It’s called the Red Mass, and it is a tradition that is being revived here tonight, and in recent years across Canada. It’s a special Mass in the autumn to mark the opening of the courts, usually in the local Catholic cathedral with the archbishop, attended by senior judges and leaders in the legal profession.
The tradition is well established in Toronto, where the Red Mass will be held this evening. After some years, it is being resumed in Vancouver tonight also. Ottawa too is having their Red Mass tonight, including this year for the first time those legislators who make the law, with the Speakers of the Commons and the Senate hosting a joint reception for the occasion. The most notable Red Mass is held annually in October in Washington, DC, with the chief justice of the supreme court and several of his colleagues always in attendance.
Such initiatives raise the hackles of those who are wont to drive religion out of public life, but there is good reason to pray for wisdom and courage in the administration of justice. Those who have the power to deny freeborn citizens their liberty, send them to prison and seize their property have special need of prayers, lest they abuse their fearsome powers.
More than that, our legislators and courts are given to the formidable task of changing human behaviour. The current federal government in particular is convinced that more laws and harsher penalties will make society safe and deter criminal behaviour. But if the prisons that judges send people to are only schools of criminality and vice, no amount of prison cells will be sufficient. Religious faith makes a not insignificant contribution to the conversion of malefactors, and those who build the jails and those who fill them ought to take that into account.
Faith provides more than just better social outcomes. It provides an underpinning of the rule of law, which is essential for the entire democratic order. All of our cherished democratic institutions – guaranteed human rights, equality before the law, rights of redress, the limited state – depend upon premises that cannot be generated from within. They depend upon a vision of the human person and society which is prior to the institutions of the state itself, and which is not dependent upon it. Otherwise, the instruments of the state can be put to arbitrary and unjust uses, as happens in democracies from time to time.
In short, the pursuit of the common good and the administration of justice require openness to the transcendent dimension. That’s why the Canadian charter speaks of the supremacy of God, or the American declaration about inalienable rights endowed by the Creator.
The term “Red Mass” is taken from the colour of the vestments worn – red is the liturgical colour of the Holy Spirit. In Canada it also coincides nicely with the sartorial appointments of our judges. Yet red is also the colour of martyrs, and most Red Masses are hosted by Saint Thomas More societies, the great man of the law and martyr under Henry VIII.
“The fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in everchanging terms as new social conditions emerge,” said Pope Benedict a year ago, when visiting Westminster Hall, where Thomas More was condemned to death. “Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”
Mere consensus is not sufficient to guarantee rights, or to put proper limits on the power of the state. Precarious is the situation of a man whose fate is dependent upon the will of Parliament or the wisdom of a judge.
“Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation,” Benedict said to the parliamentarians at Westminster.
That national conversation needs to include not only the breadth of the land, but that vertical dimension which touches the transcendent, and the historical dimension which embraces our heritage of faith. The Red Mass is reminder of what that national conversation can be.