Photo by Andrew NelsonFather Benjamin Thomsen was the preacher at the 2023 Red Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Before seminary, he worked as a district attorney. Father Thomsen spoke about the standards of justice, the necessary balance between justice and mercy.
By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published on November 2, 2023
To learn more about St. Thomas More Society, visit https://stm-atlanta.org.
ATLANTA — At a breakfast table filled with hot sauce, creamers and a thermos of coffee, members of the St. Thomas More Society recited the Liturgy of the Hours.
The men scrolled on their cell phones and recited the prayers of a Wednesday, the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist.
For Patrick Silloway, these monthly early morning gatherings are where Atlanta lawyers not only share a common profession with its language and culture, but “we share the deepest part of ourselves,” faith.
“It was great to be in contact with others in the same profession who have the same spiritual foundations and spiritual goals,” he said.
The society’s former president, Daniel Hart, said he left the breakfast with a new perspective on the intersection between faith and advocacy for his employee clients.
“Every time I leave, I leave with an extra pop in my step. It fills my soul,” said Hart, an attorney with the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.
The history of the St. Thomas More Society in Atlanta dates back approximately three decades. In the early 2000s, the organization focused its efforts on hosting a Red Mass, inviting colleagues from law firms and courthouses throughout the Atlanta area to come together to pray and honor role models in the legal profession.
In addition to the annual Mass, which is its best-known event, the group hosts smaller gatherings that keep the community together, with breakfasts at the Midtown restaurant and continuing education courses that provide a Catholic perspective on law and ethics.
The association has an estimated 100 members. The breakfast crowd once drew so many people that the group occupied a corner of J. Christopher’s Restaurant, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, attendance has dwindled.
Intersection of Catholicism and law
Legal practice is based on an adversarial system, in which two sides compete against each other in a court case. Lawyers pursue their claims vigorously and are sometimes tempted to cross ethical boundaries, demonize opponents, and overlook unfavorable facts. The question for Catholic lawyers is how to navigate this process while maintaining their spiritual values that promote dignity for all and mercy in the courtroom.
“There is always the temptation to twist the facts in favor of the client, which goes beyond good advocacy. “There is always the temptation to ignore the precedent that opposes your client’s case,” Hart said.
Hart, 45, has been an employment lawyer for nearly 20 years and is a member of Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta. He served as president of the St. Thomas More Society for three years during the pandemic. He believes that reflecting on faith and viewing the profession as a professional calling can help lawyers maintain integrity and principles in their work.
“There is always the temptation to view the person on the other side of the argument as an enemy, rather than someone who simply has other business interests and is ultimately himself made in the image of God,” he said.
Silloway, 33, practices civil law and focuses on litigation at Balch & Bingham. His family worships at Holy Family Church in Marietta. One brother is a priest in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
He said a question that loyal lawyers wrestle with is, “How do I humanize my opponent?” He enjoys the practice of law. However, one challenge is to work diligently for your client against the other side and to show Christian love and charity.
Silloway said society members often share their experiences to provide insight into professional and ethical challenges.
“Being able to discuss with other lawyers how to live out your belief in the profession is super helpful,” he said.
Both lawyers work in law firms that encourage them to provide pro bono services and support nonprofit organizations in need of legal expertise. Hart said these opportunities have been a great way to serve the community as an advocate.
Justice officials are drawn to the Red Mass
The annual Red Mass on Oct. 12 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus drew scores of judges draped in red sashes. The gathering brought together attorneys, court clerks and law enforcement officers who work in the administration of justice. The prayers for this day invoke the Holy Spirit, represented by the color red, on the work of women and men in the legal profession.
The fair is a centuries-old tradition dating back to medieval England and marks the opening of the court calendar. The mass is an established tradition in places like Washington, D.C., with some Supreme Court justices also attending.
This year, Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, presided and Father Benjamin Thomsen delivered the homily. Also present was Msgr. Edward Dillon, a canon lawyer.
Father Thomsen is a member of the legal community and served as a district attorney prior to seminary. He remains a member of the Georgia Bar Association. In his remarks, Father Thomsen spoke about the standards of justice, the necessary balance between justice and mercy.
“Mercy is deadly serious, as serious if not more so than justice itself,” he said.
Father Thomsen said: “May God bless you all in the judiciary today. May you all be true symbols, living symbols of justice and mercy. Because I think that the judiciary, more than any other branch of government, represents a bulwark against the reign of politics over the reign of law, against the reign of anarchic brute force over the reign of ordered reason,” he said.
Later, at lunch, the organization honored the winners of the St. Francis of Assisi Award and the St. Thomas More Award.
Warrick Dunn, a former Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back and founder of Warrick Dunn Charities, was honored with the St. Francis of Assisi Award.
He was recognized for his nonprofit organization, Homes for the Holidays, which helped more than 200 single parents and nearly 600 children nationwide secure their first homes.
Recipients of this year’s St. Thomas More Awards were Judge W. Louis Sands, U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Georgia, for his work on behalf of victims of domestic violence, and Therese “Tee” Barnes, clerk of the Georgia Supreme Court, for hers Leadership supporting the efforts of the Supreme Court and courts across the state to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19.