Red Mass marks the start of legal term with a dash of religious tradition

Name derived from red robes worn to symbolise Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire

Clergy, choir members  and the Chief Justice of Ireland, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, at St Michan’s Church at a Mass to mark the start of the Michelmas law term. Photograph: Collins

Clergy, choir members and the Chief Justice of Ireland, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, at St Michan’s Church at a Mass to mark the start of the Michelmas law term. Photograph: Collins

 

Held annually on the first Monday of October – the first day of the Michaelmas law term – at the Catholic parish church of the Four Courts, St Michan’s on Halston Street, the so-called Red Mass, which took place yesterday, requests guidance from the Holy Spirit for all who seek justice. The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in Paris in 1245 and spread from there to most European countries and further afield.

The Mass supposedly derives its name from red vestments traditionally worn to symbolise the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit that descended on the apostles at Pentecost, and from the scarlet robes worn by royal judges centuries ago.

The red cloth has long been discarded, but there is still a formality to proceedings. The Irish version is attended by judiciary, barristers and solicitors, as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps, gardaí and the Northern Irish, English and Scottish judiciary. A parallel service is held for members of the main Protestant churches at St Michan’s Church of Ireland church nearby.

These religious events are organised separately and independently from the Courts Service and have no connection with the institutions of the State. They do, however, illustrate how our legal traditions stretch back many centuries to a time when church and courts were more deeply intertwined.

The recurring question of what place, if any, religion should have in our legal and political systems was raised again last week by the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI), which is calling for the removal of Article 34 of the Constitution.

That article requires judges upon assuming office to state: “In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will duly and faithfully and to the best of my knowledge and power execute the office of Chief Justice (or as the case may be) without fear or favour, affection or ill-will towards any man, and that I will uphold the constitution and the laws. May God direct and sustain me.”

Status quo

Only the President, members of the Council of State and the judiciary are now required to take religious oaths. In all three cases, constitutional amendments would be required to change the status quo, but the oath requirement hardly seems to chime with the statement from Rev Donald Watts of the Presbyterian Church that Christians should not be looking for any privileged position and should indeed shy away from such.

The HAI is asking TDs and Senators to support a referendum “to remove references to God from the Irish Constitution”. It argues that “such a referendum should also include clauses that prevent non-religious from being appointed as president of Ireland or as a judge without swearing a religious oath”.

In 1996 the Constitution Review Group recommended the introduction of a non-religious affirmation in addition to or in replacement of the current oath. Two years later, an Oireachtas all-party committee agreed an amendment was required.

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