Prayers for Lawyers, Judges, Politicians

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2010

At this time of year citizens of Alaska have the opportunity to vote for their political leaders in primaries, municipal and general elections. Everywhere you turn there is a sign, billboard or indicator as to who we should vote for in the upcoming election. Everyone has their opinions and their motives for voting in a particular way.

Last Sunday I had the privilege of being part of the Red Mass at the Cathedral in Anchorage, which is offered for lawyers, judges and politicians. The origins of the Red Mass trace to the 13th century, when the first known Red Mass was offered on behalf of a central court of the Catholic Church, the Roman Rota. Various traditions arose in England and France for a special Mass to be offered at the beginning of each term of a court year.

The first Red Mass in the United States was celebrated Oct. 6, 1928, in New York City. Between 250 and 300 judges and lawyers attended this event. To this day, an annual Red Mass is celebrated on the Sunday preceding the first Monday of October at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The congregation is often composed of Washington's elite: the president, Supreme Court justices and government officials.

The choice of red as the color of the vestments for the Mass comes from two traditions. First, red is the color attributed to the Holy Spirit as the church prays for guidance for those who administer the law of the land. A later tradition connected the color red to the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers and politicians.

Many are familiar with the life of St. Thomas More through the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966 entitled, "A Man for All Seasons." Thomas More served as the Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII from 1529 until 1534 when his conscience prompted him to resign rather than accept Henry VIII's disregard for the sanctity of marriage and disapproval of the Church of Rome. Thomas More was condemned to death for treason. History indicates before he was beheaded, he told the spectators that he was dying as "the King's good servant - but God's first." He was executed July 6, 1535.

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI visited England at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II. During the visit, the Holy Father had the opportunity to address Parliament from the very place where St. Thomas More was condemned to death - Westminster Hall. The Pope said, "As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose "good servant" he was, because he chose to serve God first."

In the Catholic tradition, we seek models who have lived lives of integrity, holiness and sanctity. St. Thomas More stands as a patron saint for many lawyers and politicians since the role they play in shaping today's society is significant. They help fashion our future and through the court system, execute the laws of the land. Since God is the source of all creation and since the natural law, based in that creation, is the foundation of all law, we should recall that we are created in His image. When Christ was asked about the appropriateness of paying taxes, he asked about the coin and whose image was found on the coin. He was told that it was Caesar's image, and the Lord said, "Then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." (Matthew 22:17-22). One meaning of this statement is that we have been made in the image of God and the image of his loving likeness is stamped upon each of us. We should give back to him what he has entrusted to us through our likeness to him - the ability to live with one another in peace, justice and with a respect for all life.

In the speeches at the brunch following last week's Red Mass, Gov. Sean Parnell, Alaska's Attorney General Daniel Sullivan and Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner each independently referred to St. Thomas More as the "King's good servant - but God's first" and how such dedication to God would serve us well.

Our ability to live out a social integrity can be demonstrated in how we vote, pray for those in authority and exercise our civic responsibilities. These are interesting times in politics, indeed. As we proceed to choose candidates who will lead our land, let us be mindful that these men and women should be the recipients of our prayers as they take on the very serious role of fashioning our future.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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