As police officers and firefighters marched into the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland last Thursday morning, the navy gabardine of their dress forming a dense block of color in the front pews, the name of this annual event, replicated in Catholic communities all across the United States, seemed more apt than ever: The Blue Mass.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the grey and chilly morning, the officers, their families and local dignitaries filed briskly into the cathedral and gathered at the front. Bishop Michael Barber filled the air with sweet-smelling smoke from a censer. A musician seated at the enormous organ that dominates the front of the cathedral struck up the national anthem, and as the congregation sang even the two babies in attendance, who otherwise kept up a steady, quiet stream of burble throughout the ceremony, fell quiet.
Outside, two fire trucks were stationed on Harrison Street, overlooking the lake. Extended ladders supported an American flag, which flapped in the autumnal breeze. Below, two other flags hung from the truck; the green and gold of the Oakland A’s and the black, white and grey of the Raiders.
Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical officers, and law enforcement personnel of all types are honored at a Blue Mass, during which community members and faith leaders can offer thanks to the men and women responsible for public safety and remember those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. “It’s extremely important that our local police officers and public servants and firefighters establish our relationships with faith-based communities because it helps us out in so many different ways,” said Oakland Police Department spokesperson Officer Frank Bonifacio, who was wearing his dress uniform to mark the occasion, at the lunch following the mass.
During the memorial section of the mass, a piper dressed in green and orange tartan played “Amazing Grace,” and Detective Sergeant Tom Smith Jr was honored by the reader. Smith, a BART police sergeant who spent 23 years on the force, died in the line of duty in January 2014. He was killed during an apartment search, after another officer mistook him for an intruder and shot him: a single round passed through a small gap in his bulletproof vest.
Trust, support and community were the recurring themes of the readings and homily. The congregation was exhorted to “see in everyone the good” by Father Larry Young, who read the homily. Young also counseled listeners to be vigilant, careful, and to “trust that God loves you” in the pursuit of their duties. Officers may have also found inspiration in the reading from Exodus: “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way.”
Reverend James V Matthews, the chaplain to the Oakland Fire Department, said that Blue Masses across the country vary in popularity. At the first-ever Blue Mass, in 1934 in Washington D.C., over 1,000 officers attended. And at the event held yearly in New York City, the 2,200 capacity St Patrick’s Cathedral is standing-room-only, he said. Organizers of this year’s event in Oakland estimated that it would draw about 250 attendees.
“I thought that the prayers and the homily leant themselves to the blessing,” Matthews said, “and the support that as a community we give back to our law enforcement and first responders.” He also said that he would like to experiment with holding the Blue Mass on a different day to see if that would encourage more attendees. “If we could expand and extend that [support] to families, and families could know that their loved one is supported and respected and that we give gratitude for what they do,” he said, “that would be wonderful.”
Matthews was responsible, together with Father Jayson Landeza, the police chaplain, for organizing the event. Chaplains work with law enforcement and emergency services to support officers and to provide a unique kind of ministry. Bishop Barber has served as a naval chaplain for many years, including stints as the Group Chaplain for the Marine Aircraft Group and Deputy Force Chaplain for Reserve Affairs for Marine Forces Pacific. There are about 14 chaplains in Oakland, said Reverend Rufus Robbins, a minister who is also attached to the police department.
Mayor Jean Quan attended the service to honor the officers and sat amongst the block of blue uniforms in the front pews. Speaking afterwards, she said that the event had come at a time that was more peaceful than ever for the police force. “This is a particularly outreaching church, and this allows officers to come together,” she said, adding that officers do not often get a chance to share their spiritual side in the rush of their duties. “It’s very meaningful.”
Oakland’s first Blue Mass held at the Cathedral of Christ the Light commemorated the four officers who were killed by Lovelle Mixon in March, 2009, which Quan called “a very unique and very tragic incident.” She continued, “We’re lucky that we haven’t lost any officers…since I’ve been mayor.”
The police force doesn’t track the faiths of its officers, Bonifacio said, but a large number are practicing Catholics. On Thursday, officers and personnel of other faiths also attended. “It’s nice to see a different perspective,” said Bonifacio. “It’s all support one way or another, regardless of whether you’re a practicing Catholic, or a Protestant, or Baptist. We are all there for each other.”
Text by Molly Pierce. Video by James Pace-Cornsilk