October 10, 2023 // Diocese

Red Masses Offer Prayers for Legal Professionals

By Kasia Balsbaugh and Bethany Beebe

During the first week of October, Father Mark Gurnter, Vicar General of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, celebrated two Red Masses – at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne on Monday, October 2, and at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame on Thursday, October 5 – to ask for the Holy Spirit’s intercession upon those in the legal profession or civil service.

Along with fellow canon lawyers Father Wimal Jayasuriya, Pastor of St. Mary Mother of God, and Father Jacob Runyon, Rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Father Gurtner celebrated this centuries-old tradition that, according to Father Gurtner, calls upon the Holy Spirit to help “all those who work in the legal profession.”

Lawyers, law students, and law professors fill the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for the annual Red Mass.

According to literature provided at the Masses, the historically European recognition began in the 13th century. The first Red Mass in the United States was held in the late 1920s at Old St. Andrew Church in New York City and has spread across the country since. The first Red Mass at Notre Dame was held in May of 1955. The Red Mass was customarily held around Michaelmas – the feast of St. Michael, September 29 – which marked the beginning of a new academic term. Today, most Red Masses around the world are still celebrated at the same time, roughly our modern midsemester.

Frequently, the life of St. Thomas More – patron saint of lawyers, politicians, and civil servants – is a common topic of reflection at the special Mass’ celebration.

“The consequence of [St. Thomas’] refusal to go against his rightly formed conscience, which told him that King Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was not legitimate, and that King Henry was not – indeed, could never be – Supreme Head of the Church of England” is often considered, Father Gurtner said.

Pondering weighty issues is par for the course in the profession, Father Gurtner said during his homily at both Masses, even when not leading to martyrdom, as in the case of St. Thomas More.

Photos by Kasia Balsbaugh
Father Mark Gurtner, a canon lawyer and the Vicar General of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, celebrates the annual Red Mass at Notre Dame on Thursday, October 5.

“The legal profession and a life of public service are fraught with moments of conscience, moments in which decisions must be made regarding the lives of individuals or regarding policy which can affect groups of people,” Father Gurtner said.

He continued, pointing out that those holding legal power have pressures coming from many directions. Outside groups holding vested interest, popular perception on morals,
personal worries about one’s own safety, or for the safety of one’s family, are all legitimate earthly concerns. Father Gurtner also begged the question that may weigh most heavily: “What would God have me do?”    

It was with great prudence of research and consideration of the many affected perspectives in the case of Henry’s divorce that caused More’s response, according to the homily. “Conscience,” after all, Father Gurtner said, “is not a matter of personal autonomy.” Being able to listen to one’s conscience in this way, and to act unhesitatingly according to what one hears requires an inner freedom and courage. Father Gurtner said that, for More, this inner freedom and courage came from his love of God.

“In other words,” Father Gurnter said, “before he was a martyr, he was a saint.”

Bethany Beebe
The altar is prepared at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the annual Red Mass held in Fort Wayne on Monday, October 2.

During the Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne and the one on the campus of Notre Dame, which was well-attended by law students and professors, Father Gurtner urged the current and future legal professionals and civil servants to mirror such saintly conduct.

“To follow in the path of St. Thomas More – indeed, to follow Jesus Christ – is to do the same, to seek constantly the means of grace God has provided, to immerse ourselves in the sources of Divine Revelation, [and] to cultivate, above all things, love of God,” Father Gurtner said. “As we, too, seek sanctity in our lives, immersing ourselves as St. Thomas did in the grace and revelation of God through the means God has provided to His Church, may God give us also the clearer vision of the truth and how it must be acted upon, as we fulfill our duties as legal professionals and civil servants.”

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