I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, 1802
PRIOR to the lockdowns and imposition of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) status in Metro Manila in March last year, a month before in February, my wife Heidi showed signs of high fever, extreme headache, back pains in the kidney area, hypertension and loss of taste and appetite. It was alarming but it did not really give so much fear or apprehension since I’ve been receiving information about the coronavirus since January of the same year.
At that time, there was little data about the novel coronavirus or nCoV and so much less information concerning the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes the coronavirus disease 2019 or Covid-19. Still, I was really glad I read several articles about the deadly virus (and disease)—from experts like President Joseph Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci and the well-known Irish scientist Adrian Hill—and this gave me insights on how I could better take care of my ‘better-half’ in case she had contracted Covid-19.
I have to admit that I am very thankful to Dr. Fauci and Professor Hill and that’s because they had given me an effective guideline to help my wife’s recovery from what I suspected all along was Covid-19. The only thing lacking here (until now) is that we never confirmed that it was indeed from the coronavirus that she had actually been healed from.
In this experience, though, I realized the importance of listening to the experts and following their lead. After all, what is at stake here is our life and limb.
So let me get to the subject I want to tackle in this latest edition of my column. It’s funny to hear that the Church wants to defy the minimum health safety protocols being implemented by government—that of wearing face masks and face shields and moreover, that of practicing physical or social distancing. In effect, the last means avoiding social gatherings that could violate the rule on physical distancing.
So what is with our clergy who want to continue with their religious activities, which in truth would result in mass gatherings ‘violative’ of the physical distancing policy?
And here is one report that our priests and Church officials could draw lessons from. An Irish priest from County Cavan in Ulster, Ireland was fined for celebrating mass in front of 40 people but he refused to pay, insisting he would rather go to prison than pay the €500 fine.
Father PJ Hughes of Mullahoran parish in County Cavan, was fined after he breached Ireland’s Level 5 restrictions by celebrating mass in front of dozens of people. Places of worship have been closed since the end of December except for private prayer, but the Cavan priest said that he does not accept “the negative message” from the government and public health bodies which he believes is telling people to “stray away from Jesus.”
In addition, Fr. Hughes said that he can’t take the government seriously because they never make reference to God.
He enthused: “We need to face up to the reality that God can help us, but there is no mention of that from the Government. We never hear them saying ‘God help us’ or ‘with God’s help we will be over this’.”
The parish priest added that the €500 fine didn’t really bother him and that he didn’t fear An Garda Síochána or Guardian of the Peace.
“I’m not afraid of people, I’m afraid of God,” he stressed.
Fr. Hughes had actually been cautioned in November by the authorities for celebrating mass with people in attendance during Level 5 restrictions. However, he continued to hold mass in-person as he believes he’s “not offending God” and said that he will continue to say mass with people in attendance.
“I am continuing with masses . . . I am not going to pay the fine because I don’t think it is against the law. It is our constitutional right to celebrate our faith, I’m not going to pay the fine,” the Irish parish priest insisted.
Isn’t this somehow similar to the declaration of Manila Apostolic Administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo that hints on the separation of church and state.
Fr. Hughes additionally said that he did not fear going to jail if he continued to celebrate mass with people in attendance—nor does the clergy here in the Philippines from fear of the threat of closure of their churches.
The CO Cavan priest even said he will not be “dictated to by a pagan and communist government.” But how about a protestant and seemingly authoritarian administration in Malacañang?
In a letter carried in the Mullahoran parish bulletin on March 21, Fr Hughes wrote that the restrictions are turning people against each other.
He wrote: “Life has become burdened by restrictions; health officials telling us to wear masks and not to go to the church in case we catch the virus. This has turned people against each other.
“If I wish to wear the mask that is fine, but I am not obliged to challenge others who do not wish to wear it. That is their free choice and constitutional right and it should not be taken away from them.
“If Christians were as determined to spread the message that Christ is our Savior as they are to challenge others for not obeying restrictions laid down by this government then we would be on the right track and truly living Lent. May we recognize God’s mercy and be drawn to him rather than be obsessed by regulations and restrictions.”
He continued: “Next Sunday begins the journey of Holy Week. It is hard to believe that for a second year people cannot come to take part in the ceremonies of Holy Week.
“Despite the size of the church and the holy place that it is because of the presence of Jesus in the Holy Tabernacle, the church has been deemed a hot spot for the spread of the virus by the gardai.
“The majority of people are healthy and able to go shopping, bring their children to school and many are working in enclosed environments. We are committing a grave mistake by rejecting our Lord and God Jesus Christ by staying away because government officials say we must.
“I do not accept and will not accept this demand by people who do not realize the wrong they are doing.
“It is our constitutional right to protest so long as it is peaceful; it is our constitutional right to practice our faith and have the free choice to stay at home and live their lives as they think it best to do.
“I have been reported again and the gardai have issued a fine because I celebrated Mass with people present. I will exercise my constitutional right even though people are complaining, even though I am not obeying my bishop when I go against his advice. We can’t just reject Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.”
Well said, I guess . . .