A priest could be imprisoned or fined for saying Mass in public under new restrictions passed into Irish law last week, a politician who chairs the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee has warned.
Deputy Michael McNamara, an Independent TD for Co Clare, raised his concerns as the Dáil debated the extension of public health emergency legislation restricting individual rights from 9 November until 9th June 2021, aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Article 8 of the regulations prohibits various events, including religious services, with an exception for funerals.
Contravention of the prohibition is an offence with a penal provision allowing for the imposition of criminal penalties on the organiser of the event, such as a priest who celebrates a Mass attended by any members of the public. The penalties include a fine, imprisonment, or both.
Addressing the Minister for Health in the Dáil, Deputy McNamara warned that under the new provisions, priests will be committing a criminal offence if they open the doors of their churches for Mass.
“Is the Government is going to send Gardaí [police] after priests who decide to say mass? If the Government is thinking of that, I have one word to say, ‘Don't’,” he challenged.
However, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the Government was following the public health advice on places of worship. He added: “I assure the Deputy and other colleagues that with regard to penalties, religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them.”
But Deputy McNamara highlighted that Regulation 5(1) precludes people leaving their home without reasonable excuse and that under Regulation 5(2) saying Mass in public is not a reasonable excuse and that there is therefore a penal provision for any priest who does.
Fr Michael Toomey, Administrator of the Parishes of Ardfinnan and Newcastle-Fourmilewater in the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore expressed his upset with the new measures. “Under new Covid restrictions passed into law in the Dáil, I can now be fined, or imprisoned, or both, for saying Mass in public,” he said.
Referring to the Minister for Health’s concern over the danger of the virus spreading in enclosed spaces, Fr Toomey said: “I assume this does not apply to those on an airplane, queuing in a shop, schools, playing a match, or going on public transport?”
He also highlighted that even if Ireland reverts of Level three restrictions on 1 December, he will still not be able to celebrate a public Mass as religious services remain online.
According to the Iona Institute the new penalties apply to any minister of religion who holds a public act of worship, not just priests.
In a statement, the pro-faith think tank described the provisions as “drastic, draconian and unacceptable” and added that there were questions about the constitutionality of the measure.
“Aside from Wales, the Republic of Ireland appears to be the only place in Europe where public worship has stopped, and in our case, now attracts penal sanctions,” the Iona Institute stated.
In the Dáil, the Health Minister said he would “challenge NPHET to provide the evidence again [for the ban on public worship] because I agree that this is a major imposition”.
A number of church leaders have issued statements calling on the Government to allow churches reopen for public worship.
A group representing Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and New churches from all over Ireland, Irish Church Together, said at the weekend that it supported the appeal made by 70 Irish Pentecostal Church leaders in an open letter last week to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin, in which the religious ministers described the closure of places of worship as “counterproductive” at a time when people “desperately need the hope and community that so many find in church life and public worship”.
The statement comes ahead of the meeting this week between the country’s four catholic archbishops and the Taoiseach following their statement on 9th October in which they requested a meeting to discuss the closure of places of worship for religious ceremonies.
In their statement, Irish Church Together, which represents 260 priests, ministers and pastors in the Republic said: “If ever there was a time that churches in Ireland needed to be open it is now. When people are losing their jobs, fearful about the future and struggling to make ends meet, they need the comfort, hope and solace that is found in the community of faith.”
They said they were “deeply concerned” that the continued isolation of people was having severe, unintended consequences, particularly with regards to their mental health.
“Unfortunately, on a wider scale in the local communities in which we serve, we are seeing domestic violence, self-harm, and even suicide. As we enter the darker winter season, we believe that these issues will only grow worse.”
The religious ministers said they believed there was a direct correlation between a person’s spiritual health and their mental health.
“It is clear that many people across this nation are struggling with anxiety, despair, depression and a pervading sense of hopelessness, compounded by these ongoing lockdowns.”
They also underlined that freedom of worship is “a sacred, God-given right, one that Government should respect”.