Unless you’re part of Melbourne’s legal fraternity, you may have been unaware that the opening of the legal year is celebrated with the Red Mass, a ceremony at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The Red Mass represents the long-standing link between the legal profession and the Church and is well-attended each year by senior judges, donning ceremonial regalia of wigs and robes, alongside other members of the legal profession and their families.
Chaplain to the Melbourne Catholic Lawyers Association Fr Cameron Forbes articulates why this is an important event in the calendar. ‘The Red Mass highlights that working in the legal profession – be it as a judge, barrister or solicitor – is more than a job; it is a vocation in the pursuit of justice and mercy,’ he says.
‘The Red Mass calls upon the Holy Spirit to guide and bless the work of those in the legal profession.’
Before joining the seminary, Fr Cameron completed degrees in law and arts at the University of Melbourne, going on to work in policy development for the Commonwealth Government, and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. At the Red Mass, Fr Cameron will be a concelebrant with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Fr Werner Utri and Fr Tony Kerin.
The Red Mass is so named from the fact that traditionally, the celebrant wore red vestments, customary in services celebrating the Holy Spirit, and in centuries past the attending Lord High Justices also wore scarlet robes.
Currently, the Red Mass ceremony occurs in many cities over the world and comes from a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.
‘The first known Red Masses were celebrated in Paris in 1245 and Westminster in 1301,’ says Fr Cameron. ‘Judges, barristers and solicitors continue their work in an unbroken line of legal history where the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage have always been present.’
In a world of flux, there’s a place for an unbroken tradition many centuries old.
And according to Fr Cameron, ‘all of us are in need of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This reality remains through the ages, despite changing circumstances. The special prayers during the Red Mass invoke the Holy Spirit upon those who work in the legal profession. The Mass brings alive again Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for us, and reminds us that we too need to keep making sacrifices for the common good.’
The Red Mass isn’t without its detractors, with some finding a ceremony celebrating the Opening of the Legal Year in a Catholic Mass to be an odd juxtaposition. However, the legal profession and the Church share a great deal of cultural DNA, with the legal system within the Catholic Church being the oldest continuous legal system in the West, predating many civil law traditions.
‘The Church has strongly influenced the development of Western civilisation, its institutions, moral code and systems of law and order,’ Fr Cameron says. ‘I think the participants feel that their legal vocation continues those developments in the service of justice and mercy.’
And, Fr Cameron adds, not all attendees at the Mass are necessarily Catholic. ‘The Red Mass is open to all those who want the Holy Spirit to bless and guide their work in the legal system.’ Other denominations and faiths offer similar services on the same day.
The Mass is a welcome reminder that the values of justice and mercy that underpin the system of law and order and enable our society to function, come first from God.