A priest has vowed to keep his church open despite being warned by the police that he risked prosecution after he celebrated Mass in the presence of his parishioners.
Fr PJ Hughes says he could not force people to leave Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran while he celebrated Mass.
The priest, originally from Westmeath, was visited by the police last weekend and reminded of the Covid-19 Level Five restrictions after saying Sunday Mass and allowing parishioners to be present.
Instead he intends to begin hosting Masses online, at irregular times, in the hope of dissuading people from attending and, with it, him potentially falling foul of the law.
Public Masses are not permitted under Level Five restrictions, although six people are allowed at a wedding and 25 at a funeral Mass.
Fr Hughes feels the restrictions are akin to “living in a police state” or harking back even to when Catholicism was considered illegal under British rule and priests continued to celebrate Mass for the people in secret for fear of Penal Laws.
“I have continued to say Mass because I feel it is our Constitutional right to practise our religion,” said Fr Hughes, who admits that when people arrived at his rural church while he was saying Mass, he did not turn them away.
“There might be five people come in,” says Fr Hughes, or perhaps more for a special Mass. “All the time they socially distance. They wear a mask, and they’re very careful. For me, people coming into the church, they’re all facing the one way, they’re not talking to each other, there’s no party. They’re just there to pray and go home. The church is a safe place.”
Located within the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Fr Hughes acknowledges his Masses came to the attention of authorities, including Bishop Francis Duffy, after “somebody reported me”.
He elaborated: “The bishop phoned me last Tuesday and he told me that I’d get in trouble if I kept it up.”
Last Sunday morning, before Mass in Mullahoran began, Fr Hughes received a knock at the back door of the Sacristy, with two young guarda in attendance.
“They told me I was breaking the law,” recalls Fr Hughes, who says he challenged the assertion based on his interpretation of Article 44 of the Constitution, which deals with rights to practice religion freely.
At 12 o’clock, after Mass ended, Fr Hughes was visited again, this time by a Sergeant, to press the matter further. He was informed that a file would be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), meaning that he could be prosecuted for breaching the Covid rules.
Photo: Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran (inset) Fr PJ Hughes, parish priest.