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The Annual Red Mass

The Red Mass is an ancient tradition.  It is the Solemn Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated generally near the beginning of the judicial year.  It takes its name from the color of the vestments worn by the liturgical presiders to represent tongues of fire symbolizing the Holy Spirit   In Rome, the Red Mass opened the Sacred Roman Rota, the Tribunal of the Holy See.  In Paris, Sainte Chappelle was specifically designed as the chapel for the Red Mass.  In London, the Red Mass was celebrated in the Middle Ages and has continued thereafter even during World War II when judges and lawyers attended the Red Mass in Westminster Cathedral.  In the United States, the tradition began in 1928 in New York City, and Red Masses were celebrated in many dioceses thereafter.  In the Nation’s Capital, the Red Mass has been attended by Justices of the Supreme Court, Presidents and Vice Presidents, other government officials, and foreign diplomats.     

As mentioned, the Society began its life with the Red Mass.  On October 4, 1988, a beautiful fall day, Bishop Mulvee, Monsignor Taggart, and a host of other priests of the Diocese concelebrated the first Red Mass in the Diocese of Wilmington.  Many Delaware lawyers and their families attended the Mass and the breakfast that followed.  Father Robert Kennedy of the Catholic University of America delivered a memorable homily, quoting extensively and movingly from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.           

The Red Mass has continued ever since as the central activity of the Society.  The first three Red Masses were held on weekday mornings at St. Peter’s Cathedral, followed by breakfast in the parish hall.  The Society was fortunate to have two Cardinals preach homilies at the second and third Red Masses, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia) in 1989 and Cardinal William Keeler (Baltimore) in 1990.  Then the Executive Committee experimented with evening services.  The Red Masses in 1991 through 1996 were held at St. Peter’s on weekdays after work, followed by dinner in the parish hall.  Initially, the change of times was beneficial, as attendance peaked.  However, each year thereafter attendance fell.       

For the 10th Red Mass in the Diocese of Wilmington, the Executive Committee tried an experiment to boost interest and attendance.

With new Bishop Michael Saltarelli’s blessing, the Red Mass in 1997 was held on a Sunday at St. Peter’s Cathedral at the regular 11:00 mass time.  Although the Society again followed that format in 1998, the Executive Committee sensed that neither the members of the Society nor the Cathedral’s regular parishioners supported the idea of having the Red Mass at a regular Sunday Mass time.    

In order to boost attendance once again, particularly among the judiciary, the Executive Committee decided to change locations in 1999 when the Red Mass moved to St. Joseph’s church, in the heart of Wilmington’s financial and legal district, literally in the shadow of the state’s main courthouse.  St. Joseph’s Church was established in the mid-19th century to serve Wilmington’s growing population of black Catholics.  It remains a vibrant and diverse parish. The Red Mass at the new location was held at 12:30, followed by a complimentary lunch in the parish hall.  The law firm Morris James LLP donated the luncheon buffet in 1999 and has generously continued to do so thereafter.  The format has been followed ever since and has seemed to stand up over time.  That location and time seemed convenient to lawyers and judges, even after the courts moved from the nearby courthouse to a new courthouse several blocks away.           

In 2008, Bishop Francis Malooly concelebrated the Red Mass with Bishop Saltarelli just one month after Bishop Malooly was installed as the eighth Bishop of Wilmington.  Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, delivered the homily.         

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