Red Mass Homily from Providence Cathedral
October 17, 2015
The following is a homily preached by Father Thomas More Garrett, O.P., at the Cathedral in Providence, RI. The “Red Mass” is an old tradition: a Mass of the Holy Spirit, especially for judges, attorneys, law school professors, students, and government officials, asking God’s assistance especially in matters of justice. Each summer for the last couple of years now, legal news has dominated the top stories for weeks throughout June and July as a divided nation awaits, and then digests, the latest blockbuster ruling. This summer was no different. Tonight, I want to turn to one of those legal news stories of the summer just passed. But the headline that I have in mind is not one generated by the US Supreme Court. Instead, the news that I want to discuss owes its genesis to a startling revelation from the world of fiction. Since the debut of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch had been a sort of paragon of honor for the legal practitioner. In July of this year, we learned that Atticus was not exactly the collective symbol of justice that popular culture had made of him. With the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, readers discovered that the moral compass of Lee’s first book favored segregation and was all too willing to place his considerable reputation and legal skill at the service of upholding a certain way of life that engendered racial inequality. Atticus Finch, it turns out, was just as comfortable defending an innocent African American man in a southern courtroom in the 1930s, as he was sitting in an assembly of a white citizens’ council twenty years later. Lee lifted the title for Go Set a Watchman from the Bible. The ‘watchman’ is a popular figure in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament where several books make mention of the personage. Lee draws her title from Isaiah 21:6. This evening’s first reading from Ezekiel (Ez. 33:7-9) is another instance where the watchman appears. ‘Watchman’ is perhaps an apt description of today’s civil “scholars of the law” (Lk 11:52), lawyers and judges, legislators and statesmen. Each is a professional watchman of sorts, warning others to protect themselves, teaching them how, and working to secure the interests of the people that they serve and represent. The lawyer is a ‘watchman,’ for his or her clients’ interests. Judges and legislators are sentinels for society. Each is performing the function of a ‘watchman’ for others. But who calls the watchman to the task? In the first reading from Ezekiel, God sets a watchman – a sentinel – for the house of Israel and charges him with the duty to warn his people. This watchman is called; his task is God-given. You might say that to be a watchman is his vocation. What about you, drafters, practitioners, “scholars of the law”? Is your profession part of a vocation? Is it a calling? What would make it one? What does profession have to do with vocation? There has been a lot of talk about vocations in recent years, much of it connected to the decline in vocations to priestly and religious life that has, of late at least, shown signs of turning direction. But the meaning of vocation has broader connotations than that with which it is most commonly associated. We all have a vocation, a calling, to holiness. Holiness is heavenliness. And in whatever state of life we live, God calls us each of us to live it in a way that will propel us to heaven. I like to think of a vocation as a path to heaven. A vocation is a path to heaven. This path proceeds along different trails, but each is united in its direction. They all join in one goal. No vocation is separate from its orientation toward heaven. Now a vocation is not the same as a profession. But the relationship between the two is not without overlap. One is connected to the other because practicing our profession is something we do within a vocation. The correspondence between the two means that our profession is linked to the pursuit of heaven. The modern emphasis on the universality of the vocation to holiness owes much of its impulse to The Second Vatican Council. One of the documents of the Council, Gaudium et Spes, articulates something that is of great importance to connecting and reconciling vocation and profession. Gaudium et Spes says this: [The] split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age . . . . let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other (GS # 43). Addressing the temptation to live a ‘divided life’ – with one set of values inside the profession and another outside – is one of the biggest challenges we face as lawyers, legislators and judges. Living a ‘divided life’ cultivates tension between whom we believe we are and who our professional activities say we are. But it is not merely personal integrity that the tension places at risk. The strain of division can suffocate our souls, depriving us of the breath that we need to keep walking the trail to heaven in response to our universal calling. Profession and vocation can steer us in different paths. The challenge is to hold them together. As guardians of the affairs of others, we as lawyers, legislators and judges deal with weighty concerns. Our success is often measured in terms of the defeats and triumphs of others. Ours is an important task because the affairs of others are in the balance. People we do not even know depend on us. But in acting as sentinels – ‘watchmen’ for society and for our clients – we must take care to watch over ourselves. What we do not only changes the lives of others; what we do changes us as well. Our professional activities shape who we are, making us more, or less, like the citizen of heaven that we are called to become. Remember this – and if I say one thing to you tonight that you will recall when we leave here – let it be this: The one thing that in the end matters in life is getting to heaven. The only real failure is falling short of that singular goal. In that task of reaching the goal, you are not alone. God sends ‘watchmen’ for the ‘watchmen.’ The Church cares about your work because she cares about you. That’s the message of the Red Mass. And nothing is more important to her than your eternal happiness. There is a scene in the book Go Set a Watchman, where Atticus Finch’s brother attempts to explain to the legendary lawyer’s now adult daughter – the grown-up Scout Finch – something about the history of the South. Atticus’s brother, Jack, wades into a topic that cannot help but evolve around the Civil War. Jack Finch describes the Civil War in terms of a battle about racial equality subsumed into a broader struggle of identities. There are subtler ‘struggles of identity’ in your legislative halls and your courtrooms. The results of these subtle struggles are fashioning the shape of society and your clients’ lives. But your work does more than change the lives of others; how you practice your profession shapes your identity as well. And how you live out your profession goes a long way toward answering the question of whether you have responded to your vocation.
We might lose a case from time to time. We might not always get the better side of a bargain for a client. Some of us might produce an opinion ripe for reversal, or cast a regrettable vote. But woe to us – woe to us – if we fail to live up to live up to our vocation!
Given on October 15th, 2015.
Image: Jan Matejko, The First Sejm, Recording of Laws AD 1182, 1880.