Thoughts on the Red Mass

The 60th annual Red Mass, sponsored by the John Carroll Society, took place this past Sunday, September 30th, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington. I was fortunate enough to attend, and to have a great view of the proceedings from the St. Anthony of Padua chapel (as you can see below.)  I entered into this event thinking that it was a way of honoring the work that work that other, important people in government do, and asking God’s blessing upon their efforts, but it ended with my realizing, with gratitude, that as a member of that professional community myself, I needed some blessings as well.

If you are wearing a coat and tie early on Sunday morning in Georgetown, it is reasonably obvious that you are probably going to church, since before the tourists descend on the village for brunch and shopping, we locals have it to ourselves for a few hours. I had to leave the house rather early, since previous experience of attempting to get to the Red Mass only half an hour before it started had taught me that was not going to ensure me a seat. As I walked past a cafe in my neighborhood, I saw one of my neighbors in a high-priced fleece, khakis, running shoes, and sunglasses, sipping a tall paper cup presumably filled with a caffe latte, and reading a book entitled “Existentialist Philosophy”. The contrast between the two of us did seem rather a cliché, and I chuckled to myself that it would have made a great Vanity Fair caricature or New Yorker cartoon, but there you are.

Once at the Cathedral the somewhat substantial line moved rather quickly, and I managed to obtain a seat which allowed me to stretch out my legs without striking my shins on the pew in front of me. More importantly, it allowed me to have unobstructed views of both the altar and the ambo. I managed to spot both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, though with their seating area being partially hidden by an arcade of columns from where I was, that was the full extent of the six Supreme Court Justices in attendance whom I happened to see – let alone any of the diplomats, members of Congress, or Cabinet officers.

The mass itself had all of the pomp and circumstance one could wish for on such an occasion, as the congregation asked the Holy Spirit to bless the workings of our legal system. I will admit that for much of the first part of the mass, I remember thinking that I was very small – despite towering over everyone seated around me, as I normally do. St. Matthew’s is a very grand church, decorated in a rather imperial, Tolkien-esque fashion, and to be in that physical environment, surrounded by all sorts of powerful office-holders who guide the nation was rather humbling. From the opening welcome by Cardinal Wuerl, acknowledging all of the dignataries seated in the congregation that morning, I really did feel a bit out of place for a time.

Yet during the homily by Archbishop Broglio, His Excellency spoke about something which he himself witnessed during his first year of seminary in Rome. He noted that one of the grand, 19th century Ministry of Justice buildings in the city had begun sinking into the ground, because it was built on poor foundations, and he noted that by contrast, ancient structures like the Colosseum and the Pantheon were still standing despite millennia of abuse and neglect. The idea to take away from it, he suggested, was that the fashionable is transitory: what matters is building on a firm foundation.  The danger was in allowing what might be currently popular in our country to take away from what is true, and he warned us strongly against letting that happen.

This was a great observation to take it and to take away with me, as I reflect on my professional future, but I also realized that there were a few other things to take away as well. The first and most important, was that no matter how important the people inside of that church might be, none of them are as important as the One whose house it is. Yet the second, on a more immediate level perhaps, was to recognize that in praying for our legal system to work justly, and for its ministers to execute their authority rightly, I was also praying for myself in the process. For in my own way I, too, am a part of that system, and hopefully I will be able to do my best to make sure that it is as fair and equitable, as much as any human institution can be.

As a postscript, to my great surprise and delight, one of the lectors at the mass turned out to be a mentor of mine from my undergraduate days at Georgetown, and at the conclusion of mass I must confess I had to “ditch” catching up with friends whom I knew were in the congregation in order to go find her. It was wonderful to catch up and meet her family, and it just so happened that in the process I suddenly found myself being presented to Cardinal Wuerl, whom I have heard speak many times but had never formally been introduced to before. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to kiss his ring before he could shake my hand, but then of course, you would not expect me to do any less.


St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. before the 60th Annual  Red Mass

The Genius Who Got Butter On His Tie

In John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant screenplay for Norman Jewison’s equally brilliant film “Moonstruck” (1987), the first scene opens in a funeral parlor in New York’s Little Italy, where the character of Loretta Castorini is trying to figure out the bookkeeping problems of an Italian-American undertaker. As he prepares some toasted ciabatta with butter, he pooh-pooh’s her concerns over his accounting errors by proclaiming that he need not worry about such things, for he is an artistic genius.  To this Loretta responds, “If you’re an artistic genius, how come you got butter on your tie?”

