Balancing justice and mercy

Members of legal profession gather for annual Red Mass

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PROVIDENCE — The first Red Mass was celebrated almost 800 years ago in Paris’ Le Sainte Chappelle.

The famous chapel was also then the home of one of Christendom’s most revered relics: the Crown of Thorns.

“The Red Mass then claims a singular connection with this gem of Catholic piety,” Father Ryan Connors, S.T.D., said during his homily at the annual Red Mass in Rhode Island, which was held Oct. 3 at Holy Ghost Church in Providence.

The particular parish was fitting, as the Red Mass is celebrated in part to invoke the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s judicial year upon the attorneys, clerk magistrates, judges and other members of the legal community.

“It offers us a chance to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that our decision-making and our efforts on behalf of whoever we are working for are guided by the Holy Spirit,” said Bill Fields, an attorney who represents youths in the state’s child welfare system.

Fields, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy Church in East Greenwich, is also active in the Thomas More Society of Rhode Island, which co-sponsors the Red Mass along with the Diocese of Providence.

“It’s a chance for us to step back and think of things that are more important than our day-to-day worries and issues,” Fields said. “It’s an opportunity to be reminded that it’s about the Holy Spirit working through us.”

The Red Mass’ name is derived from the red vestments — symbolizing the tongues of fire that represent the Holy Spirit — worn by the clergy. In antiquity, the justices who attended the Mass also wore scarlet robes.

“I love the history of it,” said Paul Kessimian, a civil litigator in Rhode Island who has been attending the Red Mass since 2006.

“It’s a throwback to tradition,” Kessimian said. “And more important, it’s a testament to the professionalism and history of the legal practice.”

The Red Mass was an annual event in Rhode Island from the 1960s into the 1980s. With the establishment of the Thomas More Society of Rhode Island in 1998, the celebration of the Red Mass was restored on the second Wednesday of October.

“The Red Mass has become a cherished tradition of the Society, and hopefully, will continue to be firmly established in the community,” said Joseph V. Cavanaugh, Jr., the president of the Thomas More Society in Rhode Island.

Monsignor Albert A. Kenney, S.T.L., the vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Diocese of Providence, celebrated the Oct. 3 Red Mass with Father Connors, a professor of moral theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, and several other priests.

Father Connors, a priest of the Diocese of Providence who delivered the homily, emphasized the Red Mass’s connection to the Crown of Thorns, a stark reminder of Christ’s suffering and the temporary nature of the world’s political and legal systems.

“We do well to root our prayer for the civic order upon the Lord’s crown,” Father Connors said. “The Crown of Thorns reminds us that this world is passing away. Earthly crowns, political power, pass away.”

The suffering associated with the Crown of Thorns can also serve to remind one that the work of justice can come at a cost.

“Lawyers and judges are not immune from the logic of suffering,” Father Connor said. “Sometimes doing justice is costly. Maintaining the rule of law may mean personal suffering to the lawgiver or judge.”

More than a dozen judges, dressed in their black robes, sat together during the Mass. The judges delivered the Mass readings and presented the gifts for the Eucharistic liturgy. A post-Mass banquet was later held in the parish hall.

“I’m very grateful that the St. Thomas More society works so hard to organize such a beautiful Mass,” said Terrence Donnelly, an assistant United States attorney in Providence who has been attending the local Red Mass since it was reinstituted in the late 1990s.

“I think it helps brothers and sisters in the legal profession to come together,” Donnelly said, “And for a few brief moments focus our hearts and our thoughts on the most important parts of what we do, which is seeking justice and balancing it with mercy.”