Speaking at the annual Red Mass that seeks God's blessing and guidance on the administration of justice, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Juan R. Esposito encouraged those who work in law to be good stewards of their profession and offer generous service to others, like the son from the parable in that day's Gospel who carried out his father's will by working in the vineyard.
"We are all charged with fostering a good and just civil society. Lawyers and judges and civil servants are entrusted to be good stewards of that portion of the vineyard that is the law and legal system," Bishop Esposito said Oct. 1 at the 71st annual Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, sponsored by the John Carroll Society.
Being servants of the rule of law means holding to "the principles of justice, of fairness, of authentic equity even when it is difficult. We will strive to know and to hold to the truth as we understand it. … It is the truth, the Scriptures teach us, that sets us free," said the bishop, who serves as the vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Bishop Esposito, who has degrees in both civil and canon law and was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Washington in February, was the main celebrant and homilist at the Mass.
An estimated 900 people, including judges, lawyers, diplomats and government officials attended the Mass. Dignitaries attending the 2023 Red Mass included two current members and one retired member of the U.S. Supreme Court who are Catholic: Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett and retired Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Also attending the Mass were Peter K. Kilpatrick, president of The Catholic University of America, and John J. DeGioia, president of Jesuit-run Georgetown University. The opening procession included deans and professors from law schools at local universities, and the offertory gifts were brought up by law students from the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, the Georgetown University Law Center and the Howard University School of Law.
Since 1953, the Red Mass has been celebrated at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, to coincide with the Supreme Court's new term.
The John Carroll Society, sponsor of the Mass, is named for Archbishop John Carroll, who in 1789 was named as the first Catholic bishop of the United States, leading the Diocese of Baltimore, which then included all 13 original states. The Catholic group, which has nearly 1,000 members from different professions, assists the archbishop of Washington in charitable and community projects, including as volunteers with Catholic Charities' legal and health care networks serving the poor.
Offering words of welcome at the beginning of the Red Mass, Bishop Esposito said, "Assembled here are eminent jurists, lawmakers, academics and advocates who do the quiet work of helping everyday people with their everyday problems, as well as men and women from a variety of other occupations, all coming from different social and ethnic backgrounds and faith traditions.
"As we look around at this diversity, it is right that we see each other as brothers and sisters in the greater human family, recognizing that we are, each one of us, a part of something greater than ourselves, something that is both tangible and transcendent."
The concelebrants at the Mass included Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar and eight priests, including Msgr. Juan Antonio Cruz Serrano, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the Organization of American States; Msgr. Seamus Horgan, the first counselor at the apostolic nunciature in Washington; Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the rector of St. Matthew's Cathedral; and Msgr. Peter Vaghi, the John Carroll Society's chaplain and the pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland.
At the beginning of Mass, a color guard of six fourth-degree Knights of Columbus marched to the front of the sanctuary carrying U.S. and Vatican flags, and then the people in attendance put their hands over their hearts and sang the National Anthem.
Later as he began his homily, Bishop Esposito noted that the annual Red Mass is celebrated to mark the new term of the Supreme Court and the work of judicial and legislative bodies throughout the United States, and to prayerfully call upon the Holy Spirit "to pour forth his manifold gifts upon us all."
Priests at the Red Mass wear red vestments, signifying the flame of the Holy Spirit that rested in tongues of fire atop the heads of the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost.
"Like them, this morning we raise our voices in confident prayer to ask God for the blessings of wisdom and knowledge, and the humility to accept what is true," the bishop said, adding that they had come together seeking "an understanding of right and wrong, just and unjust and the fortitude to pursue the good."
Reflecting on the work of lawyers and judges, the bishop said their "fidelity to our judicial tradition enables them to be genuine servants within the rule of law."
Bishop Esposito said the message in the reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians encouraging people to look out for the interests of others can be seen in an attorney's duty of loyalty to clients, in a judge's strict impartiality and when legal professionals take on pro bono clients and causes.
He expressed thanks to those who do pro bono work for the poor, and in a brunch after the Mass, the John Carroll Society honored three attorneys and one law firm for their service to Catholic Charities Legal Network.
In his homily, the bishop noted that American law was built on the foundation of common law and on the nation's founding principles, which "grew out of the recognition that there is a higher, timeless, unwritten natural law -- derived from God's eternal law -- applicable to all. … The ‘Law of Nature' and of Nature's God' invoked by our nation's Declaration of Independence includes the truths that we are all created equal and that our fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms are not given to us by human rulers, but are endowed in our human nature by our Creator."
Human-made statutes and regulations, he said, must "adhere to the higher law that requires fundamental fairness, that holds justice and mercy in tension, and that respects the fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms of every human person."
Rather than being arbitrary, law "must be rooted in transcendent real and objective truth and justice," Bishop Esposito said, adding that while the legal system "is inherently adversarial, it does not need to be antagonistic," and he said that as people face social challenges while trying to do what is right and just, it is important to recognize the need for human fraternity, social harmony and that all people have dignity.
Bishop Esposito encouraged those who work in law to think about what it means to rededicate themselves to be servants of the rule of law, seeking the common good, being stewards of truth and justice, and helping the poor and marginalized.
Concluding his homily, Bishop Esposito said the Red Mass offered an opportunity to "pray for a conversion of hearts throughout the world so that the arc of our society bends more perfectly toward justice."
As the Red Mass ended, St. Matthew's Schola Cantorum choir accompanied by musicians playing brass instruments and by the cathedral's organist led the congregation in singing "America the Beautiful."