Fr P.J. Hughes, PP in Mullahoran.

‘I’m not going to lock the door- priest defends religious rights

A local priest is being reminded of COVID-19 Level Five restrictions after saying Sunday Mass and allowing parishioners to be present at the weekend.

But Fr PJ Hughes, who has been threatened with prosecution, insists he will still not force people from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran.

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.

His comments to The Anglo-Celt come after gardaí attended the church to speak with Fr Hughes last Sunday, November 15, to check compliance with COVID-19 regulations.

Public masses are not permitted under Level Five, 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 when people did arrive to the rural church when he was saying Mass he did not chase them away.

“There might be five people come in,” says Fr Hughes, or perhaps more if it was an anniversary Mass he concedes.

“All the time these people are keeping their social distance. They wear their 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 let’s say. They’re just there to pray and go home then.”

Fr PJ Hughes relocated from the Leamonaghan parish in Offaly, to become parish priest in Mullahoran in August 2019.

Located within the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Fr Hughes acknowledges his Masses came to the attention of authorities, including Bishop Francis Duffy, a native of Bawnboy, 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 guards 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, another garda, as well as the first two officers, to press the matter further.

Fr Hughes explained to the Celt his feeling, as he did to members of An Garda Síochána who presented last Sunday: “People come to Mass because they want to receive Holy Communion. It’s not just a sweet I’m giving out, it’s the mystery of our faith, that Jesus is present in the Sacrament.

"That’s our faith, and I’m not going to close the door in these people’s faces.”

He adds: “Faith is very important to these people. You look at some of the people coming to Mass. Some of them are living alone, they’re elderly, living alone, some arrive a few minutes early and light a candle, say prayers and then they go home.”

But Fr Hughes was informed by the officers present that a file would be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), meaning that he may be prosecuted for breaching the Covid rules introduced during the last lockdown period.

The penalty, if convicted, is a fine up to €2,500 and/or six months imprisonment.

Fr Hughes informed theCelthe has now been given “one more chance” to comply.

“I have no support, only from the people maybe, but I have no support,” laments Fr Hughes. “So I put myself out on a limb. I have to make a decision to celebrate Mass everyday, but I cannot celebrate it at the time that’s designated because people will come in. So I’ll say Mass at a different time each day, on Facebook, for the people. Because I don’t want to be prosecuted either, although I would like to test to see would they go and bring me before the DPP because I just think this is scandalous really, we’re gone to a police state.”

The idea of holding Masses outdoors has been ruled out also under the current health restrictions, and not least due to worsening weather conditions.

Despite his strongly held position, Fr Hughes is anxious to avoid criminal sanction, if only that it may impinge upon his right to travel in future.

“You’d be put down as a criminal, because you do not obey the law,” says Fr Hughes. “It would be marked on my passport, and for that reason I would not like to lose that freedom. Other than that I wouldn’t mind.”

He concludes by saying that the current rules make little sense where up to a dozen people are excluded from attending Mass, but up to 100 people can be allowed into some large supermarkets.

He has now written a letter asking that Bishops lobby on the behalf of parishioners.

“I think the church is a very safe place,” says Fr Hughes. “We’re praying, and we believe that God will help us if we ask.”

In a statement toThe Anglo-Celt, a spokesperson for An Garda Siochana confirmed that uniformed members “attended a location” on Sunday last, November 15, to “check compliance” with the Health Act 1947 (Section 31A-Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No.8) Regulations 2020.

They say supporting the COVID-19 public health guidelines and regulations, An Garda Síochána “has, and will continue to, adopt, a graduated policing response” based on its tradition of “policing by consent.”

This has seen Garda members “engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce.”

They said last Sunday last officers explained the Covid-19 regulations in detail to the “organiser.”

They add that “no further investigation” is taking place at this time, and that “no action” will arise from their attendance at said location.

“The COVID-19 Pandemic remains a public health crisis and An Garda Síochána continues to appeal to all citizens to comply with Public Health Guidelines and Regulations, in particular essential journeys, in order to continue to save lives.”