A parish priest has been given a “last warning” by gardaí, who told him he was in breach of Covid-19 regulations after he continued to leave his church doors open while saying Mass.
Fr PJ Hughes, the parish priest in Mullahoran, Co Cavan, said he could not close his church doors as it would be "an insult to the people", but he has undertaken to say Mass at times other than his regular Mass times to ensure people will not attend.
The priest proceeded to say Mass last Sunday morning despite getting a visit beforehand from two gardaí who he said told him he would be breaking the law if there were people present in the Church. He said he had told the gardaí that the people were there because of their faith and he was not going to tell them to go home.
Fr Hughes has described Level 5 restrictions, which mean public Masses cannot be said, as akin to “living in a police state” .
In an interview with Shannonside radio on Thursday he said that after he went ahead with last Sunday’s Mass, a Garda sergeant had arrived at his door with a colleague and told him he had broken the law . He said he had told the gardaí he did not realise there was a “a law against people practicing their religion” as he thought that was “safe under the Constitution”.
Fr Hughes confirmed that the gardaí had told him this was his last warning and if he was caught celebrating Mass again with people in the church, a file would be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions and he would be prosecuted. He said gardaí had told him the penalty was a fine of up to €2,500 or six months in jail.
Fr Hughes told the Joe Finnegan Show that Bishop Francis Duffy of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise had contacted him last week after receiving an anonymous complaint that the priest was saying Mass with parishioners present in the church. The Bishop had told him he was in "dangerous territory", and if he continued to say Mass with the church open, a complaint would probably be made to the Garda. "I listened to him. I did not say yes or no," the priest recalled. He added that people mattered more to him and God mattered more to him than anything else.
Fr Hughes said he felt very sad for the people of his parish who wanted to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, and he said if God was the creator of heaven and earth, “surely he knows how to deal with the virus better than any scientist or HSE CEO”.
Stressing that he did not “normally break the rules” he said he believed that churches were safe places and that people were well able to socially distance in churches like his, because of their size.
He said he had written to the bishops appealing for them to make the case for churches to be allowed reopen as closing them even though the congregation can socially distance was “an insult to people’s faith and an insult to God”.
He said he believed people were very angry about this as they feel their faith was being challenged and controlled.
In a statement, Bishop Duffy said the Government plan would continue to evaluate progress in reopening society and it was important that the Church was “ready to respond to any change”.
“As clergy we have reflected deeply – and responsibly – on our wish to celebrate Mass publicly in the context of the overall public health situation,” he added.
"The Catholic Church is prioritising public health measures for the sake of the common good," Bishop Duffy said.
Quoting Pope Francis’s plea for the Church to respect the prescriptions given to safeguard the health of people, Bishop Duffy added: “So it is important to be patient and to cautiously prepare towards reopening for public worship and, in the meantime, no parish should have a public Mass.”