Oct. 3, 2017
(John J. Degnan, chairman of the board of commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and member of the Saint Vincent College Board of Directors, gave the 50th annual Red Mass address at noon Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica. The Red Mass, sponsored by the Diocese of Greensburg and Saint Vincent Archabbey, College and Seminary, is celebrated throughout the United States to invoke God’s blessings upon the members of the bench, bar, legislature, law enforcement and governmental agencies – all protectors and administrators of the law. The Red Mass is attended by judges, lawyers, political leaders, and officials of all faiths who come together to ask God to bless, strengthen and enlighten them as servants of the Law so that, in cooperation and mutual trust, they may more effectively pursue justice and freedom for all.)
Introduction of Attorney John Degnan by Bruce Antkowiak
On behalf of Archabbot Douglas and Bishop Malesic, it is my pleasure to thank you for coming to this 2017 Red Mass and my honor to introduce as our guest speaker John Degnan, a Saint Vincent lawyer.
The term “Saint Vincent Lawyer” has a particular meaning to me, best explained in terms of an analysis I once heard British author Simon Sinek give about why certain companies become great and others simply make products.
Greatness, he surmised, is the product of seeing your business or profession as three concentric circles. The outer circle represents the what, that is, the product that the company produces. The next, more inner circle, represents the how, the process they use to produce the what.
But great companies, and great people, focus more on the most inner circle and ask themselves why they are doing this. If the why is a vision that whatever they do must be rooted in a strong, value-laden base, and if there is a premium put on making their efforts noble in the best sense of that word, the rest of what they do has the chance for greatness.
When I think of Saint Vincent lawyers, I think of people who fully understand the why of practicing law.
John Degnan’s list of accomplishments is truly remarkable.
• Serving the New Jersey Supreme Court
• Special counsel to the governor of New Jersey
• Serving as New Jersey’s perhaps youngest-ever attorney general
• Becoming the pre-eminent official of the Chubb Corporation
• His recent service as the Chairman and Commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A remarkable list of whats for any person’s career.
The how John Degnan did this can clearly be seen in the wonderful education he received first at Saint Benedict Academy in New Jersey, a Benedictine high school that John has supported his whole life.
And then his time here at Saint Vincent where he graduated magna cum laude in 1966, where he now serves on our Board. It was here he learned what it means to be a Saint Vincent lawyer. Even the Harvard Law School from which he graduated in 1969 could not make him forget what he learned here.
John’s remarkable career and the fact that he has served so well in so many capacities in both the private and public sector demonstrates that he understands and puts first the why of practicing law, the values that underlie our profession.
He embraces the fact that when each of us tries to put those values first in our practice we claim the right to truly say that the law is a noble profession.
I know that you can learn the true why of practicing law at other places. And so many of you live those noble values daily in your practice. But for Saint Vincent lawyers, living that why is our legacy and heritage.
I can introduce John Degnan by saying many wonderful things but the best thing I can say is let us please greet our Red Mass speaker, John Degnan, a Saint Vincent lawyer.
Red Mass Address by
Mr. John J. Degnan, Esq., C’66
Saint Vincent Basilica
Sept. 22, 2017
Bishop Malesic, Archabbot Douglas and Guests:
It is a humbling honor for me to address you all during this Red Mass, in the presence of the Bishop of Greensburg and in this magnificent Basilica and particularly in the midst of its Benedictine community, which has played such a central role in my life, as a student and thereafter.
The Benedictines are, after all, a group of men who pledge to live in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict, in service to God, men and women, students and community. I am just one of thousands of products of their dedication to teach – in a value-centered manner – how to live a life of productivity, raise a family and hopefully contribute to community.
About 35 years ago, my late cousin and mentor, Father Dan Degnan, a lawyer and Jesuit priest, spoke here to the Red Mass congregation. Unfortunately, I don’t have a record of what he said that day, but I would be surprised if he did not focus on an often expressed concern of his: that individual rights – as important to our values and form of government as they are – have to be protected in the larger context of community rights and values, and of natural law which is the root of our system of justice.
