The Spirit of the Law

The history behind the Red Mass, a centuries-old law tradition that's been celebrated on Villanova's campus since 1957

John Cardinal Krol celebrates Red Mass in 1978 at St. Thomas of Villanova Church surrounded by priests in red vestments
Villanova's Red Mass was celebrated in 1978 as part of the Law School’s Silver Jubilee celebration PHOTO: JULES SCHICK PHOTOGRAPHY

A centuries-old law tradition marks 65 years on Villanova’s campus this fall, as the Charles Widger School of Law invites students, faculty and staff, alumni, and friends of all denominations to celebrate the beginning of its academic year with the University’s annual Red Mass. Villanova President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS will don his scarlet vestments to preside over the Mass, as his predecessors have done since Oct. 10, 1957.

With a rich history that began in the Cathedral of Paris in 1245, this tradition became more widespread after it was celebrated in England in 1300 during the reign of Edward I. The judges of the High Court in Edward I’s time wore red robes similar to the priests, and therefore the celebration became popularly known as the Red Mass.

Going back centuries, the Mass is traditionally celebrated very close to the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel on Sept. 29, a day that marks the opening of the parliamentary year, the judicial year and the academic year. The tradition made its way across the pond in 1877, and since 1953 the symbolically rich ceremony has been held annually in Washington, D.C., to mark the beginning of the Supreme Court’s term.

Red Masses continue to be celebrated each year across the United States to offer prayers for those who seek justice and to invoke divine guidance and strength from the Holy Spirit for law students and all those in the legal profession.


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