With just 10,000 faithful, the Catholic Church in Iceland is very small, yet it is developing very dynamically. Bishop Pierre Bürcher of Reykjavik spoke recently to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about life in this scattered Catholic community. His diocese covers an area of over 100,000 km² (40,000 square miles).
by Eva-Maria Kolmann, ACN International
Hearing the command of Jesus to “put out into the deep”, Pierre Bürcher had not previously imagined that he would be asked to fulfil these words quite so literally. For 13 years he had been auxiliary bishop of Lausanne in Switzerland when, in October 2007, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as Bishop of Reykjavik. “I had never been to Iceland before that,” confesses the 67-year-old Swiss prelate with a smile. “It was a great surprise. God really did send me out across the deep ocean!”
To him, Iceland is a land of contrasts. And not simply because there are volcanoes smouldering beneath the ice or because there are only four hours of daylight in winter and almost no night in summer. For the Catholic Church in Iceland is equally varied and full of contrasts. “We have many different nationalities; it is truly a universal Church,” says Bishop Bürcher. Although Catholics number just 10,000 faithful and account for a little over 3% of the total population of 320,000 or so, the Church here is remarkably dynamic. The number of Catholics has trebled in the last 10 years, and the percentage of Catholics in the total population is the highest in any of the Nordic countries. There are 10 baptisms for every funeral, and every year at the Easter Vigil there are somewhere between five and 20 adult baptisms. The rising number of Catholics is also due in part to the number of immigrants, above all from Poland and the Philippines.
And yet life in the thinly scattered Catholic community is not easy. There are just 17 priests, and, apart from one Icelander, all of them are from abroad. The Catholics are widely scattered, and in many regions the religious instruction for the handful of Catholic children has to be supplied via the Internet. When Bishop Pierre administers the sacrament of Confirmation, he often has to travel by plane, given the long distances and the often dangerous road conditions. “The roads are no motorways, and above all in winter it is dangerous on account of the ice. But even in summer there is often a powerful gale blowing. We have many accidents as a result of lightweight vehicles being blown off the road.”
Iceland was particularly hard hit by the world economic crisis. Formerly the island was one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and there was no unemployment. Today things are different. People who just a few years ago bought big houses and expensive cars are now unable to pay off their loans or mortgages and are deeply in debt. “A few years ago, when the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity wanted to set up a soup kitchen in Reykjavik, the authorities responded that such an establishment was unnecessary since there were no poor. Nonetheless, the sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta went ahead and rented a small place to which around 20 people used to come for breakfast. Now, following the economic crisis, there are up to 70 people each day who take advantage of the offer. There are many volunteers, and it is a wonderful apostolate and testimony to the Faith”, says the bishop. He continues: “Experience has shown that love is contagious. A local baker, who in the past had given yesterday’s bread to a local farmer for his cattle, now says, ‘I can no longer go on giving the bread to the animals’, and gives it to the sisters instead.”
Despite all the problems that have resulted from the economic crisis, the bishop does see a number of positive developments. “Many people are turning back to the true values”, he says. “Simplicity, the family, contact with nature – all these things are becoming more important once again.”
The Catholic Church in Iceland needs support. That is why the international Catholic pastoral charity ACN has been helping, for example with the publication of the Missal in Icelandic. This year Bishop Pierre personally handed a copy to Pope Francis. ACN also helped for the publication of the Child’s Bible God Speaks to His Children and the Little Catechism I Believe in the Icelandic language. In addition to this, ACN has helped some priests and religious sisters to obtain vehicles for pastoral work and has supported building extension work on a convent for sisters.
Bishop Bürcher concludes: “I myself, when I was still living in Switzerland, did not think that the Catholic Church in Iceland needed any help. But that was a mistake. In reality we could not survive as Church without help from abroad. We are most grateful to ACN.”