“Let us Give Thanks to the Lord, Our God”: It is Right and Just | Homily for the 2018 Red Mass

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Diocese of Joliet Red Mass
4 November 2018
Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus


Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God. It is right and just.

Dear friends,

On behalf of Bishop Conlon and the cathedral’s rector, Fr. William Dewan, I offer a very warm welcome to the Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus to those who have joined us from around the diocese this morning for the annual Red Mass.

The tradition of the Red Mass in the Catholic Church is long and venerable, originating in the High Middle Ages. The first Red Mass on record took place at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in the year 1245; the Franciscan order was only 36 years old! It traditionally gathers together those in a particular place who are tasked with the administration, promotion, and protection of justice in society. An Irish journalist described the tradition of the annual Red Mass as a “grave, necessary reminder of awesome powers and responsibilities of all those who dispense justice.” (Dearbhail McDonald)

In the famous Summa Theologica, which by the way St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t even start to write until 20 years after the first Red Mass, we are given the definition of justice that has been used in the Church for the last 800 years: “the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right.” (II.II.58.1) The proper matter of justice, the proper realm for the exercise of justice, according to Thomas, is “in our interaction with others” when we have a tangible encounter with someone else when we can render to them what is theirs by right; Thomas cites St. Isidore of Seville who wrote that a just man is called a just man because “he respects the rights of others.”

The heart of the divine law, and the laws of our nation, is justice.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Declaration of Independence, 1776

Every man and woman, whom the Church teaches possesses unique and intrinsic value, is also endowed by God with “certain unalienable rights”, rights that cannot be taken away. The State, likewise, has rights for the protection of its people and the promotion of the common good. At every stage of human history, we have seen instances where those States have disregarded their role and have violated the rights of the people, and, likewise, we have seen instances where individuals have violated the rights of others and, in justice, have received due recompense. It is a natural, organic, give and take between the State and individual members of the State.

If I rob Home Cut Donuts, and don’t put it past me, I would have the right to a speedy and public and fair trial, a right to a trial by a jury of my peers; I would have the right to an attorney and, if I can’t afford one, and I assure you I can’t, then one will be appointed to me; and, hypothetically, let’s say all that happens and I am convicted, found guilty of stealing over 1000 Apple Fritters, I have the right to go to jail, as a matter of justice. The State determined that I did not act justly in the apprehension of the apple fritters, and so now it is the duty of the state to render to me what is my right, namely punishment for my crime, and it becomes my duty to render the State what is its right, namely my going to jail. The State has acted justly toward me, and I have acted justly toward the State. Justice, the rendering to each what is his right, has been done.

But what is your motivation in this? It ought to be love.

Justice, as we have said, is the perpetual and constant will to render to each his right. Thomas, earlier in the Summa, likewise defines love: love is the perpetual and constant will to choose the good for the other. (I.20) “For Aquinas, to love means to consistently will and choose the good of the other. To love the other as ourself means seeing their good as instrumental to your own good. To love God, whose good we cannot will strictly speaking — as He is goodness itself — is to love what God loves, which, of course, is the neighbor’s good. So we come full circle.” (cf. Dr. Tom Neal, To Will the Good of the Other)

Do you love your clients? Do you love me, the apple fritter thief? Do you love the defendant as much as you love the plaintiff?

I don’t care if you like them, but do you love them? Do you see yourself, more often than not, as the last resort for them to be shown love, true love?

The first and greatest, and likewise the second, commandments are to love God more than anything and then love our neighbor even as much as we love ourselves. If the carrying out of God’s commands is a matter of justice, then love of God and neighbor ceases to be an option or a preference, but a duty and a right.

Does this mean we become mushy and sentimental in our work? Of course not. The highest good we can render to the other is justice, the giving to the other what is his by right. Sometimes loving the man or woman before you means to enforce the law to its fullest extent if their only chance of meaningful punishment and rehabilitation is behind bars.

We can talk about justice and love and rights and duties until we are blue in the face. But this is a Red Mass, not a Red Lecture, and so we must remember that the one who is our model and justice and peace and love and duty is Jesus himself. And Jesus can very often be found correcting and scolding the scribes and teachers of the law. The pharisees and scribes saw themselves as above the law, protectors of the law. Jesus saw them, and sees us, as servants of the law.

Jesus did not convene law classes and court sessions. Simply, he lived his life. He lived what Blessed John Henry Newman calls the “apostolate of personal influence.” He lived as a witness of what he believed. In this, we must imitate him.

Is your faith real? Do you believe in the person, not just the idea of Jesus? The one who has come to save you and the whole world, whose servant you are? Or is your faith merely notional, lip service or empty words and actions?

Real faith is borne and strengthened in prayer, which Newman described so beautifully as cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaking to heart. God’s heart speaks to our hearts those much craved “words of spirit and life” and they speak to us so deeply, they touch our lives so deeply, that cannot hold them in.

As he speaks to our hearts and our hearts overflow and speak back to him, we change. The heart of God speaks to us and the Holy Spirit speaks to us in “sighs to deep for words” and something changes in us, and people notice that we’re different. Your whole life, all your thoughts and words and actions and verdicts and sentences and opinions contain an “undertone of truth”, they are Christ-haunted. Your heart so utterly belongs to him that his voice can be heard in all your acts of justice and love.

And all of this finds practicality in our daily work. “Jesus, tell me what I should do. Jesus, tell me what I should say. Jesus, send me your Spirit and lead me in this situation toward perfect justice and perfect love. Jesus, you are the divine judge, coming in glory. You are the divine lawyer, discerning what is true in the hearts of all. Jesus, you were accused as a thief and hung on a tree, give me compassion. Jesus, you are God, so thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

The point of the Red Mass in 1245 at Notre-Dame in Paris remains the same today. I am wearing Red today to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit whose love and grace and help we implore today.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Creator Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Make us more just and help us to love.

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
‘He is One and there is no other than he.’
And ‘to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself’
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” 

And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God. It is right and just.

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