In the history of Western art there are quite a few geniuses who, as Loretta might put it, got butter on their tie, over the course of their careers.  Leonardo Da Vinci, an undeniable polymath of a genius, was oftentimes an absolute disaster as an artist, abandoning projects half-finished or employing techniques that were so highly experimental as to leave some of the projects he actually did complete either ruined or irreparable.  Rembrandt von Rijn was a notorious spendthrift, who was forced into bankruptcy for living beyond his means, and in order to protect himself from his creditors had to become registered as an employee of his common-law wife, and his son from his first marriage.

And then there is the Dutch painter Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629), who was a brilliant artist, but one prone to spend a great deal of time thinking about deep and serious matters, which often left him depressed and limited his ability to work. This, combined with an untimely death and his style of painting going out of fashion for many centuries, has led to his being ignored for far too long by the general public. I have been thinking of him today as the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist, as Terbrugghen was often drawn to reflect upon St. Matthew in his work.

Terbrugghen must have been particularly fascinated with the life of St. Matthew, for he painted at least three completely different versions of Christ’s calling of St. Matthew of which I am aware. The story, as St. Matthew himself recounts it, is as follows:

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed Him.

While He was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and His disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

St. Matthew 9: 9-13

In the Utrecht version of “The Calling of St. Matthew” reproduced below, painted when Terbrugghen was 33 years old, our eye is immediately drawn to the well-dressed young man at the right of the picture, who is wearing a rather luxurious hat. Yet if we take a look directly below him, in sharp contrast to the handsome dandy we see an unattractive figure, on whose right shoulder the young man is leaning. The egg-headed old man is wearing glasses, has lost much of his hair, and is probably suffering from horrible dental problems. He seemingly incongruously wears part of a suit of armor over his old, brown tunic, probably as a remembrance of when he was a brave young buck fighting for the Dutch in their wars of independence against Spain.

The juxtaposition of these two figures, one directly on top of the other, could not be more indicative of Terbrugghen’s attested melancholy. He himself, it is believed, had been a soldier in the early 17th century, before he turned seriously to his artistic career after a visit to Rome, but what his experiences were as a soldier in the myriad of battles that took place in Northern Europe during that time period we can only guess. Terbrugghen seems to be saying, by putting these two figures together, that no matter how healthy and positive your initial outlook on life may be, in the end there is nothing to look forward to but suffering, disappointment, and ultimately death.

If you are reasonably familiar with art history you will recognize from his work that Terbrugghen was clearly a disciple of Caravaggio – a man who had quite a bit of butter on his own tie, particularly after being accused of manslaughter. Yet unlike his artistic inspiration, who for good or for ill lived life to the fullest, Terbrugghen was a man who seems to have done and left little in the way of writing by or about him, and was described by a contemporary as a man afflicted throughout his life by “profound but melancholy thoughts.” It is believed by some scholars that Terbrugghen died of the plague when he was 42 years old – an end which, perhaps, was in keeping with his purportedly gloomy outlook on life.

Whether by plague or otherwise, art historians are agreed that Terbrugghen met an unpleasant end of some sort. It is also agreed that his output was not very high, in part due to the fact that he suffered from depression. While he was well-regarded by many of his fellow artists during his lifetime, and for a time his paintings commanded high prices, he was forgotten fairly quickly by most after his death, to the point that his son felt the need to write a pamphlet defending and promoting his father’s work. No doubt Terbrugghen would have found his slide into obscurity in keeping with his views on life.

That being said, even though Terbrugghen may not have been a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, we can still marvel at and enjoy his work today. It is very often the case that the true genius really does find himself hamstringed when it comes to trying to living an orderly, positive life outside of his own thoughts. Terbrugghen may not be a household name to most of us, but his beautiful studies of light and the sometimes melancholic aspects of his work have managed to survive the centuries and give him a far more positive reputation today than perhaps he himself believed would be possible.


The Calling of St. Matthew by Hendrik Terbrugghen (1621)
Centraal Museum, Utrecht