The solemn votive Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit, celebrated annually at the opening of the judicial year. Judges and lawyers attend in a body, joined by public officials and law faculty members. Although this Mass is used at the opening of legislative assemblies and school terms, indications suggest it was first associated with the law profession, and the appellation Red Mass customarily refers to the Mass initiating the legal year.
This venerable custom originated in Europe in the 13th century. From the time of Edward I the Mass was offered at Westminster Abbey at the opening of Michaelmas term. It received its name from the fact that the celebrant
was vested in red and the Lord High Justices were robed in a brilliant scarlet. They were joined by the university professors, the doctors among them displaying red in their academic gowns.
In France the inauguration of the judicial year was celebrated annually at the famous Sainte–Chapelle. Although the chapel was desecrated during the French Revolution, it was restored by Louis Philippe and dedicated exclusively to the use of the Messe Rouge. In 1906 the Parlement secularized the Chapelle and the celebration of Red Mass was transferred to Saint-Germainl'Auxerrois.
The Red Mass has also been traditionally identified with the opening of the Sacred Roman Rota, the supreme judicial body of the Catholic Church.
The inauguration of the Red Mass in the United States occurred in New York City on Oct. 6, 1928. This Mass was celebrated at old St. Andrew's Church on Duane Street with Cardinal Patrick Hayes presiding. Other localities followed, e.g., Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. In the U.S. not only Catholic but also Protestant and Jewish members of the judiciary and the legal profession attend the Mass.
The Red Mass is offered 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 must shine forth preeminently in the dispensing of justice in the courtroom as well as in the individual lawyer's office.
Bibliography: e. r. tiedebohl, "The Red Mass: A Legal and Judicial Tradition," University of Detroit Law Journal 18 (1954) 59–62; "The Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit," Catholic Lawyer 1 (1955) 215–216, 253; "Background of the Red Mass," Ave Maria NS 72 (Oct. 21, 1950) 519–523. h. c. watts, "The Red Mass for Judges and Lawyers," America 67 (Oct. 3, 1942) 712–713.
[l. j. hiegel/eds.]