Saint Thorlac Thorhallson of Iceland, Bishop

December 23

Today is the feast day of Saint Thorlac Thorhallson.  Ora pro nobis.

Thorlac (Thorlak) was born in 1133, less than two centuries after German and Norwegian missionaries began the first effective evangelization of Iceland. The pagan nation’s conversion had involved a dramatic national struggle, as many Icelanders clung fiercely to their ancestral religion despite its customs of idol worship and infanticide.

Thorlak’s parents, barely able to earn a living as farmers, took note of their son’s talents and made sure he received extensive religious instruction from a local priest. His gifts must have attracted wider notice, since Thorlak received ordination as a deacon before the age of 15 and became a priest at age 18.

He left Iceland at age 20 to study in Paris and England, and returned when he was 28, bringing some spiritual order back with him.

Of course, he was an educated man who’d traveled the world, so naturally the first thing people tried to do when he got back was to marry him off to a rich widow. He would have fit it with many of the other priests, and it would surely have made them feel more comfortable about their own vices if he’d bowed to peer pressure and married.

Thorlak had none of it. A devotee of the Augustinian Rule, he remained a celibate priest and founded a monastery in southern Iceland.

Ten years after the founding of the monastery, the Norwegian Archbishop Augustine Erlendsson, another follower of the ancient Augustinian rule of life, called on Thorlak to become bishop of the Icelandic diocese of Skalholt. Although he was deeply attached to his monastic way of life, Thorlak recognized the pressing need for reform and guidance among the clergy.

As a bishop, he was deeply dedicated to implementing the reforms of the Western Church that Pope Gregory VII had begun during the past century, which envisioned not only a strict discipline of clerical celibacy, but also the independence of the Church against intrusion by secular authorities.

Thorlak also sought to improve public morality, and dared to confront even the most popular and powerful chieftain in Iceland, who was said to have had an extramarital affair with the bishop’s own sister. Understandably, he often longed to put aside these kinds of burdens and return to the monastic life.

Before he could do so, he died on December 23, 1193.

Þorláksmessa (St. Thorlac’s Day)
Þorláksmessa (Thorlac’s Mass) is celebrated on the date of his death, December 23. It is considered the last day of preparations before Christmas. Therefore, on St. Thorlac’s Day, the house is cleaned and preparations for the Christmas meal are begun.

Most people in Reykjavík go into town in the night to meet others and do the last shopping before Christmas. Fish is usually eaten on Þorláksmessa since December 23 is the last day of the Catholic Christmas fast. In western Iceland, it is customary to eat cured skate on this day; this custom spread to the whole of Iceland. The skate is usually served with boiled or mashed potatoes, accompanied by a shot of Brennivín, the Icelandic schnapps.

Image: Saint Thorlac, medieval bishop of Iceland, regarded as patron saint of Iceland. (5)

Research by REGINA Staff


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