"It was like a punch in the stomach": Fr PJ tells RTE's Claire Byrne of Garda visit before Mass

Mount Temple native Fr PJ Hughes has told RTE Radio that when Gardai called to a church where was he preparing to celebrate Mass with his parishioners last Sunday "it was like a punch in the stomach."

The local man is currently the parish priest in Mullahoran, County Cavan, and he was warned by the Gardai last weekend that he could be prosecuted for not complying with the current Covid-19 restrictions which require Masses to be celebrated in private.

Speaking on RTE's Today With Claire Byrne show this morning, Fr Hughes (pictured above while working on the missions in Ecuador) gave more details of the incident last weekend and explained why he "can't accept" the present restrictions on Mass attendance.

He said he had been getting ready to celebrate 10am Mass last Sunday morning when the first of two visits to the church by Gardai that day took place.

"At five to ten, a knock came to the sacristy door and two young Gardai were there and told me I was in breach of the regulations, I was in breach of the law, and I should tell people to go home and not to celebrate public Mass," he said.

"I was ready to go out onto the altar and celebrate Mass, so this was like a punch in the stomach. It was the worst time it could come.

"It made me sad, but I said, look, I'm not breaking the law as far as I'm concerned and I am not going to tell these people to go home. That would be a huge insult to them and to their faith."

He explained that there were "maybe 45, 50" people in the church for Mass, and that around 15 or so had gone home because "the guards were at the door telling them they were breaking the law."

Fr PJ went ahead with the celebration of Mass and said that, just after 12 noon, a sergeant and another guard called.

"They said they were going to prosecute me because I had broken the law, and I would be fined €2,500 and go to jail for six months.

"I said I don't think I broke the law - when did the law change, that somebody practising their faith would be in breach of any law in the country?

"They told me that legislation was passed and that the Garda commissioner was instructed to tell the Gardai to prosecute any priest who would breach that law."

Fr PJ said he hadn't heard anything since then about whether or not he would be prosecuted.

In response to questions from Claire Byrne, he said he was "very aware" of Covid-19, and that one of his sisters had contracted the virus.

However, he argued that people should have the choice to practise their faith by attending Mass if they wished to do so.

"I'm not speaking on behalf of the Church, I'm speaking for the faith of the people who want to come to the church.

"Our faith is our faith, and people are free to practise their faith. The church has to be left open because it is theirs, (the people) built the church. I'm here to serve the Lord and the people, not a Government.

"Unfortunately, the official Church has said close the doors and obey the law, but I can't accept that. I'm sorry, I can't accept that.

"Jesus said go out to the whole world and baptise - we are told not to baptise anybody now. We're told not to celebrate the sacraments. That's unbelievable.

"Are we going to live in a communist state or what? I know the virus is there, but at the same time we have to live, and God can help us. God is the creator of Heaven and earth, and that is very important. That is our faith."

He said other priests hadn't opened their doors for Mass attendees because they were afraid to do so.

"They're very conscious that they don't want to disobey the Bishop or disobey the Government. They don't want to cause trouble and they're full of fear that they might be blamed for the Covid.

"But again, I say, it's people's free choice to practise their faith. People who don't want to go to church don't have to go. That's their choice.

"But for the people who want to go, their faith will carry them through."

Fr PJ said he would continue saying Mass daily but would no longer let people know what time it would be celebrated.

"The anonymous caller that reported me, they're still watching, I'm sure, to see can I be reported again, but I have to think of my own health as well.

"I live on my own here and it's been lonely enough during lockdown. It's lonely enough at the best of times for a priest, but during the lockdown it's worse.

"This State, at the moment, has no regard for elderly people who are living alone and have faith in God.

"It has no part to play, as far as the Government are concerned, and I would like to ask the Garda commissioner and the Minister for Justice to apologise to the Catholic people who want to practise their faith in this country."

He said his parishioners had been "100% supportive" of him in the aftermath of last Sunday's events, and that he had also had an "unbelievable" amount of people contacting him with messages of support.

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