Red Mass 2015

Last Updated:

Given at the Red Mass on 1 October 2015 at Westminster Cathedral.

‘But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’

The fulfilment of this promise, the sending of the Holy Spirit, has many dimensions, but there are two which I would like to highlight.

First, the coming of the Holy Spirit manifests God’s justice. God, true to his Word, gives us this light by which we come to know our waywardness, our sins. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we come to know our need for forgiveness.

Secondly, this coming of the Holy Spirit also testifies to God’s mercy, and continues to make present that mercy in our lives. The Holy Spirit, who moved over the waters at the dawn of creation, reminds us that the very act of creation reveals divine mercy.  No one, no creature has a right to existence. No one exists as a matter of justice. Rather, our very existence is an act of God’s mercy, made all the more clear by the fact that our existence has a real purpose, an eternal future in the joyful presence of God. We are made not for futility but for grandeur. This is a great mercy!

So, from the beginning, mercy is woven into our universe. 

Furthermore, since the Fall of Adam, that radical shift away from God’s plan to our own wilfulness, mercy shines forth all the more powerfully. God responds to our history of suffering, conflict and sin with an unfailing gift of mercy.  This same Spirit teaches that the most characteristic language of God’s love is mercy. Mercy is ‘love’s second name’ (Dives et Misericordiae, 7). Divine love is expressed as mercy because of our fragility and faults, our need for, but not our right to, salvation. Yet salvation, God mercifully delivering of us from every misery, is also the fruit of divine justice, that plan of God for our final fulfilment.

How is this justice and mercy of God best understood? Its culmination is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, incarnate by the Holy Spirit: while we were still sinners, and because of the weight of our sin, Jesus died for us. By raising Jesus from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father in a radical way showed, as St John Paul boldly asserts, mercy to his Son (see DV 8).

In so doing, the Father lavishes mercy upon us, the people that Jesus makes his own. In him, creation is made new, our wounds are healed, our original beauty restored. Indeed, in him something even greater is granted. Something we could never claim as rightfully ours by nature: the gift of knowing God as Father and knowing his unswerving love for each of us.  Faithful to his promise, the Father has poured the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that with his beloved Son we may cry out ‘Abba, Father’. Thanks to this most merciful gift of the Holy Spirit, we are joined to the very heart of God, empowered to love with the same merciful love of God with which we are loved.  Does not our reading from the Acts of the Apostles witness to this? Peter and John would most likely have once despised the Samaritans as beyond God’s mercy. Now they recognise that the Samaritans accept God’s Word. They cannot justly deny them the gift they received. So they bestow upon them the Holy Spirit. Having had mercy shown them, Peter and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, go out as missionaries of mercy, administering God’s saving justice.

I accentuate justice and mercy because soon we enter the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis.  My prayer is that you, as Catholics in the legal professions, make this Holy Year a privileged opportunity to reflect on mercy in the administration of justice.

When thinking about what to say today, I turned to Portia’s speech in the Merchant of Venice, ‘the quality of mercy’. Portia says: ‘And earthly power doth then show likest God/When mercy seasons justice’.

Mercy seasoning justice! That is our invitation. That is our question: how may mercy season the administration of human justice so that it does indeed reflect something of the justice and mercy of God, thereby finding its fullest expression?

In Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father insists that justice and mercy 'are not contradictory realities but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love' (MV 20). 

Justice is presented as 'that which is rightly due to each individual’ (MV 20). It is understood in the Bible as 'the full observance of the Law' (MV 20). However, the Pope insists that in the fullness of Biblical teaching justice is 'conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God's will' (MV 20). And God’s saving will is his justice, presupposing founded upon his mercy.

Jesus, he says, is rejected by the Pharisees precisely because he insisted on going further than the requirements of the Law. He challenges those who would draw a line at formal respect for the law as the key issue. In doing so, Jesus quotes Hosea: 'I desire love and not sacrifice' (6.6). Pope Francis writes that this is to be seen even in the very actions of our Lord.  'Jesus…goes beyond the law,' he says 'the company he keeps with those the law considers sinners makes us realise the depth of his mercy' (MV 20). 

He continues with these important words: 'Mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one feels the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice' (MV 21). As he said elsewhere, ‘a little mercy makes the world…more just,’ (Angelus address, 17 March, 2013).

Think of the many scenes we see outside court rooms across this land: burdened people demanding justice; broken-hearted people lamenting that they have not received justice; those for whom the verdict has been satisfactory still embittered and unable, often, to speak of forgiveness. This is a society, wrapped up in its demands for justice, yet rapidly losing any sense of mercy. 

In contrast, in the Gospels, those who truly encounter in Jesus the mercy of God do not simply go away relieved, but also become more merciful themselves towards others. What must we do if this is to be the experience of every person who encounters us? Quite simply we must let the Holy Spirit teach us afresh all that Christ taught and showed us about the quality of mercy. We must let ourselves be anointed by the Holy Spirit, through which we are touched by the mercy of Christ and sent forth to bear his mercy to others.

But how in particular are you, in your professions, to be missionaries of mercy, live out this relationship between mercy and justice that our faith reveals to us?

Finding a response to this question is a delicate task. The laws of our land are indeed rooted in our Christian heritage. But they cannot be identified with it. And I am not qualified to provide you with specific answers. But I can invite you to let the Holy Spirit fire your imaginations, so to discover and create ways in which you can rightly season justice with mercy, no matter your field of law. In this we must remember that mercy’s proper place is not limited to the ambit of criminal justice.  Mercy is not reserved just for those who commit crime. Mercy must also extend to their victims. And to every person. Please reflect on the place of mercy in every aspect of the administration of justice. Seek, too, the place of mercy in the way you treat everyone you meet in your courts, your chambers, your  offices, be they defendants, witnesses, judges, jurors, fellow barristers and solicitors, clients, staff of any kind, from clerk to cleaner. Please, welcome into your hearts the Holy Spirit who keeps us ever sensitive to the suffering and weakness of others, respecting always whatever human dignity demands as their due. This is our calling, our mission, as today we thank God for the vocation to serve justice and in doing so serve the well-being of our society.

In striving to fulfil that calling, let us always turn to the woman who is pure, who in docility to the Holy Spirit permitted the Advocate to form every part of her being, who brought the eternal Word of God into our flesh and who therefore enjoys such a precious title: Mary, Mother of Mercy. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

 Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us. Amen.