Blue Mass Matters

Klaus Yoder profiles Law and Order Catholicism and points towards a non-dualistic vision of faith and safety.

In the early weeks of 2022, two funerals were held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, for New York Police Department Detectives Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, who had been shot and killed in a domestic disturbance incident on January 21. In addition to heart-rending eulogies from family members of the deceased, these rituals of mourning offered moments of political spectacle. During the funeral held for Jason Rivera on January 28, prominent secular leaders, including Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams and Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, spoke from the pulpit to honor the deceased and make some meaning of his death. Eric Adams proclaimed the moment “biblical” because the officers sacrificed themselves for the good of the city, fulfilling Jesus’s words that there was “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). 

Commissioner Sewell then addressed all the criminals of New York, inviting them to gaze in fear and trembling upon the powerful presence of the police gathered in that sacred space. To a standing ovation, she promised that “the NYPD will never give up this city. We will always prevail! We prevail because we stay united and strong. And it is because the spirit of Tata [Rivera] is in the bones of every single police officer.” 

These secular leaders assure us that police play religious roles in society; they are righteous sacrifices for the good of the community or live on in the bodies, spirits, and actions of their fellow officers. Of equal importance is their promise that police budgets are forever safe from defunding.

Funerals are not the only time when the Catholic Church and the police share sacred space. In fact, “Blue Masses” are held annually across the US, honoring law enforcement and first responders, both active and deceased. The Blue Mass originated in 1934 through the efforts of Rev. Thomas Dade, a priest active in the Catholic Police and Fireman’s Society in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Over time, the Blue Mass would come to be observed on September 29, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. Dade did not see himself as an innovator; the NYPD’s Holy Name Society had observed special police masses going back to the 1910s. NYPD chaplain Fr. Joseph Franco explained to me in an email that the Blue Mass was designed to honor law enforcement, pray for its fallen members, and remind the police of their sacred vocation in the secular world. A crucial function of the Blue Mass is to petition St. Michael, patron of the police, for his protection. 

Blue Masses represent a powerful combination of Catholic material culture, the language of spiritual warfare, and institutional self-preservation. As a ritual performance, they sacralize police institutions in an economy of political and spiritual power. Why do certain Catholic churches accommodate themselves so readily to sacralizing police work? This is an important question for Christians (and especially Catholics) on the left because the alliance between clerical hierarchies and the police seeks to naturalize this connection and thereby stifle Christian dissent against the violence inherent to “law and order.”

Police & Capitalism

The police power of modern states was instrumental in the genesis of capitalism, which required a new force of wage laborers who owned nothing but their ability to work for a capitalist. The modern police force arose as a means of producing and protecting the emerging capitalist system, which criminalized ways of life that were counterproductive for capital accumulation. Examples of capitalist police power include vagrancy laws, forced enclosures of the commons, and prohibitions on begging. 

Not only did the police violently defend capitalist production, they also enforced the racial hierarchies that capitalism depends on. Some of the earliest American police organizations helped control the labor force through slave patrols and racial terror in the South and labor suppression in the North. After the Civil War, the police were the main enforcers of Jim Crow. In the 1960s and ’70s, the police regularly surveilled and disrupted the Civil Rights and Black freedom movements, as well as left-wing anti-war organizations. This approach to domestic security echoed the US’s international policy of training the security forces of right-wing governments in counter-insurgency to suppress leftist dissidents. As the post-war economic boom sputtered in the US, the law-and-order politics of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan arose as a repressive reaction to the threat of multi-racial democracy, redirecting the state’s “welfare-warfare capacities” toward a racialized “war on crime” that was sold as the solution to economic weakness and perceived moral crises. At the same time, the massive buildup of the carceral state was not simply a “backlash” but also in continuity with a New Deal liberalism that understood “freedom from fear” (of crime) as “the first civil right” and accordingly invested heavily in policing and prisons. 