In the process of looking for Dan’s remarks I came across a book he had sent to me entitled “God’s Incredible Mercy” authored by another Jesuit, Father George Maloney, and it seemed to me a providential admonition to speak about “mercy” and its role in the administration of justice. That seemed particularly apropos as I have been so impressed with Pope Francis’ views of the centrality of mercy in his papacy and in the lives of all Christians.
So, I want to focus briefly this morning on the relationship of mercy and justice. For most of my life, like most people I suspect, I had viewed “mercy” as a value or attribute, separate and apart from justice, but as something which should “temper,” even suffuse, justice. But a couple of years ago, I read a book based on interviews with Pope Francis, entitled “The Name of God is Mercy,” and the centrality of mercy to justice became more clear. If, indeed, God is mercy and, in his righteousness, embodies justice, then true justice cannot exist in the absence of mercy. And that is something those of us who operate, or function, in our earthly administration of justice, should never lose sight of.
In that context, God does not just engage in “mercy.” Rather, he is mercy itself and acts always with us, and sometimes even through us in grace and holiness, to heal and regenerate human beings. It is no surprise that most of the “acts” of mercy effected by Jesus were administered to the afflicted, alienated or marginalized, members of society in which he lived. And they were not acts of what Father Maloney characterized as condescending pity but rather of compassionate mercy which, obviously, should be our guidepost today.
God is also righteous, of course, and in the process of administering justice infused with mercy, we should not apologize for our roles in a humanly devised system, which establishes rules and which punishes deviation from those rules, so long as that punishment is measured, just and designed to allow for rehabilitation.
In closing, allow me to employ words far more eloquent than I can devise to ponder on the importance of God’s, and our own human, mercy shown to others:
The first is highlighted in St. John’s first Epistle:
If anyone says, “my love is fixed on God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 Jn 4:20-22).
The second is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and I suspect you have heard it before but it seemed to me an appropriate reading with which to close this talk this morning:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes;
“Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the fear and dread of Kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of Kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy (The Merchant of Venice; Act 4, Sc 1).
ABOUT THE SPEAKER: John Degnan has had a distinguished career as a lawyer, public servant, government official and corporate executive. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School in West Orange and Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, and graduated from Saint Vincent College, magna cum laude, in 1966. He then attended Harvard Law School, where he received his degree in 1969.
From 1969 to 1971, he served as law secretary to Associate Justice John J. Francis of the state Supreme Court. He was associated with the Newark law firm of Clapp and Eisenberg from 1971 to 1974. He joined the administration of Governor Brendan Byrne as assistant counsel on Nov. 4, 1974, and served as executive secretary to the governor from March 1976 through March 1977, when he became special counsel to the governor.
Byrne announced his appointment as attorney general – at 33, one of the youngest ever to serve in the position – on Dec. 20, 1977. His tenure was highlighted by opening of the New Jersey State Police to women and deregulation of the liquor industry. In 1981, he resigned to make a run for governor in the Democratic primary.
After a brief stint in law, Degnan spent the next two decades at The Chubb Corporation, a worldwide property and casualty insurance company based in New Jersey. In 1990, he joined subsidiary Chubb & Son as senior vice president and general counsel. He was elected president of Chubb Corp. in 1996 and became president of Chubb & Son in 1998. In 2002, he became vice chairman and chief administrative officer of Chubb Corp., added the titles of chief ethics and legal compliance officer in 2005, and was promoted to chief operating officer in 2008. Having steered Chubb through a financial crisis, he retired as vice chairman and COO in 2010 and remains an adviser to CEO John Finnegan.
He has been married for 46 years to Mary Wade Degnan, a cousin of Michael Wade, C’66, and Peter Conforti, C’65. The Degnans have three children and five grandchildren and live in Chester, New Jersey, and Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
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