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At red mass, judges and lawyers pray for justice and wisdom

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Jesuit Father Sossy Luyembe (left) and Father Dan Dorsey (right) concelebrated the annual Greater Cincinnati’ “Red Mass” for lawyers and judges with Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr at St. Francis Xavier Church. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE

Note: This story from our October print edition is an expanded version of a  previous online story.

By  Gail  Finke

In 1996, University of Dayton political science professor Father John Putka told a new District Court judge on his way to Washington, D.C,. for “judge school” that he had to go to the city’s Red Mass – and bring the lost tradition of an annual Mass for judges and lawyers back to the Queen City.

“When Father Putka asked, ‘Are you going to do something?’ it wasn’t a question,” Judge Tim Hogan, now retired, said. “So I went, and I sat with the U.D. alumni. Father Putka saw me and said, ‘Sit up with the Supreme Court!’ Now, in Washington, everyone sits in certain places. But Father Putka grabbed me and took me up to sit behind the Supreme Court.

“There was a vacancy on the Court, and people kept pointing at me and whispering, ‘Is that the guy??’”

It wasn’t the guy. But Father Putka got his way in more than just the seating arrangement. Judge Hogan, along with a group of lawyers and academics that included Dr. Raymond Hebert from Thomas More College in Kentucky; Dan Donnellon, now an attorney with Bingham, Greenebaum, Doll , LLP; and others, set out to revive the Mass. Though held in Cincinnati until 1965, the Red Mass –a European tradition that dates back to the 1600s in which lawyers and judges pray for wisdom to dispense justice – hadn’t been held in or near Cincinnati for decades.

“Nobody knows why,” said Todd Wilkowski, an attorney at Frost, Brown ,Todd, LLC. Also one of the founders, Whilhowski said it took “a lot of passion to bring it back to the city.”

“It took two or three years to get both the legal community and the Archdiocese on board, “said Donnellon, who also cited Father Putka as his initial motivator for reviving the Mass. “He really twisted my arm,” he joked. “He said, ‘You’ve got to bring this back to Cincinnati.’”

The group created the Thomas More Society of Greater Cincinnati, now comprised of lawyers and judges from both sides of the Ohio River. The first revived Red Mass was held in 1999 at Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine. Since 2004, it has alternated between Cincinnati and Covington. It is always celebrated by a bishop, and the judges and academics attend in their robes.

This fall the Mass was held at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cincinnati, and celebrated by Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr with Father Dan Dorsey and Jesuit Father Sossy Luyembe. Three state Supreme Court justices, one from Kentucky and two from Ohio, participated in the Mass, and representative of the Cincinnati Bar Association brought up the gifts. Members of the Knights of Malta joined many lawyers and others working in the legal profession, including President Dr. David Armstrong and Dr. Hebert  from Thomas More College.

A vocation to law or government service and “the work of dedicated lawyers, judges, and lawmakers is absolutely indispensable to the legal structure that protects all of our rights and freedoms as American citizens,” Archbishop Schnurr said. This is especially so now, when some of those freedoms are under attack.”

An increasingly secular society punishes orthodoxy, Archbishop Schnurr said, “or perhaps I should say orthopraxy, meaning correct conduct. For it remains permissible today to privately believe whatever we wish as long as that belief stays private and has no effect on how we live, vote, lead, or govern. This notion is totally at odds with Christ’s call in the Sermon on the Mount to be salt and light to the world.”

The archbishop recommended that all pray for the grace to live their vocation, and to be witnesses to Christ. “Let us start with our own hearts – pray to God to strengthen our faith, and ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for us.”

Following Mass, the 150 attendees shared lunch in the church undercroft. Attorney Matthew Byrne, president of the local branch of the Federalist Society, said he comes every year. “I’ve made a lot of friends here,” he said, “people I wouldn’t have met  otherwise. It’s good to get together with people with a similar philosophy,” especially, he added as the country is increasingly hostile to Catholicism and religious faith.

Like the Washington Red Mass, Greater Cincinnati’s Mass welcomes all faiths. One long-time supporter, former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, is a Methodist and an admirer of St. Thomas More. He spoke at the event for many years. Also like the Washington Mass, the local tradition has a “high Mass” feel. Between the robes and vestments, classical music, and honor guard of Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus from the St. Isaac Jogues Assembly, the Mass had more pomp than generally seen in Cincinnati. But those who have sat at Mass with the head of the FBI, the nine Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries say they’d like to see even more ceremony.

“It’s so extravagant in Washington!” Judge Hogan said. “A Cardinal says the Mass, and he walks off the altar and shakes hands with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s a nice tradition I’d like to see here.”

Attorney Brian Redden of Buechner Haffer Meyers & Koenig Co. LPA in Cincinnati,  who chaired this year’s Red Mass Committee, said the Society hopes to expand the core group of regular attendees next year, on its 20th anniversary.

“It’s a great annual event that gets people together that care about the fundamental tenets of our profession and our faith,” he said.


    For more photos, see the photo gallery at our Facebook page, Facebook.com/The.Catholic.Telegraph.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller reads the Epistle. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine reads the Prayers of the Faithful. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat Fischer leads a prayer to St. Thomas More. CT PHOTO/GAIL FINKE
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