The last few years especially have demonstrated that the police are a powerful, right-wing political bloc whose unions have increasingly aligned themselves with Trump’s Republican party. The police also have a long history of officers being active in right-wing organizations and paramilitaries—one that continues into the present, as is evident from recently leaked files from the Oath Keepers. Far from being an institution that exists to “serve and protect” the public, the police play an actively conservative role in protecting private property, making them a natural ally of the family-business-owner class, which has thrown its considerable weight behind Trump. 

The Claremont Institute, the intellectual wing of the MAGA “counter revolution,” has made no secret of its active recruitment of law enforcement leaders and has even gamed out their potential participation in a Trump coup. Despite the widespread perception of the police as a politically neutral enforcer of justice, they remain at the center of US right-wing politics. 

Because the police are upholders of the status quo, police culture often counters public criticism by appealing to cosmic, even theological, notions of law, order, and evil. In the face of uprisings against police violence over the last decade, law enforcement and their ideological backers put forward their own martyrs like Captain David Dorn to offset the iconic images of the victims of police violence. Rituals such as the police funeral, the Blue Mass, and devotion to St. Michael situate both individual officers and law enforcement institutions as divine agents in an apocalyptic struggle between the angels of light and the forces of darkness.

Killer Angels

One of St. Michael’s most significant Biblical appearances takes place in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, when war breaks out between a celestial dragon and St. Michael’s angelic legions. Michael’s triumph over the dragon has become literally iconic in Catholic culture, a dramatic image of good vanquishing evil. A recent Blue Mass held in Camden, NJ, helps clarify the connection with police officers. In the homily, delivered by Chief Harkin of Gloucester Township, NJ, law enforcement and the angels are tightly associated: 

Those of us in law enforcement can certainly relate to St. Michael. In my 26 years as a police officer, I have become profoundly aware of the existence of evil, the result of the expulsion of the devil from heaven to earth. And yet, I also know that evil can and must be battled here on earth. This is why St. Michael the archangel is the patron saint of police officers and law enforcement. And he is also known as the protector of the church.

The chief, a deacon in the diocese of Camden, spoke from the pulpit, decked in a striking blue-striped dalmatic—seemingly a warrior-priest. As in other Blue Mass homilies, the chief made a connection between the archangels and the police, leaving the other half of the analogy implicit: if the police are the angels, the criminals and their enablers must be the demons, descendants of those evil ancestors cast out of heaven. Chief/Deacon Harkin’s words, as well as his two roles, suggest a symbiosis between law enforcement and the church, a ready partnership between two embattled institutions. It is perhaps no accident, given how similar the Catholic Church and the police are. Both institutions have centralized hierarchies and give individual members massive discretionary authority with little direct supervision. And both maintain firm boundaries between insiders and outsiders. The dualism of insider/outsider shared by the police and the Catholic clergy is in fact the foundation for the more elaborate ethical-cosmic dualism of angels and demons.


At the end of the Camden Blue Mass, Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan blessed holy medals of St. Michael and distributed them to the officers in attendance. St. Michael patronizes not only the police but also the military; more often than with medals, soldiers honor him with tattoos. Given the militarist overtones of Michael’s hagiography, it’s no accident that this saint has been claimed not only by US security and military forces but also by political movements on the right, such as the Romanian fascist organization, the Iron Guard—AKA the Legion of St. Michael—which designed their own “St. Michael’s cross” in the 1920s, a symbol that is now broadly identified with right-wing and white-supremacist movements across the globe. The fighting archangel has also cropped up in the rhetoric of Q-Anon “Save the Children” activists such as Jim Caviezel. This is not to say that the archangel belongs exclusively to the far right. Nevertheless, as a figure that embodies the dualistic struggle between good and evil, Michael readily appeals to institutions and groups who mythologize and moralize the violence they fantasize about inflicting on others. 

