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters, and draw near to Him not to test Him but to learn from Him, we implore divine assistance to become ever more just and fraternal in our relations with one another.