DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Lawyers can often be found in court representing their clients, but on two successive Tuesdays in the Diocese of Brooklyn, some took time out to gather for Masses to mark the traditional start of the judicial calendar.
Known as the Red Masses, the services are held each year to give lawyers, judges, and others in the legal profession a chance to renew their Catholic faith and start the court calendar off with a blessing from religious leaders. The intention for the Masses is to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance for those seeking justice.
The Red Mass comes at a time when the legal profession is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic — when courthouses were closed to in-person meetings, and legal proceedings were either moved online or postponed altogether.
The interruption left many lawyers in a figurative wilderness. Others simply left the profession altogether.
“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of quality, seasoned attorneys because they could no longer provide for their families and make a living. A lot of people did not have the resources to continue,” said Gregory Cerchione, treasurer of the Brooklyn chapter of the Catholic Lawyers Guild, the group that organized the Red Mass in Brooklyn.
“Not everyone works for a big law firm,” explained Joseph Rosato, a past president of the Guild. “The courts being closed hit a lot of people really hard.”
Working Under Pressure
Another result of the COVID-induced interruption: courts are now facing a major backlog of criminal, civil, and Family Court cases — a factor that is adding to the stress lawyers, judges, and clients are already under.
According to the New York Law Journal, the New York State Unified Court System was handling 15% more active cases in June 2020 than it was handling at the start of the pandemic in February 2020. The jump in cases is an indication that the system is facing a serious backlog and is struggling to play catch-up, court watchers said.
Things are slowly improving for lawyers now that the court system is back to being fully operational, Cerchione said. “The people that were able to hang on and make it through seem to be gaining some momentum,” he added.
October traditionally marks the start of the court calendar in the American legal system. The Supreme Court, for example, opens its session on the first Monday of October.
The diocese held two Red Masses — one on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, Queens, and the other on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn.
Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Octavio Cisneros was the main celebrant of the Queens Mass; the homily was delivered by Msgr. Steven Aguggia, who is the chancellor of the diocese and a Canon lawyer. Bishop Robert Brennan celebrated the Brooklyn Mass.
The “red” in Red Mass refers to the color of the vestment worn by the celebrant. Red symbolizes the “tongues of fire” of the Holy Spirit that descended on the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday. The Masses were organized by two chapters — the Queens County and the Kings County — of the Catholic Lawyers Guild. The Columbian Lawyers Association, a group for lawyers of Italian descent, helped to organize the Brooklyn Mass.
For Catholic lawyers, the Red Masses also offer the chance for spiritual renewal.
Rosato said he looks forward to it every year.
“It gives me a good feeling to start off the judicial season by going to church for a Mass. I always feel a revitalization of purpose and how our Catholic faith can help us through tough times,” he said. “Our livelihood is based on people’s problems. It’s our job to help people through difficult times.”
Cerchione said he comes to the Mass “a way to seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit.”
The Mass means a lot to those who attend, said Zenith Taylor, president of the Queens Chapter of the Catholic Lawyers Guild.
“It’s a wonderful chance to get together with your colleagues and renew the commitment that you’ve made as a judge or attorney,” she explained. “It’s a way for us to say, ‘Summer is over, and we’ve got to get to work.’ So, we resolve to get the work done, which is to administer justice and mercy for our clients.”
While the Mass is a Catholic tradition, organizers of both gatherings were quick to point out that members of the legal profession of all religions are invited to attend — and many do.
Bishop Brennan paid tribute to the legal professionals seated in the pews in front of him as he delivered his homily: “You are holy people living out a holy vocation. And I thank you for that.”
Their decision to attend the Mass exemplified their commitment to their jobs and to their beliefs, Bishop Brennan noted. “Your presence here today speaks volumes. And I thank you for that, too,” he added.
A Delicate Balance
There are many challenges to being a Catholic who is a practicing attorney in a state like New York, where the pro-abortion laws, for example, go against Church teachings.
Taylor acknowledged those challenges but said lawyers are able to navigate their way through.
“As Catholic attorneys admitted to practice in New York, we are sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of the State of New York and the United States. Although as Catholic lawyers we may be conflicted at times over moral questions, there is profound wisdom in Jesus’ saying ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17),” she explained.
In his homily at the Queens Mass, Msgr. Aguggia urged the lawyers to be steadfast in their Catholic faith. “It is a question of sticking to your principles and the truths you hold when society might be saying something else,” he told The Tablet.
Something Bishop Cisneros said during the Oct. 19 Mass struck Taylor as memorable.
“He told us that mercy has to come first. In all of our dealings, we must have mercy,” she recalled.
The two Red Masses took on an added significance this year as the world continues to recover from the pandemic.
The Queens Red Mass on Oct. 19 was the first one held since the start of the pandemic, Taylor said. The last one took place in 2019.
Both the Brooklyn and Queens chapters of the Catholic Lawyers Guild enjoy close ties to the Diocese of Brooklyn. Msgr. Aguggia is the moderator, or chaplain, of the Queens County Chapter. Father Patrick Keating, who is also a lawyer, is the moderator for the Kings County chapter.