Icelandic youth finds faith despite the odds

  • September 18, 2007

{mosimage}REYKJAVIK, Iceland - Among the two per cent of Catholics in Iceland, many of whom are new immigrants from Poland and the Philippines, are young people making a difference.   

Ólafur Haukur Árnason is a 23-year-old third-year history and Latin major at the University of Iceland. He teaches guitar at a music school in Reykjavik and performs with his gypsy jazz band Hrafnaspark throughout Iceland and abroad.

He is also a Lutheran convert to Catholicism.

With 85 per cent of the Icelandic population Lutheran, adopting a new religion is definitely uncommon in a monoculture of fewer than 300,000 people.

“We (Catholics) are a minority and it’s a bit foreign. People don’t consider it a normal thing.... On the whole there are negative and loud opinions of Catholics. It’s hard to listen to all this prejudice,” said Árnason.   

{sidebar id=2}For two years Árnason did listen to Hjörtur Magni Jóhannsson’s scathing remarks in the media about the Catholic Church. Shortly after Árnason’s conversion he debated Jóhannsson, minister of the Free Lutheran Church in Reykjavik, in the pages of Frettabladid, Iceland’s most read daily newspaper.

“He’s always in the media and he always says the same propaganda.... I had enough and I could not listen without saying anything.”

But Catholics were not always the minority in Iceland. For 500 years Iceland was a Catholic country until the Protestant Reformation when the ruling Danish king decided to switch to a state-run national Lutheran Church.  

“The Catholic traditions never died out in Iceland,” Árnason said. “My grandparents had habits I later found out were forbidden in Lutheran countries; they made the sign of the cross and taught me about saints.”

As a child Árnason’s grandparents read a lot of children's books to him by Jon Sveinsson, an Icelandic Jesuit priest, and they also taught him the Prayer of St. Thorlac, the patron saint of Iceland.

Árnason was always interested in religion even though he didn’t go to church.  

During high school he became interested in theology, reading up on Lutheran theology and the history of Christendom. From there he branched out into Catholic and Orthodox theology. At 18, when Árnason realized the Bible was compiled by the early Church Fathers, he started to question the infallibility Lutherans put into its own  interpretation.   

“I found out the Catholic interpretation made more sense than the Lutheran interpretation,” he said.

At 20, when he left home for university, Árnason started attending Mass and soon enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik.

“I really felt at home because it was kind of like coming home.... At Catholic Mass you feel like that’s how it should be.”

Árnason soon grew fond of the sacraments, especially the act of Reconciliation.

Confession “reminds you of your responsibility to constantly be aware of your works and doings. It’s so easy to say something bad if you never have to face your own doings in Confession. You want to be worthy before God in Confession.

“My first Confession felt foreign. I was stressed because I was confessing for my whole life. (But) you know you can be absolutely sure God is acting through those sacraments and when your sins are forgiven in Confession, you know for sure they are forgiven.”

Árnason was received into the church at the Easter Vigil in 2006. 

When he told his friends and family about his conversion they were supportive.

“I got a lot of positive reactions even though most of my friends  are atheists; even the religious Lutherans in my family were glad for me,” said Árnason. “Everyone knew I was searching for a long time in religious matters and they were happy for me that I finally found truth.”

Árnason is among a fraction of Icelandic Catholics because he believes there is very little missionary presence in Iceland.

“If the Catholic Church would be more active in missionary work there would be good progress,” he said, pointing out there may be changes after Reykjavík Bishop Jóhannes Gijsen resigns in October. 

In difficult times, Arnason looks to his role model, martyred bishop of Hólar Jon Arason who Icelanders fondly refer to as the last Catholic bishop of Iceland.

When the Protestant Reformation swept over Iceland, Arason built a fortress anticipating  war with the Danes, but before the Danish king sent his army Arason was beheaded by Lutherans. The next summer the people of northern Iceland travelled to Skálholt in the south to dig up Arason’s grave and brought him to Holar.

Arason became popular again in the 1940s during Iceland’s independence movement from Danish rule because his poetry stood against Danish oppression. 

“He should mean more to Catholics than he does because he was a real martyr and he should be venerated,” said Árnason. “But he is not publicly venerated so he will not be canonized. My hope is Icelandic Catholics will start venerating him.”

Arnason hopes to plan a pilgrimage, walking the same road the northern Icelanders walked with Arason’s body.

“Icelanders were not ready to say goodbye to their Catholic faith, which is why we keep on hanging on to Catholic traditions.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.