Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis delivered this homily on Oct. 2 at the 64th Annual Red Mass, which was held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Not far from here at the Library of Congress we could find the famous engraving, now 150 years old, by John McCrae depicting our first President at prayer at Valley Forge. Without entering into the battle over the historicity of the event depicted in the engraving, I think that we could agree that the engraving and its popularity reflected a civic sense that prayer is an appropriate response, if not the most appropriate response, when confronting daunting crises.
At this critical moment in our nation’s history, at this time when America seems to be almost paralyzed by a political polarization that impedes our ability to address effectively a whole host of pressing needs, we gather not just to pray for our country and its leaders in general, as we are encouraged to do whenever we gather for Mass, but to plead in a particular way for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who are involved in the administration of justice, and most especially on jurists at the federal, state and local levels, cabinet and other government officials, members of Congress and other legislatures, diplomats, university presidents, deans, professors, students of law and lawyers.
The Church is keenly aware of the importance of your work, oriented as it is to the promotion of the common good. Your generous service is often a concrete manifestation of the American commitment “to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination” that Pope Francis extolled when he spoke at the White House one year ago. Men and women of good will throughout this nation depend on you to protect their liberties and to help us create and preserve a “just and wisely ordered” society.
With that in mind, it should not be surprising that we gather with you today to ask that the Holy Spirit would guide you in your labors, so important in the administration of justice. We do that this year, however, in the particular context of an extraordinary jubilee called by Pope Francis, a Year of Mercy, that began last December and that continues until the end of November of this year. It was Pope Francis’ hope that the Year would lead us to both a deeper appreciation of the mercy that we have received from God and a greater awareness of the ways in which we are concretely challenged to be instruments of mercy. The motto for the year, “Merciful like the Father,” calls us first to a realization of God’s mercy for us and then to a response to that mercy that inevitably commits us to imitation of the Father, who is presented to us in Sacred Scripture as both “perfect justice” and “infinite mercy.”
In offering “infinite mercy,” our God does not deny justice. As Pope Francis notes, “He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.” Mercy and justice are not contradictory realities, “but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.”
Following his lead, it would seem to be important for each of us to explore where those two virtues must intersect in our lives and in our actions. The Pope is certainly not asking us to offer a less than vigorous representation of our clients or to take our eye off the ball that is justice, but rather to go beyond justice, to exceed the requirements of justice, to pursue justice with a brotherly or sisterly love for all the persons involved in the issues or disputes that come before us.
For men and women who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice, all of this talk about mercy might at first be a little disconcerting. As Msgr. Vaghi has reminded me, we usually want justice for others but mercy for ourselves. Law Schools teach torts and contracts, not tender mercy. But if the Holy Father is correct in his assertion that “where there is no mercy, there is no justice,” and I think he is, it would be a mistake for anyone involved in the administration of justice to turn a blind eye to the demands of mercy.