Holy medals like the one distributed at the Camden Blue Mass frequently depict the traditional pose of the archangel crushing the devil underfoot, sword poised for a kill stroke. Other material culture devoted to Michael readily expresses his use for Christian police. In a collectible coin, Michael’s triumph over the devil bears the caption “We hunt the evil most pretend doesn’t exist.” The other side of the coin features a cutaway of the thin-blue-line flag with the caption “blessed are the peacemakers.” While the latter phrase comes from the New Testament, the former does not, sounding more like the tagline of a ’90s action film than the teachings of a radical first-century rabbi.

In our correspondence Fr. Franco explained that devotion to St. Michael in the form of medals, holy cards, or statues was widespread in the department, even among non-Catholic NYPD officers. This demonstrates the portability and usefulness of these discourses and practices for making sense of one’s participation in state violence. Fr. Franco estimated that 57% of NYPD uniformed officers were Catholic—a total of 20,586 officers—alongside 26% of the NYPD’s civilian employees (4,721). He also described how members of his society often keep a holy card inside their cover (hat) or police cars while on duty. 

The visual culture of the patron saint of the police reveals much about the religious politics of policing in the US. St. Michael’s church in Long Branch, NJ, included an image of the painting “The Protector” by Lisa S. Andrews in the parish bulletin for the week of May 16, 2021, during which a Mass was held in honor of National Police Week. “The Protector” depicts a police officer looking off into the horizon as a Black child clutches at his arm. Other children follow at a safe distance. Between them and the foregrounded pair is an apparition of St. Michael, sword almost dragging in the dust. In the image, the relationship between the police officer and the Black child is one of protection instead of terrorization. The Black child becomes a talisman that wards off any charge of racism against the police. 

The text in the image identifies the police with earth-bound angelic warriors: “St. Michael, Heaven’s glorious Commissioner of Police, look with a kindly eye on your earthly force … and when we lay down our night sticks, enroll us in your Heavenly Force where we will be as proud to guard the throne of God as we have been to guard the city of Man. Amen.” Analogies between police and archangels extend across the sermons, devotions, art, and material culture that make up the world of Catholic police culture. But some preachers extend the comparison even farther up the celestial hierarchy, going all the way to Jesus himself. 

Emulating Christ

During a devotional service to St. Michael held outside the Clare County, MI, Sheriff’s Department in the Fall of 2020, Fr. J. Marcel Portelli addressed a gathering of law enforcement officers and their supporters: 

As I said many many times, “Christianity is not for wimps.” OK, so get that out of your minds. You must take up your cross and follow Him if you want to be saved. It’s the great paradox of our faith. That by sacrificing our lives for others, we gain eternal life. Who does this as part of their daily jobs more so than those who put on the badge every single day?

Then, like New York Mayor Eric Adams, he also quoted Jesus’ words in John 15:13. This notion of self-sacrifice signals to Fr. Portelli that members of law enforcement engage in a profound imitation of Christ every time they pin on the badge. Their work extends beyond mere duty—it’s an act of love for humanity to serve in law enforcement. 

The whole service took place during the protests and uprisings in the summer of 2020. Fr. Portelli identified this moment as a time of “outward scorn and contempt” directed at law enforcement. This apparent change in the public image of the police was their betrayal, their Passion, and so Fr. Portelli inserted them into the role of Christ.


The church-police alliance renders violence sacred. In my correspondence with Fr. Franco, he referred to detectives Rivera and Mora as “police martyrs.” Because of their deaths, “the culture of the NYPD has become much stronger and more focused on eradicating evil.” Further, he felt that “the good and honest citizens will partner with the police.” He seemed to be writing expectantly of a moral shift, a new pro-police hegemony forming in the city under Eric Adams. But he returned to the idea of evil when I asked him how he would respond to criticism of the police from left-wing Christians. He maintained that humanity’s confrontation with evil was unavoidable, and that the problem of evil would only be solved “at the second coming [of Christ.]” Until then, “it is safer to have a stable and superiorly trained cadre of men and women” who are capable of stopping the perpetrators of evil. In other words, because of the persistence of evil, radical changes to policing would not only be naive but also irresponsible.

