My ninth Red Mass and my last as a serving judge. On 5 November I “shuffle off the ermine coil” into retirement. Since 2018 I have had the honour of being president of the Thomas More Society (TMS). The TMS was established to organise the Red Mass. It does so in style due to the hard work of its committee and particularly its secretary, Stephen Hart.
The Red Mass, more properly the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, is celebrated in Westminster Cathedral on 1 October at 9.30am at the beginning of each legal year. The judges in full ceremonial dress gather to call upon the Holy Spirit to guide them in their work. Not for the first time has somebody mischievously but entirely aptly chosen Luke Ch 10 as the Gospel, including: “Jesus said: ‘I praise you, Father… for hiding these things from the wise and intelligent…’”
The Mass began in the early 14th century and took place at Westminster Abbey until the Reformation. An Anglican service replaced it and continues there to the present day, beginning at 11.30am and followed by the “Lord Chancellor’s breakfast” in the House of Lords. I suspect the “breakfast” owes its name to the pre-Vatican II requirement to fast from midnight until after the receipt of communion.
The Red Mass restarted in 1891 and was fully officially recognised in 1898, when the first Catholic Lord Chief Justice since the Reformation, Lord Russell of Killowen, attended. This year the Lord Chancellor requested to come. This would have been another first, we believe, since the Reformation. Then he was replaced in the Cabinet reshuffle with only two weeks to go and the historical moment slipped away.
Back to the cathedral – the legal profession procession assembles behind the sacristy. A record turnout from the senior judiciary this year. Some 30 of us, including four from the Court of Appeal. A great joy is the attendance of an ever-increasing number of non-Catholics; some Christian, some not.
I process alongside a colleague and we discuss the Cathedral mosaics. I remark that the aim is, or at least was, to have the whole roof space so decorated. He is among those who hope that never happens as he particularly enjoys the contrast of the exquisite mosaics and the grey-black ceiling. It occurs to me that perhaps the contrast could represent heaven and earth.
The organ accompanies our entrance. The music from both organ and choir is sublime throughout. Mozart’s Missa Brevis (Kyrie and Gloria), the Sanctus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei sung in plainchant. The ethereal Offertory Motet (“O sing unto the Lord a new song”) from the contemporary Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan. Post-communion, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus; music to welcome and accompany souls on their entry into heaven.
Cardinal Nichols celebrates the Mass, a great privilege. His homily is thought-provoking. It includes discussion of human legal rights and human dignity, their connection and the tension between them. He reminds us that the law, like human beings, is inevitably imperfect and limited. He regrets that “the echo chambers of social media can contribute to the corrosion of intelligent discourse and respectful dialogue”. He concludes: “So today we rightly implore the Holy Spirit to guide and shape our best efforts that through the great blessing of our faith, we… may be instruments of that justice and witnesses to its integrity.”
After Mass, a reception and the chance to meet friends and colleagues over coffee. They include three retired High Court judges, my predecessors as president of the TMS. I will be one of them this time next year, in morning wear instead of red robes, buckled shoes, tights and full, long wig. All good things must come to an end, or as Ecclesiastes Ch 3: says: “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven.”
Finally, my wife Felicity and our guest at the Red Mass, Mrs Sara Rothwell, have a light lunch in Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall. Sara is a reserve organist and regular chorister in St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire. A high Anglican, she has enjoyed her first Red Mass immensely.
The Old Hall is in almost the exact place where Thomas More had his chambers and where his portrait hangs. Nearby, in the Royal Courts of Justice, is the modern Thomas More building.
Is it the only court building anywhere to be named in honour of someone found guilty of high treason in his own country?
Sir Stephen Stewart is president of the Thomas More Society
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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