- The service is meant to invoke God's blessings on public officials
- The Mass is celebrated on the Sunday before Supreme Court's term opens
- Critics say it's inappropriate for justices to attend
- The tradition began in 1953
A half dozen Supreme Court justices, hundreds of members of the legal profession and other dignitaries attended the annual Red Mass in Washington Sunday to hear a call for them to pay attention to their spiritual health.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito for the service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, a beautifully ornate church located a few blocks from the White House. All are Roman Catholic except Breyer, who is Jewish. The current Supreme Court is composed of six Catholics and three Jews.
The purpose of the Red Mass -- so named because of the color of the garments worn by clergy -- is to "invoke God's blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials," according to the John Carroll Society, a lay Catholic group of prominent lawyers and professionals, which started the Mass in 1953.
The Mass is celebrated traditionally on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, which marks the beginning of the Supreme Court's annual term.
Critics have called the attendance of leading decision-makers, including members of the highest court in the land, inappropriate. They see the services as an unhealthy mix of politics, the law and religion. The Mass is a Catholic service, but power brokers of other faiths are asked to attend the event, which was also open to the public.
Sunday's attendees included Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and White House Chief of Staff William Daley.
Archbishop of Seattle Peter Sartain gave this year's sermon, which was largely devoid of controversy, telling those in attendance that "we are not fully alive, even if we follow a balanced, healthy lifestyle ... unless we give ourselves to someone beyond ourselves."
"In the end, it is in our relationship with the Lord in which we find the spiritual health that reveals and makes possible true balance, true integrity," Sartain said.
However, at one point in the service after the main sermon during what's called the Prayer of the Faithful, Montgomery County, Maryland, Circuit Court Associate Judge Joseph Quirk made a quick reference to the unborn, reciting a short prayer, "We pray for the inalienable right to life for every human being."
Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi Scheve said the prayer readings are determined before the service by the John Carroll Society.
Past homilies by individual speakers have lamented the high court's ruling legalizing abortion and the constitutional separation of church and state, prompting one justice to stop going.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Red Masses in the past, but has said she grew tired of being lectured by Catholic officials. Ginsburg, like Breyer and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, is Jewish.
"I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion," Ginsburg said in the book "Stars of David: Prominent Jews talk About Being Jewish" by author Abigail Pogrebin. "Even the Scalias - although they're much of that persuasion - were embarrassed for me."