As the coronavirus pandemic shut down churches across the green expanses of the west of Ireland, Fr. Stephen Farragher decided it would be a fine idea to let a local radio station broadcast his celebrations of the Mass on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Shortly afterward, two men he knew from the local Muslim community contacted him and asked if there could be a joint act of solidarity in response to the pandemic. “Just spontaneously, because I had so much on my plate at the time, I said, ‘Look, my Friday Mass is being broadcast,’” Farragher said. “Why don’t you come at the end of Mass and you can say a prayer.” And so, just before the final blessing at Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo on April 3, one man intoned the Islamic call to prayer and then the other prayed for God’s mercy on all suffering from the coronavirus.
Unfortunately for Farragher, news of this small event in a rural town of 2,312 people made its way across the ocean to the alt-right Catholic media in the United States and it was twisted into: “MUSLIM DECLARES MUHAMMAD’S SUPREMACY OVER JESUS AT CATHOLIC MASS.” And this: “IRELAND; PRIEST INVITED MOSLEMS TO JOIN HIM AND GIVE A FINAL ‘BLESSING’ IN THEIR OWN BLASPHEMOUS PRAYER.” And so forth.
It is the usual inflammatory commentary from these self-appointed defenders of the Catholic faith, slanted to produce maximum resentment and a predictable wave of online bullying. “It has been a tough, tough week for me, but I’ve been buoyed by the support of many wonderful parishioners here who know me to be the person that I am,” Farragher told me by telephone on Good Friday. “Maybe if I were more cautious by nature, I probably wouldn’t have done that, but it was just a spontaneous act in unprecedented times, really.”
I had contacted Farragher because I was struck by a very large gap in the accounts I’d read. That is: St. John Paul II had allowed the same Muslim call to prayer, the adhan, to mingle with the Mass he celebrated at Manger Square in Bethlehem on March 22, 2000. In that case, it was planned in advance at the highest level of the church. To my knowledge, no one ever accused the pope of heresy, or of celebrating a Satanic Mass, because of this. No one said the pope acquiesced to “an act of Islamic triumphalism.”
Farragher said that he has tried to tell his critics about the World Day of Prayer for Peace that Pope John Paul had initiated in Assisi in 1986, when representatives of many religions prayed, each in their own way but side-by-side. “I dare not mention Pope Francis’s visit to Abu Dhabi and the statement cosigned with the grand imam,” he said, referring to the groundbreaking Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. “The same people who criticize me have it really in for Pope Francis as well.”
Pope John Paul, an actor in his youth, delighted in making symbolic gestures aimed at achieving reconciliation and peace. In the jubilee-year Mass in Bethlehem, he turned a potential cause of division—the usual call to prayer from the mosque conflicted with the scheduled time of the Mass—into one such symbol. For the Palestinian Christians who crowded into Manger Square, it was an electric moment.