Editor’s note: The following is a homily given at a Red Mass celebrated on October 27, 2016, for the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers.
“He said this with reference to the Holy Spirit that those who believed in him were to receive” (John 7:39).
On the culminating day of the Days of Judgment, “Hoshana Rabba”, Christ began to hint at the bond of love between the Father and the Son, the Spirit that animates the Church. That there is life we know because we are alive, but that life comes from the Holy Spirit can only be known through the Holy Spirit.
When Saint Paul asked the people of Ephesus in what we now call Turkey if they had received the Holy Spirit, they replied that they did not even know that there is such a thing. (Acts 19:2). There are many walking along 34th Street today who might say the same . Without that awareness, there is existence but no living of that existence to its fullest purpose.
The Church asks the Holy Spirit to enliven the judges and lawyers of the land, that they might act according to the logic of God who orders all things according to his will. Without God there would be no intuition of justice, and laws would be arbitrary and even destructive.
The liturgical color for the Holy Spirit is red, since he came at Pentecost as flames, in the same glow of the burning bush that Moses saw. As far as we know, the first Red Mass was celebrated in Paris in 1245. It takes no imagination to recreate the scene, for the Sainte Chapelle is still there, and like Aquinas and Rembrandt and Mozart, there is no explanation for its symmetrical logic and color and grace apart from the wisdom and light and power of the Holy Spirit.
1245 was thirty years after Magna Carta. Its text does not resound with soaring rhetoric for it is a turgid and rather tedious web of feudal laws and intricate customs without contemporary parallels, but its clarion declaration, almost missed if you do not read it carefully, is that the king himself is subject to laws of justice. As Archbishop of Canterbury, the saintly Stephen Langton helped compose it, based on an earlier charter of Henry II. Its chronology is complicated, for Pope Innocent III had excommunicated King John seven years earlier for rejecting the appointment of Langton in violation of the Concordat of London. Then he became the king’s protector when he condemned Magna Carta Libertatum, not for its assertion of the rights of freemen, but for lack of consultation by the king as a vassal of the pontiff. The pope, born Lotario dei Conti di Segni, had been elected at the age of 37 and was a trained lawyer, reforming legal codices and abolishing abuses of justice such as torture in trial by ordeal. He would sanction Magna Carta when John was succeeded by his son Henry III. There is a connection between those then and us now, not only legally, for while no one signed Magna Carta, (the twenty-five barons attached their seals to it), twenty four of them were the direct or collateral ancestors of George Washington.
It was also for subtle caution that in 1752 the theologians of the Sorbonne and the Holy See condemned Monestquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws” which became a fountainhead for the separation of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers. The author of “De l’esprit des lois” was far from irreligious, even if his theology was shaky. He says, “What a wonderful thing is the Christian religion! It seems to aim only at happiness in a future life, and yet it secures our happiness in this life also.” This hero of Hamilton, Madison and Jay as they wrote the “Federalist” papers died with the sacraments of the Church.
Our nation and, through a larger lens, the whole world, is torn today by ignorance of, and even hostility toward, that sober spirit of the laws which comes from the Holy Spirit. Every tyranny in the past century has refashioned God according to its own image,. The Roman senator Tacitus made one of the first extant references to the crucifixion of Christ by the procurator Pontius Pilate and, though Christianity was by his lights an “abominable superstition,” he disdained the way Nero made the Christians scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64. He also warned: “Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, whenever it is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of all things.”
Men so measured trample on the twofold stewards of justice: the Court and the Church, squandering what is good and wounding so many. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, an unlawerly lawyer and an unpriestly priest passed by the battered man lying on the ground. Some would say that man was the body politic. Others think he was Christ himself. But as Christ is the Logic of Creation made flesh, that battered man is both. Lawyers and priests are entrusted with the highest of confidences and obligations, even more than physicians who tend to the body. The surgeon’s scalpel cannot reach the soul as can the priest’s absolution or the judge’s vindication.
The Nuremberg trials of 1946, focused the harsh light of truth on justice made unjust by human depravity. There were twelve trials, the third indicting Nazi judges. Robert Jackson was the United States Chief Counsel for the prosecution. He was one of the two last U. S. Supreme Court justices who never graduated from a law school. In one pleasant aside, he said, “When the Supreme Court moved to Washington in 1800, it was provided with no books, which probably accounts for the high quality of early opinions.” And he also said: “It is not the function of the government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”
At the first Nuremberg trial, that of principle war criminals, Hermann Goering so slyly outwitted Jackson that the prosecutor almost resigned. The Anti-Christ put to the test is capable of humiliating anyone save Christ himself.
As we invoke the Holy Spirit, we also ask the intercession of Saint Thomas More who, having served as the highest judicial figure in his kingdom, was subjected to the perjury of compromised men. His “Utopia” was a shrewd and ironical critique of the best and worst of the human condition. He writes in it, nineteen years before his execution: “When public judicatories are swayed by avarice or partiality, justice, the grand sinew of society is lost.”
Thomas More faced his judges as Christ faced Pilate. Between Christ and Pilate was an electric silence as eternal truth gazed on temporal jurisprudence. Pilate’s cynical cry “What is truth?” was the moan of every age bereft of a consciousness of God. His world was full of vacant temples into which plaintiffs pleaded with no answer save their own echo. “What is truth?” If only Pilate had made that an earnest rabbinical inquiry instead of an exasperated apostrophe addressed to the moving clouds, he could have received an answer. That is not the protocol of a fallen world, which is why Christ must have sorrowed as he saw Pilate adjourn the court and wander into the nightmare of his mind. And because Christ knew that was the way of the world he had come to save, he let all this be. The Eternal Judge was judged unjustly, so that he might make justice right again.
Veni Sancte Spiritus —- Come Holy Spirit, come Father of the poor, come with treasures which endure . . . light immortal, light Divine, Visit thou these hearts of thine, and in our inmost being, fill. Amen.