Red Mass – Saint Peter’s Cathedral
6 October 2023
Isaiah 61:1-3, 6, 8-9; Philippians 4:4-9; John 13:1-15

My brother priests and deacons, religious sisters, members of the judiciary, members of bar associations from throughout the Diocese of Scranton, elected officials, young people representing schools of the Diocese of Scranton, Abington Heights School District and Marywood University, and dear friends:   Thank you for the honor of preaching at this 50th Red Mass to be celebrated in the Diocese of Scranton.  How blessed we are to once again gather for this cherished Mass as we invoke the power and presence of the Holy Spirit upon each of you and the noble work that has been entrusted to your care. 

The Spirit that we invoke is the same Spirit of whom Isaiah prophesied in our first reading – the bestower of the gifts of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength.  As such, we pray during this Mass that these gifts will be yours in abundance as you confront the complex issues facing our nation and our corner of it, as you bear the public scrutiny so often brought upon you, and as you discern the many voices and demands that clamor for your attention and response.

In July 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asked me to join a group of five Bishops who would represent that body during a visit to the U.S.-Mexican border.  It was a complicated experience, rife with painful images, more questions than answers and tensions that we continue to face five years later as we confront the right of nations to protect their borders while simultaneously treating with compassion countless numbers of lives that look to our land as a safe haven and a place of peace and opportunity. 

For all of the controversy that might readily redound from the most benign of discussions on this topic, I wish, instead, to share an experience at the border that I believe speaks powerfully to what we are all called to do and to be as members of the legal profession.

One afternoon while at the border, we visited a respite center in McAllen, Texas, located near the Rio Grande River.  The center is run by Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Brownsville.  It was packed with migrants who were there for a hot shower, a meal, a bit of rest and any support that they could find as they prepared for the next leg of their long and arduous journeys.

I had the opportunity to speak with one man from Nicaragua with the aid of a translator.  His name was Miguel.  I asked Miguel what prompted him to make the difficult journey to the United States.  In response, he first pointed to his young son and daughter who were playing with other children on the other side of the room where we were.  Then he said, “Gangs have overtaken the town where I lived.  They are demanding that I pay them rent to live in my house.  If I don’t, they will rape my daughter and kill my son.”  In response, I asked Miguel, “Can’t you afford the rent?”  “No.  I’m having difficulty paying them,” he replied.  “But the worst part is, Bishop, I own my house.  The gangs are simply demanding money and killing for it for no reason.  For the sake of my children, I had no choice but to leave.”

A sobering conversation, wouldn’t you agree?  But what consoled me was a conversation that I had with the man who served as translator for my conversation with Miguel.  He wasn’t just a linguist.  He was also an attorney volunteering his services for the sake of Miguel and so many others crossing into our country.  He told me that at the time, five years ago, Miguel didn’t qualify as a true refugee and asylum seeker.  While he clearly was a vulnerable soul like so many others, the asylum laws in force at the time didn’t offer him much hope.  I won’t soon forget the attorney’s closing words to me, “Bishop, I’ll do what I can to save Miguel from an almost certain death penalty for himself or his children if he’s sent back.  But I’m not all that optimistic.”

“I will do what I can.”  …  Whether as lawyer, judge, public servant, bishop or priest, we are here this afternoon because of a conviction that’s been planted within our hearts to help the most vulnerable among us.  We may occasionally venture away from those core values that first beckoned us to accept the responsibility of working for truth and justice.  But thank God that like that volunteer attorney at the border, our better angels prompt us all to seek God’s grace and the support of one another to rise to the summons of the Gospel to serve one another and to build God’s reign of justice, peace, and love.

This really is the lesson of Saint John’s Gospel proclaimed just a moment ago.  The familiar story from the Last Supper of Jesus washing the dirty and smelly feet of his disciples may seem an unlikely passage to proclaims to a group of legal professionals.  It shouldn’t be!  You see, the gesture of Jesus washing the feet of his friends is recalled in the Gospel as a sign of his commitment to serve the suffering world in which he was immersed – a sign of his willingness to love even if it led to death.  Jesus, in turn, reminds his disciples that as he has served them, they, in turn, are called to serve one another if they dare to see themselves as authentic followers of his Gospel.

With Jesus’ example of service as foundational for the Christian life, it should come as no surprise that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who has admittedly expressed a certain ambivalence about the law itself, offered these thoughts about those in the legal profession.  “Those whose vocation lies in law have the capacity to do great good, but only if they use their authority in a way that reflects a well-formed conscience and the use of that authority to serve others and the common good with prudence and responsibility.”

The preeminent place of service in the life of the Christian as further seen in the magisterium of Pope Francis has its roots at the very inauguration of his pontificate, when he asked “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life” – a group which certainly includes those in the legal profession – to be “protectors” of the needy, weak and vulnerable.  It is as protectors that judges, lawyers, and those who work with them have the opportunity to exercise their great task of responsibility for others.  You may recall from this address, however, that Pope Francis couples this assertion with the teaching that “authentic power is service” and “only those who serve with love are able to protect.”

Make no mistake, my friends, while such lofty ideals can serve as a source of consolation in the work we have been given to do, we all face difficulties in the exercise of our vocation.  I surely do and I know that you do as well, especially in the face of changing societal values, performing your work under the lens of mass media, political pressure and vengeful trends, which seem to permeate so much of our world these days.

Confronted by such challenges and more, we would all do well to keep before us some basic principles in embracing the various vocations of the legal profession entrusted to our care.  I share them from my own experience, not as someone who has already arrived but as one who walks with you.

First, never be too proud or self-inflated to pray for strength in the work that you do.  For as learned and sophisticated as we may be, we know very well that there comes a point in all of our lives when we need to hand ourselves over to a power bigger than ourselves – a power that we Christians know to be God in Jesus Christ.  We learned all too well during the global pandemic that caused us to suspend this blessed Mass for several years, that we are not in control.  No.  Ultimately, we are all at the mercy of God. 

We would also do well to recognize the need to acquire not only mere professional competence but wisdom and creativity in our exercise of the law.  Some of that comes with age.  Most of it comes with humility and a willingness to engage and learn from the experiences of others.

In the spirit of so much that has permeated these reflections, be willing to serve beyond the bare minimum of what is required by your profession.

And finally, always maintain a deep respect for the dignity of every person impacted by the work that you do.

Brothers and sisters, yours is indeed an honorable profession – a beautiful way to live a vocation of service and responsibility when the gift of faith that we celebrate today is woven into your work on behalf of justice and peace. 

In reflections to a group of French judges and lawyers, Pope Francis captured best the work that you’ve been given to do and the end for which you’ve been given it.  The Holy Father begins his remarks by stating that the work of those in the legal profession, while technical, demands something much greater than mere adherence to the letter of the law.  “It is also necessary,” he notes, “to instill in the law something more – a spirit.  I would call it a soul – one that does not only reflect the trends and ideas of the moment but gives them the indispensable quality that elevates and ennobles the human person.”

Brothers and sisters, continue to “do what you can – and all that you can” for the lives that come your way seeking justice and a reason to hope.  May you be richly blessed in your service of God’s people.