Helsinski, July 15, 2019
My visit to Finland was motivated by a Finnish friend of mine who had boldly left his Lutheran past to become a Roman Catholic. But not only did Tuomas embrace Catholicism, he was recently ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest. And so my visit to Finland, was to receive the priestly blessing of this courageous friend.
Helsinki, or Swedish, Helsingfors, was created during Swedish control of Finland and later taken over by Russia until the Finns succeeded in claiming their independence from Russia during the period of the Communist revolution of 1917.
Visiting Fr. Tuomas, I also discovered Catholic Finland. My arrival in Helsinki could not ignore two magnificent Churches, the Russian Orthodox which reflected the prominence of Russia and its russification policies and its Orthodox presence; then, the opulent Lutheran Church shaping the Helsinki skyline with twelve statues of Apostles financed through Finland’s taxation system privileging the Lutheran Church.
Those looking for a Roman Catholic Church will find a Neogothic building built during the period of Russian administration. The Russians allowed the practise of Catholicism for non-Finns in the 19th century, a policy resembling that of Swedish laws in the late- eighteenth century permitting non-Finns to practise their religion with certain conditions attached. So, in Vyborg in 1799 Polish Dominicans provided pastoral care to Poles in the Russian Army, while Catholicism in Finland like in Sweden was altogether banned for Finns and Swedes, respectively. Swedish laws regarding Catholics were extreme; the eradication of Roman Catholicism amongst the local population – as in all Nordic countries -- was almost complete.
St. Henry’s Cathedral, a parish originally for Poles established in 1860, displayed remarkable simplicity and beauty with visitors coming in to pray at all times of day. The religious significance of St. Henry’s are the relics of St. Olaf, St. Bridget and St. Henry all in the altar, the patron of Norway, patroness of Sweden and patron of Finland. These three Catholic Saints, Olaf, Bridget and Henry, canonised by Rome for their lives of Christian virtue and evangelical heroism, also left behind relics which had become objects of devotion and piety in these Nordic countries. St. Eric, is also patron of Sweden and on the stain glass window; the three crowns portray the Kalmar union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
While having dinner in Helsinki – two Finns and myself -- the waitress commented in Finnish on whether we were Lutheran pastors seeing our black clerical and white religious attire. When one of the Fathers mentioned we were Roman Catholic priests; the delightful waitress replied, “You hardly hear of any Catholics in Finland.” The same Father commented, “It was all Roman Catholic until the Reformation.”
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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