PHOENIX — In a liturgy inviting “tongues as of fire” from the Holy Spirit to guide lawyers and government officials, it seemed oddly appropriate that the fire alarm inadvertently went off just before the Diocese of Phoenix’s annual Red Mass began Jan. 11 at St. Mary’s Basilica.
“You will notice that I asked the basilica to set off the fire alarm right before Mass so that it would be in your mind already,” joked Father Paul D. Scalia, the homilist, who is the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
The Red Mass is celebrated annually for members of the legal profession. In the United States, the Red Mass has typically been celebrated to mark the opening of the judicial year, but in Phoenix it is celebrated to mark the beginning of the Arizona state legislative session.
The name of the Mass comes from the red vestments of the presiding clergy.
Scalia, who is episcopal vicar for clergy for the Arlington Diocese and pastor of St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia, noted in his homily that the “time of Pentecost” referenced in the Acts of the Apostles was not what we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday, but rather a feast in ancient Israel commemorating when the law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
“There are two ways of viewing human laws. Either they correspond to the truth, or they’re instruments of power,” he said. Although the nation’s Founding Fathers were flawed men, they understood this truth.
They sought, however imperfectly, to establish the government according to the truth of the human person — truth that transcended any one group or power bloc,” said Scalia. “They appealed to self-evident truths and unalienable rights to shape society.”
The Christian Pentecost fulfills the events of Mount Sinai, he said. Rather than God appearing in a cloud of fire to hand down the law on stone tablets, he enables people to live it by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This fire enlightens, purifies and strengthens those in the legal profession, he said.
“This enlightenment is particularly important for the work of law so that those so doing can see and grasp the truth and the dignity of the human person whom our laws should serve,” said Scalia.
He compared human reason to a window, saying that just as a dirty window can distort the light, so can humans’ fallen nature distort the enlightenment of reason. Using the abolitionist movement as an example, he noted that the immorality of slavery is a truth accessible to human reason.
“But greed for power or financial gain had rendered reason impure and untrue,” said Scalia. “It was the Christians of the abolitionist movement who shed light on the issue, and whose faith purified reason of its selfishness.”
Priests and legal professionals can both face temptation to vanity, pride and selfish gain, said Scalia, noting that it can be easy to make decisions based on what others might think, say or publish.
“It is the fire of the Holy Spirit that strengthens our will to do what we know we should do, not only to see the good, but to choose that good has to be done,” he said. “The Spirit bestows the strength of will to give counsel or to render a decision that might make a person unpopular or even a little poorer.”
After Communion, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Kathryn King, who attends St. Francis Xavier Church in Phoenix, administered the oath of admission to the State Bar of Arizona to all attorneys present.
“The fire of the Holy Spirit is very relevant to applying the law as we do as judges,” she said in an interview after the Mass.
King, who was appointed to the court in July 2021, added that the Red Mass is “a nice opportunity for all of the legislators, lawyers and judges and those who are involved in the law to come together and celebrate in Christ before the legislative session begins.”
It’s important to have a Red Mass because members of the legal profession have a major influence on society, said Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted at a reception following the Mass.
“We need to regain our confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit,” said the bishop, who was the main celebrant of the Mass. “We need constantly to be lifting up the nobility of those of that profession and then supporting and encouraging and instructing our Catholic lawyers to live their faith in the public square.”