Head of Irish bishops calls new law on Mass attendance ‘draconian’

Father Gerard Quirke raises the chalice at Mass Rock overlooking Keem Bay on Ireland's Achill Island April 4, 2021. Father Quirke, a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam, said celebrating Easter Mass there had a "particular resonance" given the current legal ban on Masses in Ireland. (CNS photo/Seán Molloy, courtesy Irish Catholic)

DUBLIN (CNS) – The head of the Irish bishops’ conference said the government’s move to criminalise attendance at Mass as part of Covid-19 regulations was a “potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights”.

“The precise provisions are unclear and. at first reading. appear to be draconian, going further than the restrictions we have been cooperating with throughout the pandemic to date,” said Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland. “We shall be seeking legal counsel to advise on several questions concerning the extent of the statutory instrument.”

He also said the bishops were seeking “an immediate meeting” with the government “and we request the suspension of this harsh and unclear statutory instrument”.

Churches in the Irish Republic have been closed for public worship since December 26, but the government has claimed that this was just a matter of regulation rather than law.

However, on April 16, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly signed a new law – known as a statutory instrument – making it a criminal offence.

“We consider the publication of this statutory instrument, together with associated penal provisions, to be provocative and formally enacting a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights,” Archbishop Martin said.

“Together with other churches and faith communities, we have been cooperating fully with public health messages for more than a year now. At the same time, we have consistently impressed on (the) government that people of faith value highly their spiritual well-being and consider the public practice of their faith as essential – something which has not been sufficiently recognised in statute.

“It is highly disappointing then that, despite the reassurances of the taoiseach (Irish prime minister) to church leaders only two days ago that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland, this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation.”

“We consider this to be a breach of trust,” Archbishop Martin said.

His Archdiocese of Armagh straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. North of the border, churches have been reopened since late March. However, in the Republic, public worship remains online only.

Meanwhile, a case before the High Court challenging the ban on public worship is due to be heard April 27. Similar bans in nearby jurisdictions – including Scotland – have been found to be unlawful.

Photo: Father Gerard Quirke raises the chalice at Mass Rock overlooking Keem Bay on Irelands Achill Island on April 4, 2021. Father Quirke, a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam, said celebrating Easter Mass there had a “particular resonance” given the current legal ban on Masses in Ireland (CNS photo)

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  1. Bruce Jones says

    If an effort was made towards youth,
    towards giving Eucharist prominence,
    towards the placement of the tabernacle in a position of honour,
    and of centrality,
    and affirming the whole notion of silence in churches,
    the case above would be indeed stronger.
    Why does it take Covid19 to bring about the concern of the need for protection
    of religious freedom, when Catholics have been so eager to sell their souls to
    the Secular Humanist agenda?

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