Independent TD Peter Fitzpatrick has spoken of many priest’s frustrations in relation to current lockdown restrictions which state that mass cannot be celebrated in churches. He also asked for assurances from Minister for Justice Helen McEntee that priests would not face criminal charges should they celebrate mass in a public setting.
“I would like to raise the issue of priests and the likelihood of them facing criminal charges should they celebrate mass in public settings,” stated Deputy Fitzpatrick while addressing the Minister of Justice.
“This issue has been raised before but I do not believe we have received any clear guidelines. From speaking with clergy, I know they are deeply unhappy with the current situation. Some have told me they believe the Government has a totalitarian approach to the current situation. They feel that freedom is slowly being stripped away. One priest expressed the view that priests can now be jailed for celebrating mass in public for the first time since the penal laws in force during British rule were repealed in 1829.
“He said the Government is orchestrating an attack on priests and the church. As Deputies will appreciate, it took a lot for the priest to say that to me. The bottom line is that the church and priests believe we are all being denied our constitutional right to practice our faith in public.
“In making that point, the priest stated that when Ireland moved to level 3 restrictions several weeks ago we were the only country in Europe where public worship was prohibited. No other country in Europe adopted the extreme measure of denying people the right to attend public mass or preventing a priest from celebrating a mass in public. Only Wales has followed us in closing its churches and it only adopted that approach for two weeks as part of its firebreak approach.
“It is important to note that the churches went far beyond what was required to ensure worshippers were safe. As proof of this point, I understand that not one case of Covid-19 has occurred as a result of someone attending mass. All churches are closed, yet it is clear that churches were one of the safest places to be, outside of the family home, in respect of Covid-19. Priests have made the point that while churches were closed, it was still possible for people to go to beauty salons, hairdressers and mingle with hundreds of other people in large supermarkets. People are now faced with another five weeks of being unable to attend public mass and being denied the sacraments,” added Fitzpatrick.
“After this five-week period, we will either remain on level 5 or move to level 3 or 4. People could still be denied the right to attend public mass. To put this another way, why are God and the celebration of mass not considered essential services, yet off-licences can remain open? The 50 or 100 people mingling in a supermarket cannot worship in their local church while maintaining social distancing measures. The arguments made to me by priests are strong. They believe Ireland is turning into the most anti-Christian country in Europe and it is hard to argue with that. They make the point that we must not allow the current situation to change our relationship with the church and God. It is also hard to argue against that. Many people, particularly among the older generation, have a strong relationship with the church and are finding it difficult to cope. I would appreciate Deputies’ support for examining this matter. If we are able to keep the schools open, we must be able to keep our churches open for public worship.
I reiterate that I support any measures necessary to maintain public health guidelines, but they must be evidence-based. I do not agree with the disruption caused to workers going to essential work each day, particularly the disruptive checkpoints on motorways.
Will the Minister give an assurance that no priest will be prosecuted for celebrating mass in public? I ask her for a clear answer and to state in no uncertain terms that no priest will be prosecuted for a public celebration of mass,” queried the independent TD.
In response the Minister for Justice assured Deputy Fitzpatrick that no priest would be sent to prison for saying mass.
“Deputy Fitzpatrick asked about the issue of mass and whether somebody would be sent to prison or fined. The answer is “No”. While it is against the law, we have not imposed a penal provision in this regard. It might not make sense but a decision was taken that this was not something we wanted a penal provision to be attached to. It is against the law. We ask people not to attend. We have asked priests. This is a difficult time for those I know. Mass is important for them every week or every day but we are asking people, particularly throughout these level 5 restrictions, to adhere to these regulations. There is not a penal provision so a person will not be put in prison or fined,” explained the Minister.