Members of Melbourne’s legal profession gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne on Monday 30 January for the annual Red Mass to mark the official opening of the legal year.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli celebrated Mass for about 160 legal representatives, including judges of the High, Federal Circuit and Family courts of Australia and the Supreme, County and Magistrates’ courts of Victoria, as well as King’s Counsel and Senior Counsel, solicitors and barristers from metropolitan and suburban legal firms, and members of parliament and government departments, including Australia’s Attorney-General, the Honourable Mark Dreyfus KC MP.

In his welcome, Archbishop Comensoli acknowledged the leadership of those working in legislative, judicial and ecclesiastical realms of the law, and thanked those gathered for their presence and faithful service to the wider community. ‘Thank you for taking a moment to offer up the year ahead in prayer and in supplication, and for the various services you provide to the wider community,’ he said.

Being a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, the Red Mass prayerfully requests guidance for all who seek justice. Its name derives from the red vestments worn by the celebrants to signify the Holy Spirit, with the celebration dating to the Middle Ages, when English judges processed from the Temple Bar in London to Westminster Abbey for Mass. Similarly, members of Melbourne’s legal fraternity donned their robes and wigs to join Archbishop Comensoli in processing into the cathedral.

During his homily, Archbishop Comensoli reflected on God’s hope for his beloved people, and the notion that hope is ‘not just a concept that gives information about our nature as human beings’ but ‘is performative for the living of a human life. Hoping makes a difference for us creatures created to hope.’

He said: ‘True justice is a gift of the Lord, and we are blessed to live in a land that respects the law and invites us to contribute to its refinement and improvement. But the work of allowing justice to breathe through good law and its application is an ongoing project that is never finished; it is a work of hope, or at least should be, and it requires God’s grace to succeed.

For you, therefore, servants of the law, a faith that brings hope is a gift for society, especially the least of God’s children.’

Quoting the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Archbishop Comensoli said that ‘Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility. Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters’ (Pope Benedict, Mass in Glasgow, Scotland, 16 September 2010).

During the prayers of intercession, Judge Anna Robertson of the County Court of Victoria called on all gathered to ‘pray for our judges, magistrates, tribunal members and all who hold judicial office, that they may vigorously defend the common good after the fine example of St Thomas More our patron.’

She continued: ‘We pray for the fair and proper administration of the law, so that in Australia, all people may be protected from injustice and discrimination, and receive fair representation, care and understanding.

‘For all lawyers assembled, that they may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with law, courteous with adversaries and faithful to conscience.’

The Red Mass is arranged annually by members of the Melbourne Catholic Lawyers’ Association, which was formed in 2001. Chairman of the Red Mass Committee, Mr Tim McFarlane said, ‘the Red Mass has become an important focus for Catholic lawyers as it provides an opportunity to reflect upon the year ahead and, just as importantly, also provides an opportunity to spend time together with colleagues both in prayer and socialising.

‘The numbers attending have continued to increase, particularly post-Covid, with this year having well in excess of 160 people. The Catholic Lawyers appreciate the wonderful support and prayerful guidance offered by Archbishop Comensoli and the other priests of the Archdiocese.’

The tradition of having a religious celebration at the opening of the legal year is observed by many religious denominations in different parts of the world. In Melbourne, in addition to the Red Mass, religious celebrations on the opening of the legal year took place in St Paul’s Cathedral, in synagogues and in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Following Mass, the judiciary, members of the legal profession, law students, staff and their families joined Archbishop Comensoli for morning tea in the cathedral grounds.

The Melbourne Catholic Lawyers’ Association is hosting a Lenten retreat for Catholic lawyers on ‘Interior Freedom: The secret to living a calm and fulfilling life in times of stress’, led by Fr Cameron Forbes, Chaplain to the association, on Sunday 5 March 2023, at Corpus Christi College, 180 Drummond Street, Carlton. Book here. Bookings close Thursday 2 March 2023.