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 Washington Notebook

October 6, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 36

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"Too often when politicians agree with the church's position on a given issue they say the church is prophetic and should be listened to, but if the church's position does not coincide with theirs, then they scream separation of church and state."

Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley,
homilist at Washington's Red Mass, held annually the Sunday before the Supreme Court's October session


Parables and myths at Washington's Red Mass

By Joe Feuerherd

Washington's annual Red Mass is a majestic event, vaguely medieval even. And that seems fitting, given that the tradition of red-cloaked clerics invoking the Almighty's blessing on those who administer justice dates back to the Middle Ages.

This year's Mass, held on the Sunday prior to the opening of the Supreme Court's 2004-2005 session, is no exception.

The occasion is strangely enhanced by the heavy security outside the beautifully restored 1,254-seat Cathedral of St. Matthew. A tourist ambling inside the security zone manned by Federal Marshals, Secret Service agents and city police would know that he had happened upon a real Washington event. Something significant is going on. Important people are inside.

Celebrity in Washington is different than fame in New York or Los Angeles. In this town, Donald Trump and George Clooney take a backseat to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Lawyers and other power brokers are hot.

Let justice be done, oh Lord, but let us also star gaze.

There's Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in the front pew. He must have been kidding about that group sex thing, right? To Scalia's right is Clarence Thomas -- Catholic again it appears. Where's Chief Justice William Rehnquist? Called in sick, the press is told.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams sits next to Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Michael Novak is here, as is Bush I Vatican Ambassador Thomas Melady. Was that White House chief of staff Andrew Card? Yes it was. (Wonder what his Methodist minister wife thinks of him going Catholic?)

Notre Dame graduate Matt Schlapp is there with his wife and daughter. He has a fancy title, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Political Affairs. Which means, in Washington terms, "Karl Rove's guy."

President Bush is not here. Unlike his predecessors, Bush has never attended the Red Mass, which is a source of considerable consternation among those who organize the event. A diss? Some take it that way. Others chalk it up to a busy schedule, though on this Sunday he is photographed mountain biking at a local military installation.

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And the Mass begins.

The Washington Symphonic Brass belts out "All People that on Earth Do Dwell" as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, preceded by Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, brings up the rear of the lengthy opening procession. Then the rifle-bearing Honor Guard of the city's police department presents the colors. The Catholics actually sing. "Oh say can you see…."

Homilist O'Malley speaks to the Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

"The Samaritan saw, really saw, the pain of an individual who was not only a stranger but even an enemy, yet his compassion made him a neighbor, a brother," he explains.

"For over two centuries religious voices have called Americans to be a better people, to challenge the institution of slavery and the legacy of racism it left behind, to question the morality of war and nuclear weapons, to defend the interests of the poor, women immigrants, prisoners, to defend the gospel of life," says the 60-year-old Capuchin.

"Too often when politicians agree with the church's position on a given issue they say the church is prophetic and should be listened to, but if the church's position does not coincide with theirs, then they scream separation of church and state."

To illustrate the idea that "love and compassion have a ripple effect in the world," O'Malley tells the story of Alexander Fleming, a 19th century Scottish farm boy who rescued Sir Randolph Churchill when the future prime minister's father found his carriage mired in mud on the road to Edinburgh. Fleming would accept no payment for his efforts, O'Malley says, but the elder Churchill, grateful for the assistance, insists on subsidizing his education. Fleming goes on to medical school.

Here's the kicker: "A little more than a half-century later in another continent, a world statesman lay dangerously ill with pneumonia. Winston Churchill had been stricken while attending a wartime conference in Morocco. But a wonder drug was administered to him, a new drug called penicillin, which had been discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming."

It's a good story. The Supreme Court justices, diplomatic corps, Bush administration officials, and members of the press are enthralled by the tale.

"The bread cast on waters may come back in the form of miracles," says O'Malley.

Well, maybe.

It turns out that O'Malley's been fleeced, a victim of an urban legend. Various versions of Fleming as Good Samaritan are floating through the electronic ether, but the story is apocryphal. It never happened.

Another parable? No, say scholars at the Washington-based Churchill Centre, a neighbor to the cathedral, a myth. "Charming as it is, it is certainly fiction," according to the centre's website.

Dan Rather call your office.

Among the first to line up for communion is Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. In carefully cupped hands, the man most responsible for keeping Roe v. Wade the law of the land receives from the Boston archbishop. Clarence Thomas follows. O'Malley carefully places the wafer on his tongue.

Mass concludes and the recessional ("America the Beautiful") sounds. Time for pictures.

McCarrick and O'Malley with Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas with Arlington bishop Paul Loverde. There's a certain incongruity in seeing the justices surrounded by men in robes.

Some Bush supporters regret the president is not present for the photo-op. A shot of the president, a cardinal and a Supreme Court justice would merit space in nearly every diocesan paper in the country a month before the election. It would signal solidarity with a key voting bloc in such major swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

But it never happened.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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