The History of the Red Mass

The “Red Mass” is an historical tradition within the Catholic Church dating back to the Thirteenth Century when it officially opened the term of the court for most European countries. The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of Paris in 1245. From there, it spread to most European countries.

Around 1310, during the reign of Edward I, the tradition began in England with the Mass offered at Westminster Abbey at the opening of the Michaelmas term. It received its name from the fact that the celebrant was vested in red and the Lord High justices were robed in brilliant scarlet. They were joined by the university professors with doctors among them displaying red in their academic gowns.

The Red Mass also has been traditionally identified with opening of the Sacred Roman Rota, the supreme judicial body of the Catholic Church.

In the United States, the first Red Mass occurred in New York City on October 6, 1928. This Mass was celebrated at Old St. Andrew’s Church with Cardinal Patrick Hayes presiding.

Today, well over 25 cities in the United States celebrate the Red Mass each year, with not only Catholic but also Protestant and Jewish members of the judiciary and legal profession attending the Mass. One of the better-known Red Masses is the one celebrated each fall at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. It is attended by Justices of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, the diplomatic corps, the Cabinet, and other government departments and, sometimes, the President of the United States. All officials attend in their capacity as private individuals, rather than as government representatives, in order to prevent any issues over separation of church and state.

For the most part the Red Mass is like any other Roman Catholic Mass. A sermon is given, usually with a message which has an overlapping political and religious theme. The Mass is also an opportunity for the Catholic church to express its goals for the coming year. One significant difference between the Red Mass and a traditional Mass is that the prayers and blessings are focused on the leadership roles of those present and to invoke divine guidance and strength during the coming term of Court. It is celebrated in honor of the Holy Spirit as the source of wisdom, understanding, counsel and fortitude, gifts which shine forth preeminently in the dispensing of justice in the courtroom as well as in the individual lawyer’ s office.

The Red Mass in Santa Clara County

The St. Thomas More Society of Santa Clara County held its first Red Mass in approximately 1982 at St. Patrick’s Church on East Santa Clara Street in San Jose. (Between 1981 and 1990, St. Patrick’s served as the cathedral of the Diocese of San Jose.) In the early years, the Red Mass was held on Saturday mornings with breakfast afterwards.

Today, the Society celebrates the Red Mass every Fall with an evening Mass and dinner reception thereafter. It is one of the premier and largest-attended annual events for lawyers and judiciary in Santa Clara County. The Mass is frequently celebrated by the Bishop, and the St. Thomas More Award is presented to a member of the legal community who espouses the moral principles held and expressed by St. Thomas More. (See list of prior award winners and speakers). At the post-Mass reception and banquet, a distinguished speaker addresses a large audience.