Catholics among glaciers

Increasing faithful. The bishops: we need more churches. A dream? a community of monks

They are more than 11.500 and they represent 3.4% of 320thousand icelanders. It’s the highest rate of Catholics in Nordic countries. But the large majority are Polish migrants, followed by Filipinos. Lutherans in Iceland amount to 250 thousand, while very few people belong to other religious groups. Although a minority, the Catholic Church is very young and is in full blossom. In 2000 82 baptisms were celebrated in the diocese of Reykjavik while in 2013 156 people were baptized, including adults and infants. There were 16 funeral services in the year 2000, 24 in 2013. Sixteen priests and some thirty nuns from five different congregations provide religious support to the faithful. There are 17 chapels and churches on the Nordic island. The figures were shared with SIR Europe by Swiss bishop Peter Bürcher, since 2007 ordinary of the Icelandic diocese. The bishop said he dreams of setting up a male monastery like in the Middle Ages, when there were Benedictines and Augustinians on the island. There is already “a large strip of land with houses and a church with heating in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community”. What are the major pastoral challenges and is the richness of your community? “Christian education and the spiritual life of lay people, of families in particular, are certainly among the priorities of our pastoral care in the near future. The participation of lay people in the life of the Church and the awareness of their belonging to the Catholic Church still need to be strengthened. We count on the next synod for the family, although preparations for the synod have been made in a very modest way, uniting our forces with those of the Bishops’ Conference of Nordic Countries”. What are the problems linked to the growth of the Catholic Church? “Recent immigration led to an outstanding increase in the number of Catholics in Iceland. In 2000 there were 3.857, and last year as many as 11.500, which is a threefold increase in ten years! We have immense pastoral needs. We feel the need to create a new parish for Keflavik, in the south of the capital, and in the surrounding neighbourhood. Increasing numbers of Catholics live there and that city is rapidly developing into the centre of a large region. A similar trend was registered in Selfoss, 54km from Reykjavik and the whereabouts, where there are plans to build a church and a parish centre soon. Several families of Polish and Filipino migrants, arrived in search of a job, settled down despite difficult climatic conditions. Other urgencies are registered also in the capital and in Akureyri, in the north, since the other two parish churches now are too small. On the one side this brings us joy, but on the other it raises concerns for the future. We largely count on the help of Countries like Germany, Switzerland and the United States”. What’s the state of relations with the Lutheran Church? “The Lutheran Church in Iceland is the only State Church. Its funding raises fewer problems compared to funding of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, which are not considered on equal standing. Fortunately though, our ecumenical relations are good. Lutherans grant us the use of the churches in areas where Catholics lack places of worship. The two bishops have signed an agreement to this regard. It is a concrete, welcomed form of ecumenism, and the Catholic Church regularly allows the Russian Orthodox to use the church for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at Easter and Christmas. There are ongoing, cordial relations between the respective religious leaders”.. What does it mean for you to be members of the Universal Church? What reactions does the Pontificate of Pope Francis trigger in Ireland? “When 80 years ago bishop Meulenberg erected our Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavík, there were 55 Catholics in the entire Country. And he built it very large, so they asked him: ‘why do build such a large church for such a small number of people?’ He replied: ‘you know, the Catholic Church is very large….’ We were fortunate that he built a large church, in fact now the cathedral is too small for us all! Indeed, the Catholic Church in Iceland is a minority in the diaspora. But its awareness as a member of the Universal Church is deeply rooted. Indeed, the visit of John Paul II in 1989 was a success for the Catholics and for the Lutherans in the Country. The present pontificate of Pope Francis gives renewed grace to Icelandic Catholics. We pray for him often, as he has asked”.

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