The whole of Finland is a single diocese. In a country of five and a half million inhabitants, the diocesan registry gives the figure of just 17,000 Catholics. But the reality far exceeds the statistics. We estimate that there could already be more than 30,000 Catholics in Finland.
Thanks be to God, for several years we have had a steady annual growth of 500 new Catholics. Half of them come through the baptism of children and adults, and the other half through the arrival of immigrants and refugees. Throughout the country we have 8 Catholic parishes spread over an area of 338,440 square kilometers.
With these data it is easy to understand that our pastoral work goes beyond the parishes understood as places where the people of God congregate. As Pope Francis so often encourages us, we are a Church on the move. A Church in search of her children scattered throughout the vast Finnish geography. Not in vain, for many, the nearest parish is 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers, 300 kilometers away....
To care for these faithful we also have the immense gift of ecumenism. In Finland ecumenism is a concrete and generous miracle. One of the reasons is that we are able to use non-Catholic churches throughout the country. Every month we celebrate in 20 non-Catholic churches that the Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church lend us in 20 different cities.
Immigrants now priests
The first great wave of Catholic refugees arrived as a consequence of the war in Vietnam and communist persecution. One of the families that fled, overcoming indescribable difficulties, had the great gift of receiving in its midst the priestly vocation of one of the sons, who is now a parish priest in Tampere, the second largest city in the country. Four other cities are served from there.
The same joy befell another family fleeing the fratricidal war in Rwanda. The father of the family was killed while fleeing with his wife and children. The first-born son also discovered his priestly vocation in Finland. He is the current pastor of Helsinki Cathedral. From the capital he travels to half a dozen cities.
Pastoral work is very dynamic and also requires a spirit of initiative and imagination. I would like to share with readers two personal experiences. The first began in January 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic was universally declared. A Catholic family in Kerava, a small town about 40 kilometers from Helsinki, asked me to celebrate Mass in their home on a Sunday. I gladly accepted on the condition that they would invite known Catholics from the area. Two families came. The following month we had four families together, so the apartment was already too small.
Talking to the Catholic parish priest in the Kerava area, I proposed contacting the local Lutheran church to see if they had a chapel where we could meet and celebrate Mass on Sundays. When I explained the project to the Lutheran pastor he was very happy and said he would be honored to have Catholic Mass in his parish. He let us use a chapel attached to the large complex of parish buildings. The first Mass in the chapel came and there were 20 of us.
But the first Covid restrictions began in Finland. The condition set by the pastor was prudent as we were already in the pandemic. He asked me not to exceed 20 participants. The next Sunday came and there were 27 of us. We had outgrown the chapel. Once again, I was surprised by the generosity of the pastor, who offered us another larger chapel where 100 people could easily fit. I currently celebrate there once a month for 70-80 people. Our goal is to use the city church with a capacity of 300 people. Just the number of Catholics that I estimate there are within a 15 kilometer radius of Kerava. Everything will come.
Some non-Catholic Christians come and participate in our Mass. Some out of curiosity, others out of devotion. This has been the case of a young Pentecostal couple who live near the church where we celebrate. They have not missed any Catholic Mass and after adequate catechetical preparation they joined the Catholic Church at the end of last October. At the last two Masses there were a couple of families unknown to me who turned out to be Lutherans. It is apparent that God uses our Mass to draw other Christians into full communion. The Lutheran pastor knows this and expresses his gratitude to the Lord. This is Finland.
African Catholics in Finland
On the other hand, five years ago we started a chaplaincy in the diocese to provide pastoral care for Africans living in Finland. Our parishes in Helsinki have become too small for the large number of African Catholics who wish to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord in the Eucharist. In addition, many of them have very complicated work schedules, often working on Sundays and with long distances to travel to reach the Catholic Church.
On one occasion, a Lutheran pastor told me that at Mass in his parish there were many Africans, probably Catholics, because of the way they participated in the liturgy. It was clear that we needed a larger and closer church, where we think most Africans live in the metropolitan city.
We went to talk to the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki who welcomed us warmly. He immediately offered us the parish where he had been pastor before being elected bishop. The church is well located and well connected by various means of transportation. Moreover, it has a capacity for almost a thousand people.
Two priests of African origin live in Helsinki: one from Rwanda and the other from Cameroon. The latter has been appointed chaplain for pastoral work with Africans. The chaplaincy has been celebrating Mass every Sunday in the Lutheran church since September of this year. More than 350 people gather to the rhythm of African music and dances. Each week, a choir from an African country also takes turns organizing the liturgy: Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Ivory Coast, Uganda, South Sudan..... There is no problem in filling the 52 Sundays of the year with representatives from 52 countries or tribes.
Also Latin American
In this last period, dozens of Catholics fleeing from Venezuela and Nicaragua are arriving from Latin America. When a refugee arrives in Finland, the authorities carefully examine his case. If they consider them suitable for admission to the country, they provide them with accommodation, courses to enable them to work and Finnish language classes. It is a challenge for us to meet them, as they are not asked about religion, and in their first weeks they are given accommodation outside Helsinki, sometimes far away from Catholic parishes. We are getting to know many of them and they tell their compatriots. Folk festivals are occasions for gathering and sometimes begin with Mass. In a small town 230 kilometers from Helsinki there is a very lively community of Latin Americans. There the Eucharist is celebrated once a month in Spanish for them, in an Orthodox church.
We are in dialogue with the civil authorities in order to be a reference in the reception of people coming from countries with a Catholic majority. There is a willingness to cooperate. We are few but the effort is worth it. For many the integration in the country goes through their integration in their Catholic community. It is an important work that requires patience and audacity to go outside the walls of the Catholic structure itself, and to look for people where they are, even if it is 500 kilometers away.
Omnes correspondent in Finland.