Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbot’s repeal of the state mask mandate, a pregnant Catholic mother was kicked out of Mass in the Diocese of Dallas for failing to wear a mask.
Father Milton Ryan, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Parish, is alleged to have called the police while the service was underway and have the young mother threatened with arrest for trespass. Deidre Hairston returned to her pew after receiving communion, with her one-year-old baby in her arms, to find three police officers waiting for her.
One officer threatened to put her in handcuffs if she did not comply with their request to leave the premises, repeatedly insisting that the church was a “business” and that the pastor had a right to refuse her entry. In response to the incident, the Diocese of Dallas issued a lame statement, clarifying that while the bishop has not mandated masks, individual parishes are permitted to make their own rules.
It’s a disturbing development indeed when Catholic churches are now imposing more stringent restrictions on Americans’ God-given and constitutionally enshrined right to worship than government. How has Christ’s church, whose long list of sainted martyrs boasts among its ranks illustrious names like Peter, Paul, Thomas Becket, and Maximilian Kolbe, produced the officious bullies who are now charged with shepherding Our Lord’s flock?
Catholic priests during World War II literally died at altars defending innocent civilians against fascist tyranny. Today, pastors who bully parishioners over masks appear to have forgotten the soul-saving mission of the church and are instead doing the tyrannizing themselves.
This recent outrage is not the first time a Catholic priest has sicced law enforcement onto a mother for being maskless. In Kansas City, Missouri last fall, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church called the police on Jane Bernadel, a home-schooling mother of 11, for not wearing a mask while praying with her family in church.
Although apparently not wearing a mask himself, Rev. Gary Ziuraitis had Bernadel handcuffed and arrested for trespass while she was attending a prayer service on Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. Bernadel brought the matter to the attention of Bishop James Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City and was effectively thrown under the bus.
She was formally charged after refusing a plea bargain, the terms of which included a guilty plea, a $300 fine, and enrollment in “diversion” and anger management classes designed to rehabilitate offenders and help them manage the behaviors that resulted in their arrest.
Also last fall, Fr. Christopher Gustafson of St. Norbert Parish in Northbrook, Illinois wrote a letter to Collete O’Regan, a mother of seven and a 21-year parishioner of the church, chastising her for not wearing a mask during mass. Masks are not mandatory in Cook County, where the parish is located, but are required by the Archdiocese of Chicago. The priest subsequently threatened to call the police on O’Regan and have her arrested or cited for trespassing on private property if she turned up to church again without wearing a mask.
All these women are daughters of the Catholic Church, not recalcitrant perpetrators, and any priest or bishop who countenances such appalling treatment of them needs to engage in some deep and prayerful consideration of his priorities. How did we get here? After a century of perhaps the worst Christian persecutions in the history of the church, how do we find ourselves in a situation where Catholic priests are now voluntarily persecuting the faithful?
The horror stories of WWII are interspersed with tales of unfathomable bravery, often by Catholic priests. One of the most famous cases is that of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest interned at Auschwitz who volunteered to take the place of another prisoner, a Polish father who had been randomly selected to die in the horrific “Starvation Bunker.”
Prisoners sent to this virtual tomb were deprived of light, food, and water; their only contact with the outside world was when guards came once a day to remove the dead bodies. In the bunker, Kolbe endeavored that those who perished with him would die with dignity. They prayed and sang hymns together and recited the rosary.
A less familiar story relates to five Catholic priests who were massacred in 1944 along with more than 700 civilians, mostly women and children, by Nazi and Italian fascist troops in the mountainous territory around the small village of Marzabotto, just south of Bologna, Italy. The atrocity occurred during an operation to defeat partisans, who had retreated to the hills and woods to escape arrest, and punish the local population for having aided them.
One such priest, the young Don Giovanni Fornasini, is remembered as “the angel of Marzabotto” for his role in protecting civilians and defying the Nazis by burying the bodies of those massacred in the reprisal. For this, he was shot and killed by an SS officer.
Another priest, Don Ubaldo Marchioni, also a target for having assisted partisans, found a group of terrified parishioners, mostly women and children, seeking refuge from the Germans in the little church of Casiglia di Caprara. He celebrated Mass with them, then began reciting the rosary, kneeling on the steps of the altar.
Their prayer was interrupted by the arrival of German soldiers, who shot a disabled woman on the spot and led the rest of the civilians out of the church. They were massacred in the nearby cemetery. Don Ubaldo was executed at the altar of his church, which minutes later was set alight and destroyed.
This is the heroic legacy of Catholic martyr-priests in the face of political persecution. Today, priests like the pastor in Dallas and their respective bishops not only fall woefully short of this impressive standard, but they are also actively facilitating political harassment and bullying within the church itself.
None of this is about health or “saving lives.” A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that mask mandates were associated with an at best negligible decrease in both death and case growth rates. Similarly, a large randomized-control trial out of Denmark last year found that there was no statistical difference in infection rates between mask-wearers and non-mask wearers in protecting against COVID-19 infection. Instead, what we are witnessing is a toxic combination of hysteria, political virtue signaling, and control.
I recently wrote that without legislative measures to curb the mask madness, petty dictatorships would crop up at the county and municipal level even in states where covid restrictions are removed. For example, the cities of Tuscon and Flagstaff are thumbing their noses at Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s latest order that prevents local jurisdictions from issuing new mask mandates.
Across the country, businesses are already communicating intent to press on with their own silly mask rules. Evidently, individual pastors and churches are also going to signal their political allegiance and browbeat their congregants into toeing the party line.
Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas responded to Abbott’s rolling back of COVID restrictions by announcing that masks would continue to be required in diocesan churches and that services would continue to operate at 25 percent capacity. In Wisconsin, the Diocese of Green Bay wasted no time issuing its own mask mandate within hours of the Supreme Court ruling that Gov. Tony Evers had exceeded his authority when issuing public health emergencies, including the requirement for face coverings.
A church is not a “business.” It is a house of prayer, a distinction Our Lord made clear when he furiously drove blasphemous priests and individuals out of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, using a whip made of cords, because they dared to turn the House of God into a marketplace. Catholic priests who tyrannize parishioners over masks and social distancing are peddling not wares but hysteria, political slogans, and propaganda. In addition, those who are treating their churches as “businesses” would do well to recognize that in an “industry” that is hemorrhaging “clients,” threatening and turning away loyal patrons might not be the best business model.
Either way, safeguarding public health and safety was never the “business” of the church; nor was harassing faithful Christian mothers who run afoul of their pastor’s scientifically unsupported political crusade.
Jesus’ parting message to his disciples before ascending into heaven was to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ who suffered, died, and rose on the third day. The myriad Catholic priests who have been brutalized for their faith paid the ultimate price to spread the gospel and stand up to tyranny and persecution. The church needs more courageous and loving heroes like that, and fewer rogue “public health” militants.