09 Jan Catholic Iceland
Text & photos by Evan Wing
For Catholics, Iceland is terra ingognita. Overwhelmingly Lutheran for the last several centuries, the nation is now mostly secular, with some regions even beginning to backslide into paganism.
As you drive into Reykjavik, the tallest steeple in the city – Hallgrimskírkja, a brutally iconoclastic Calvinist edifice now used mainly as a concert hall – looms over everything from atop the hill. The Catholic spark would seem, on the surface, to have totally gone out here.
But walk down to the big stone church in the old harbor on the south side of the city, and you’ll see signs of life.
Mass at Christ the King is celebrated in the Novus Ordo, but the cathedral parish is anything but loosey-goosey. Habited nuns lead early arrivals in praying the rosary beforehand; the liturgy itself follows the original rubrics, ad orientem and largely in Latin. What isn’t spoken in Latin is spoken in Old Norse – hearkening back to the early post-conversion days when the concepts of written language and Latin roots were equally foreign to most Icelanders.
In this regard, the Mass here remains virtually unchanged from how it was celebrated in Iceland for the first time in the year 999 AD. Communicants kneel at a beautiful (if oddly anachronistic) rail of blood-red granite as a choir sings Christmas hymns in a tongue largely unchanged from that of the first settlers of this windswept isle.
Between the two priests present, Confessions are heard in four languages: Icelandic, English, French, and Polish. Families and young adults form lines at the dual confessionals; older parishioners use the time to gossip and point at the habits of the bright-eyed, youthful nuns visiting from the north country.
Viking ship, restored.
The priest’s homily, in Icelandic and English, compares the Star of Bethlehem to the stars that navigators used to guide the first Christian missionaries to Iceland, bringing the country out of “our pagan darkness”. A grumble rises from the grey-headed peanut gallery in the rear.
Talking with a youngish fellow from Buffalo, New York, afterward, who immigrated after marrying an Icelandic woman two years earlier, I got the scoop on Catholicism in the land of fire and ice: after generations of decline, the Church is making a comeback. Six parishes currently exist, but that number is expected to nearly double in the next five years – largely due to immigration from countries such as Poland, Spain, and Ireland. While secularism defines the laws of the land and paganism brings in the tourists, the Church in Iceland is quietly rebuilding, gathering strength, biding time. The new face of Icelandic Catholicism, for so long a graying, dying breed, is now increasingly young, traditional, and focused on family. The atmosphere at Christ the King was one of eager but stately piety – these people want to change their home, but they’re in no hurry.
A big part of Catholicism, after all, is taking your time and doing things right.
The Black Church, outside the village of Buðir. Finished in 1848, it is the oldest wooden church in Iceland. The church is black because its planks are coated with pitch, to keep them from rotting away in the perpetual damp and to better hold the structure together in Iceland’s punishing winds. The structure’s history gives some insight into the religious history of Protestant Iceland. The original church, built in the 18th century, belonged to the national Church of Iceland, but at some point it was demolished. When the villagers petitioned the hierarchy to allow them to build a new one they were refused, so a woman from the village sent an appeal directly to the king of Denmark (Iceland was a Danish crown dependency until 1918), who assented. A plaque on the door reads: “This church was erected without the permission of the spiritual fathers”.