Legal professionals pray for guidance of Holy Spirit at annual Red Mass

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PROVIDENCE — Lawyers, law enforcement officials and members of the judiciary gathered at Holy Ghost Church on Federal Hill on Wednesday, October 4, to invoke the blessings of the Holy Spirit upon the judicial year at the annual Red Mass.

The tradition, sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society for Catholic legal professionals, traces its roots to medieval Europe, where members of the court gathered to receive the blessings of clergy at the start of the judicial year. The “Red” in the Mass’s title refers to the vestments worn by clergy symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit as well as the traditional color of robes worn by medieval judges.

In the United States, the tradition was inaugurated in 1928 in New York City and has since become an important annual celebration in dioceses throughout the country. In 1998, the celebration of the Mass was revived by the St. Thomas More Society in the Diocese of Providence, where it is traditionally celebrated in early October.

“[The Red Mass serves] for all of us to come and be humble and aware that we need God’s guidance for what we do in our daily lives in our vocations,” said Joseph Cavanagh, Jr., president of the St. Thomas More Society of Rhode Island. “This is an affirmation of our beliefs and we hope more and more people turn their eyes to God.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Evans celebrated this year’s Red Mass, and Father John Connaughton, director of vocations for the Diocese of Bridgeport, served as homilist. Father Connaughton grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, and studied at the University of Dallas and the UConn School of Law. He worked for several years at the State of Connecticut Judiciary and received his law degree in 2008 before entering St. John Fisher Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut, and studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2013 and continues to serve as a member of the Connecticut Bar.

Father Connaughton called to mind the recent Senate confirmation hearing of judicial nominee Amy Barrett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, during which Senator Dianne Feinstein of California questioned Barrett’s ability to decide rulings objectively as a practicing Catholic. Senator Feinstein’s comments drew criticism from both Catholic and secular communities, with some prominent critics writing letters to remind the Senate Judiciary Committee of the constitutional clause that bans religious tests as a qualification for public office.

“The exchange between the senator and the law professor expresses, I think, what is at the very heart of the struggle in which our culture finds itself,” said Father Connaughton.

That struggle, he said, is the relationship of the law to reality amid an increasingly popular worldview that allows a person’s personal opinion to take precedence over objective truth. Such a subjective worldview, he explained, could only lead to a struggle for power as those with the greatest authority are able to determine moral standards for themselves and others.

“What is the effect of all this?” he asked. “It’s a society where people feel more and more isolated and vulnerable. It’s a culture marked by fear and anger.”

Recalling the legacy of St. Thomas More as a public servant who was executed for refusing to deny the principles of his Catholic faith at the demand of the king, Father Connaughton emphasized the importance of acknowledging an objective reality even when a ruling party — or the whims of popular culture — claim the ability to change it.

“If there is no truth beyond power, then St. Thomas was a fool,” he concluded. “But if there is, he was a saint.”

Following the Mass, participants gathered for a reception in the parish hall, where several reflected on the importance of the celebration for the legal community. According to Jeanine McConaghy, an attorney and parishioner at St. Luke Church, Barrington, those who participate appreciate the ritual of the Red Mass, which includes a procession of law enforcement officers and justices in their formal robes.

“I just always like the tradition of it,” she said. “It’s a nice way to gather and to maybe try to keep us real in the professions that we’re in.”

Everett Sammartino, a partly-retired attorney in his 61st year of practice and parishioner at St. Mark Church, Cranston, said he was glad to participate in the Mass, which he has attended since it was revived in Rhode Island in 1998.

“I’ve always been a participant in the Red Mass. And I wouldn’t miss it,” he said.