For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The first Monday in October is a day that many across the country – but especially those in Washington, D.C. – circle on their calendar. That is, of course, because it is the start of the Supreme Court’s annual term.
On the Sunday before the start of the term, St. Matthew’s Cathedral typically hosts the annual Red Mass, celebrated for judges, lawyers, law school professors and deans, law students and various government officials who deal with the law on a daily basis. It is similar to the Blue Mass held for those in law enforcement and the White Mass for those in the medical profession. The Red Mass also is usually attended by several Justices of the Supreme Court, as well as the Vice President and serves to start the new term off with prayer and invoking God’s blessings on those who are responsible for the administration of justice, as well as in public service.
The Red Mass is organized annually by the John Carroll Society. For those unfamiliar with it, the Society brings together Catholic professionals in the Archdiocese of Washington for their intellectual, spiritual and social enrichment, assists the Archbishop in charitable efforts and pray for and supports the Holy Father. The Society uses a variety of events, but one of the best known is the Red Mass, that in 2017 entered its 65th year.
On Sunday, October 1, St. Matthew’s drew a very large congregation, including four of the five Catholic Justices of the Supreme Court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Kennedy, Alito and Thomas, as well as Justice Steven Breyer, who is Jewish. As is the traditional protocol, the justices sat in the first two pews, and according to their own rankings by seniority. Noel Francisco, the newly confirmed solicitor general, also attended.
Especially notable each year is the homily, and this year was no exception. Archbishop José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles and Vice President of the USCCB was asked to be the homilist by the main celebrant, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. Archbishop Gomez’s very presence was something quite historic. This was the first time that a naturalized U.S. citizen had delivered the homily, a Mexican immigrant who spoke to some of the most important leaders in the U.S. government with a frank but deep reflection about the spiritual foundations of the country and the call to live up to the ideals and the vision through which the nation was founded.
“Of course, we can always talk about the ways our nation has failed to live up to its founding vision,” Archbishop Gomez declared. “From the start, Americans have engaged in passionate arguments about these things, and these conversations are vital to our democracy. From the original sins of slavery and the cruel mistreatment of native peoples, to our struggles today with racism and nativism — the American dream is still a work in progress.”
But rather than dismiss the ideals as a myth or some unattainable goal, he turned instead to the call for hope. “We have come a long way,” he said, “But we have not come nearly far enough. That should not make us give in to cynicism or despair. For all our weakness and failure: America is still a beacon of hope for peoples of every nation, who look to this country for refuge, for freedom and equality under God.
Throughout our history, men and women of faith have always led movements for justice and social change.”
His fortitude is rooted in the proper understanding that to understand the roots of America we cannot overlook the spiritual and the role of the Church through her incredible missionaries who labored across the Continent long before there were English colonies and even longer before there was a United States.
Speaking of the canonization of St. Junípero Serra in 2015 by Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., Gomez noted that the pontiff considers St. Junípero “one of the founding fathers of the United States.” He added:
I agree. I think we should, too. Because remembering St. Junípero and the first missionaries changes how we remember our national story. It reminds us that America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual. The missionaries came here first — long before the Pilgrims, long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Long before this country even had a name. These missionaries — together with the colonists and the statesmen who came later — they laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history. A nation conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, ideas and beliefs.
In a time of harsh, bitter and acrimonious political discourse, Archbishop Gomez gave a potent reminder of key founding principles and how this country – still that work in progress – was built on prayer and why an event like the Red Mass has such consequence. “There is a time for politics and a time for prayer,” he said. “This is a day for prayer. We acknowledge today, as America’s founders did — that this is still one nation under God; that his laws still govern the world we live in; and that we go forward still ‘with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.’” He quoted the Declaration of Independence in that, adding, “America’s founders believed that the only justification for government is to serve the human person — who is created in God’s image; who is endowed with God-given dignity, rights and responsibilities; and who is called by God to a transcendent destiny.”
For that reason, the archbishop stressed, religious liberty is so important and essential to who we are as Americans. “We should never silence the voices of believers,” he exclaimed. “They connect us to our founders’ vision. Today more than ever, we need their spirit of peacemaking and searching for nonviolent solutions.”
It was an eloquent and historic homily by one of American Catholicism’s most thoughtful shepherds. And as the Supreme Court embarks upon a new term filled with cases that will touch upon religious liberty, the dignity of the human person and the common good, we would all do well to heed the archbishop’s plea for prayers – for our Justices and the Justice system, for our public servants and for the nation.