Assertions about the persistence of evil as well as the police’s appointed role in combatting it unite the Catholic clerics who support law enforcement sacramentally, pastorally, and politically. It is the linchpin of their theological defenses of US law enforcement. For his part, Fr. Franco admitted that the police may contain “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and may even need reforming. But the ineradicable quality of evil rendered the police indispensable.


The views that clerics like Fr. Franco or Fr. Portelli hold are not marginal in the Catholic Church. In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on the Catholic Church’s position regarding crime and justice. The statement characteristically blames the “breakdown of the family” for crime and supports efforts for parishes, police departments, and “all parties affected by crime” to coordinate their responses. While rejecting needlessly punitive sentencing policies, the statement assumes a stark dichotomy between criminals and victims that reiterates the dualistic mythology of Revelation 12. It also endorses the “broken windows” approach to policing—which entails harsh punishment for minor crimes and leads to the over-policing of communities of color—as an effective means for people of good will to “clean up streets and take back their neighborhoods.” These bishops present the Church as a willing partner in efforts that inevitably lead to more racial profiling, gentrification, and mass incarceration. This kind of partnership is not limited to the Catholic Church. Organizations such as Faith & Blue exist today to partner various religious communities with local law enforcement. 

Criticizing the conservative institutional alliance between the Catholic Church and the police does not mean minimizing the grief of the families of police officers who have lost loved ones. Rather, this discussion prompts Christians to consider how liturgies of sacred victimhood and cosmic dualism prop up a system that is lethal for everyone involved. James Baldwin wrote in 1962 that white supremacy materially benefits whites while corroding their souls: “Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” Baldwin writes that the enforcers of white supremacist capitalism do violence to their own humanity through their brutal treatment of Black people. What the current examples show is how the danger of police work is not simply moral but also existential, revealing the disposability of the lives of the state’s security personnel. What recent violent attacks on the police reveal is that this system also puts the bodies of white supremacy’s enforcers in harm’s way, even if not nearly to the same degree as those they police. When the Church declares these dead officers “martyrs,” whose lives were lost in the imitation of Christ, it proclaims the gospel of white supremacy. It declares that the racial capitalist order was worthy of their sacrifices. 

Mainstream outlets like the New York Times appear eager to use the deaths of detectives Mora and Rivera against police abolitionists and return the discourse to the status quo, if not further right. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, quoted by the Times, 62 police officers were killed in shootings in 2021 nation-wide, representing a 36% increase from the previous year. They did not mention the 1,021 civilians shot and killed by the police in 2021. This was actually the highest total on record since the Washington Post began tracking police shootings in 2015. The disparity does not mean anyone should be callous about the deaths of law enforcement professionals. Instead, we should factor them into our understanding of a violent socio-political system that is extremely dangerous for all involved. 

There are alternatives to the carceral state paradigm. Since the 1960s prison and police abolitionists have contested the criminal punishment system and theorized new ways of pursuing justice, community healing, and public safety. More recently groups like Critical Resistance and Project Nia have continued in this tradition through community organizing in the wake of police violence and important intellectual output from scholar-organizers such as Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba. While ostensibly secular organizations, religious studies scholars Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd interpret the efforts of police and prison abolitionists as fueled by prophetic fire and possessing a defiantly utopian vision. Even as there are alternative ways of living in community, there must be spiritual communities that offer alternatives to the churches of carceral Christianity, of which the “Law and Order Catholicism” I have profiled here is just one example. This kind of work collaboratively builds a world that is not governed by the dualistic mythologies of angels vs. demons, good vs. evil, perpetrators vs. victims, and cops vs. criminals. The violent deaths of the criminal punishment system are not inevitable; they are not caused by an abstract or mythological evil force, the fall of the dragon in Revelation, as Chief Harkin maintains. St. Michael and his killer angels do not offer us salvation, let alone safety.

Klaus Yoder is a historian of Christianity and a podcaster for Seven Heads, Ten Horns: The History of the Devil. He teaches in the Religion Department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Photo Credit: Photo by todd kent on Unsplash


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