Father P.J. Hughes is the parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran, a township in rural County Cavan, Ireland. He recently earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first Irish priest for centuries to find himself on the wrong side of the law for saying Mass in public.
All acts of public worship are currently banned in Ireland under a law imposing one of the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world. The Garda—the Irish police force—has fined Fr. Hughes €500, and he refuses to pay it. He now faces possible imprisonment. A Catholic priest has not been jailed for saying Mass in the country since the worst days of the Penal Laws several hundred years ago, when Britain suppressed the Catholic faith in Ireland.
Fr. Hughes continues to allow his parishioners to attend Mass in his church. On Palm Sunday, the police set up checkpoints on the approaches to Mullahoran. Parishioners attempting to get to Our Lady of Lourdes Church by car were turned back. Some had traveled far, drawn by the news that somewhere in Ireland a priest was allowing Catholics to attend Mass. Some received fines for doing so. Those who did manage to get into the church seem to have arrived mostly by foot.
“The guards attacked me and accused me of spreading the virus,” Fr. Hughes told the Irish Times after Mass on Palm Sunday. “A guard told me that I was putting the lives of elderly people at risk. It’s a sad day that three Garda cars are circling around this church. Have they nothing else to do? God help us.”
Sean Cronin, a pastor at Open Gates Church in the working-class neighborhood of Ballymun in Dublin, was led away by police on Palm Sunday after attempting to hold a service at a church in another part of the city.
The current lockdown began last Christmas. It is Ireland's third lockdown since March 2020. People cannot attend any place of worship except for private prayer. Funerals are legal, but only 10 can attend. Only six can attend a wedding.
Public worship has been restricted in Ireland for eight out of the last twelve months—longer than anywhere else in Europe. Public worship will not be permitted again until at least the end of May. Almost every other country in Europe is allowing public worship, albeit with limits on the number of worshippers. Many only shut down public worship completely during the first lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic last year. Ireland is an outlier in this regard.
Currently, the Irish are living under Level 5 restrictions, which are the most draconian. Yet these restrictions permit food shops, hardware stores, and liquor stores (or “off-licenses,” as the Irish call them) to be open. The Irish government considers liquor stores more essential than public worship, it seems. Public worship will not be permitted again until Level 2. Under Level 3 restrictions, barbershops will be open, as will ordinary shops and gyms. Outdoor dining will be permitted. But the Irish still won’t be allowed to gather for worship.
A few months ago, I asked Ireland’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, about this seeming discrimination. He responded that the state was shutting down areas of activity considered “less important . . . in the context of a pandemic.” That answer seems to reveal what the Irish government thinks of public worship.
From church leaders themselves, there has been little more than grumbling in response. In France, Catholic bishops took the government to court to challenge restrictions there. Religious groups have done the same in Belgium, Scotland, Germany, and the U.S., among other countries. In almost every case they have been successful, and judges have ruled that total bans on public worship are disproportionate.
But in Ireland, it has been left up to a businessman, Declan Ganley, to mount a legal challenge. His case is slowly winding its way through the court system. It is possible the ban will be lifted before it is properly heard.
Meanwhile, Fr. Hughes continues to say Mass in his parish church, and he continues to allow members of the public to attend, so long as they can slip past the Garda checkpoints. This is the sad pass we have come to in Ireland.
David Quinn is a columnist with the Sunday Times and Irish Catholic and is head of The Iona Institute.
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