Every year at St Patrick’s Cathedral, a tradition dating back to the late Middle Ages comes to life again.

To mark the beginning of the legal year, the Cathedral is filled not only with the vibrant red robes of clergy but also with the black robes of judges, barristers and magistrates. Several members of parliament and other government representatives are also in attendance.

This tradition is the Red Mass, named so because, being a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, the red robes of the clergy symbolise the tongues of fire that fell on the apostles at Pentecost (though by happy coincidence, or perhaps for the same reason, English and Welsh judges also wear red).

This year the Mass was celebrated on 29 January by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli. In attendance were the Hon Lizzie Blandthorn (Minister for Children and Minister for Disability in the Victorian Government), and the Hon Michael O’Brien (Shadow Attorney-General) and Senator Raff Ciccone, representing the federal government, as well as Justice Simon Steward of the High Court of Australia, Justice Michael Wheelahan of the Federal Court, and many other judges, magistrates, deans and commissioners from various Victorian and national bodies.

All came to participate in a celebration with a long and rich history.

A spirit of wisdom and justice

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a practice emerged in which the Roman Rota—the tribunal of the Holy See in Rome—would celebrate a Mass to begin the legal year, seeking to conduct their ecclesiastical and juridical affairs in wisdom and justice.

This practice spread throughout the world, and in England, beginning in about AD 1310 under the reign of King Edward I, a Red Mass was celebrated four times a year at the beginning of each term of court: Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas.

In France they also celebrated the Red Mass in honour of St Ives, the patron saint of lawyers, who was born in the French region of Brittany in AD 1253 and who studied at the University of Paris. St Ives earned a significant reputation as an advocate for the poor, and as a man who acted with honesty and humour in the face of trying circumstances. In honour of his integrity and service to the poor, he was famously described as Advocatus sed non latro, res miranda populo, which translates a ‘a lawyer yet not a rascal, a thing that made the people wonder’.

The Red Mass has been celebrated at St Patrick’s Cathedral for some time, providing an opportunity for those who work in the law to seek the assistance of the Holy Spirit in the serious responsibilities falling to them. It is also a reminder of the deep history that the Church and Western legal traditions share, each one shaping the other in lasting ways.

For Brendan J Avallone, a Melbourne barrister who has appeared in a number of significant cases in the Federal Court and other courts of Australia, the Red Mass is also a valuable opportunity to gather with other likeminded people at the start of the year.

‘It’s an opportunity to see each other and support each other,’ he says. ‘It can sometimes be a lonely place, being a practising Catholic in a legal profession, and being able to be there practising our faith together can be encouraging.’

The Red Mass has occasionally drawn criticism from critics, who claim that it represents too much of a mingling of church and state affairs. On the contrary, Mr Avallone says, there is a deep harmony between his Catholic faith and his work in the law.

It can sometimes be a lonely place, being a practising Catholic in a legal profession, and being able to be there practising our faith together can be encouraging.

‘Going back to first principles, we’re there as a profession to serve the community, to help achieve access to justice and truth … I think you’ve got to see whatever profession you’re in as service. Hopefully that’s for all people, whether they’re Catholic or not, but it’s a message which rings loud and clear through my Catholic faith as well.’

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Mr Brendan J Avallone, Melbourne barrister.

From a young age, Mr Avallone was moved by the story and witness of St Thomas More, and especially by the last words he is reported to have uttered before his execution:

I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.

‘They were pretty significant for me, and they’ve always held a strong resonance,’ Mr Avallone says. He recognises the tensions that can sometimes exist between the law and his faith but looks to St Thomas More as an exemplar. ‘Hopefully none of us have to make that choice, but he was prepared to make that ultimate choice and carry it through.’

Looking to the future and reflecting on the harmony between his faith and the law, he feels ‘positive’.

‘I mean, there are always challenges, because we, I mean practising Catholics, are a minority … but if one keeps at it—and that means for me going to Mass each week, spending time talking to my family about God and religion, mixing with people when the opportunity presents itself, having those conversations, spending time in prayer—there’s no reason why the two can’t continue growing together.’

The divine Advocate

Throughout history, lawyers have often been called ‘advocates’. As Archbishop Comensoli observed during his homily for the 2024 Red Mass, the Holy Spirit is called ‘the Advocate’ in the Scriptures (John 15:26)—‘the Paraclete’ who ‘speaks for those who come before the throne of the Almighty’.

Although the word may have become ‘devalued’ in recent times, the Archbishop said, its meaning is a rich one: ‘Advocacy for justice is not about adopting a theory and then looking for a cause. Justice is the doing of what is objectively good for those who
need it.’

Advocacy for justice is not about adopting a theory and then looking for a cause. Justice is the doing of what is objectively good for those who need it.

Continuing the tradition of coming together in prayer at the beginning of the legal year is deeply important, he said, so ‘that all that we do in the year ahead might be done in the way of the divine Advocate, the Paraclete, who comes alongside, to comfort those in need, to reveal what is true and good.’