The Government has now insisted that it is an offence punishable by the law for a priest to celebrate public Mass, despite months of assurances that there is no penalty attached.
This stance appears to be at odds with a statement to the Dáil by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly in October dismissing concerns around the criminalising of priests and Mass-goers under the Covid-19 regulations.
The Irish Catholic understands that as part of a response to Declan Ganley’s High Court challenging the ban on public worship, the Government has confirmed that the restrictions are penal.
The Government insists that it is an offence for a priest to leave his home to celebrate a public Mass unless this is a funeral or a wedding.
The State also adds that it is a similar offence for a parishioner to leave their home to attend Mass.
This newspaper understands that the Government is adamant that it is unlawful and that penalties therefore apply.
Mr Ganley confirmed to The Irish Catholic on Sunday that the State had replied. However, he insisted that he was not in a position to share the contents of the letter.
“The State was very prompt in their response and I am very grateful for that.
“While I can’t share the specifics at the moment until we’re back in Court [on April 13], the position has not changed and the State has re-iterated that it is unlawful [to hold or attend public Mass] an offence and subject to penalties,” Mr Ganley said.
During a Dáil debate on October 22, Independent TD Michael McNamara insisted that under the legislation “priests will be committing a criminal offence if they open the doors of their churches for Mass”.
“Is the Government going to send gardaí after priests who decide to say mass? If the Government is thinking of that, I have one word to say, ‘Don’t’,” the Clare deputy said.
In response, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that the government is following the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) advice on places of worship. He dismissed Mr McNamara’s comments on penalties saying: “Religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health told The Irish Catholic in November that “holding a religious service is not a penal offence”.
The latest development comes as gardaí mounted roadblocks in rural Co. Cavan on Sunday to stop parishioners attending Mass.
The Irish Times reports that checkpoints were erected close to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Mullahoran as parish priest Fr PJ Hughes said Mass. Last weekend, The Irish Catholic revealed that Fr Hughes had been fned €500 for celebrating Mass.
According to a report on The Irish Times website, the 10am Mass was delayed for about 20 minutes with many locals detained at the three Garda checkpoints erected on the roads into the church, which is in a rural part of the parish.
Fr Hughes said he was furious having got a call from a local man who was prevented from getting to the church.
“The guards attacked me and accused me of spreading the virus,” he claimed beforehand.
“A guard told me that I was putting the lives of elderly people at risk. It’s a sad day that three Garda cars are circling around this church. Have they nothing else to do? God help us.
“This is sectarianism. This is against our faith. It’s a sectarian act against our Catholic Church encouraged by the Government who don’t believe in God anymore,” he said.