The Church in Norway: Explosive Growth, Long Distances
Priest Explains Challenges and Priorities
Benedict XVI called the year of faith to focus in part on the new evangelization. On mainland Europe many Christian structures still exist, even if they are abandoned. But what about the northern countries in Europe? How does the Church live and survive in the less inhabited, mostly Protestant countries?
ZENIT interviewed Don Sigurd Markussen, co-president of Caritas Norway and currently vice rector at the German priest college Campo Santo Teutonico in the Vatican, about the situation of the Catholic Church in his country, Norway.
ZENIT: Don Markussen, you are from Norway. How could you find your vocation in this diaspora?
Don Markussen: Diaspora in Norway is a complex mix of many things. The country itself is filled with mountains and fjords, which mean that Norwegians in general are living quite scattered. About 1% of the land is populated, we have according to the statistics about 4.5 million peoples living in Norway that makes about 15 people per square kilometer.
Norway is mainly Evangelical Lutheran (about 80%) and the Catholic population is about 200,000. Our parishes are primarily to be found along the coast from Southeast up to Northeast. The Catholics in Norway come from about all over the world. I serve as a parish priest (when I am not studying in Rome) in St. Hallvard parish in Oslo, where there are more than 21,000 parishioners from 140 different nations. Most of these have less than one hour drive to the parish church and for the majority, the church can be reached easily by the Metro system or by bus.
My two previous placements as a parish priest were quite different. I served six years in Haugesund (Western Norway), covering about 1,000 parishioners from 80 nations in an area as big as half of Belgium, celebrating Mass at five different places, driving from one to three and half hours in each direction several times a week to serve the community. In Arendal (Southern Norway) I had only one other place to celebrate Mass outside the parish church. Again, here most people had less than a one hour to drive to the church.
I know for many people in other countries it might seem so strange driving for one hour to attend Mass, as it does for most of our parishioners too, who come from the different parts of the world to our special country. Still we have a Mass attendance of about 50% most places. It would certainly have been higher if we had more churches, but this is, for the time being, too expensive for us. Also worth mention is that the number of Catholics in Norway has more than doubled the last five years.
Being a priest in Norway is identical to being on the move, if not constantly, at least quite a bit during the week. To better serve the larger groups of immigrants, we have organized missions for them served by priests who know the languages, as Polish, Tamil, Vietnamese, Spanish, Tagalog/Ilungo etc.
ZENIT: How many vocations does Norway have on average? In what ratio do they relate to the number of Catholics in the country?
Don Markussen: We have about 90 priests working in our three dioceses, about 70 in the Oslo diocese, which covers the whole of the south of Norway (South of Trondheim). We have 24 parishes in this diocese and compared with a lot of other countries around the world it would seem that we are more than sufficient with the number of priests. As the situation is today, we manage, but the challenge that came more or less as a surprise upon us all, was the "tsunami" of Polish workers that began to come in 2005. The last eight years the number of Polish parishioners has exploded and number now about 100,000. For this reason the Diocese of Oslo had to arrange for quite a number of Polish priests to serve these new parishioners. Norway has not so much had to struggle with the crisis in economy, thanks to our oil and gas production. In Norway, business is as usual, whereas many seek a working place here.
Even if numbers of priests are high, we would have reached even more of our parishioners if we had the luxury of more priests.
ZENIT: Where do most Catholics live? In urban areas, in Oslo?
Don Markussen: Most of all Catholics live in the south of Norway and mainly in the Oslo region but both Stavanger and Bergen in the western part of Norway experience an enormous growth in new parishioners.
ZENIT: The royal house is Protestant with Harald V. Does the king enjoy a good reputation in questions of public interest or is he merely understood to be representative? Are there any Catholic personalities that enjoy a high esteem in the public eye?
Don Markussen: From April last year (2012) Norway got a new law regarding state-church matters. The Evangelical Lutheran church in Norway is no longer the "state church," which means that the church itself can choose their own bishops and govern their own matters. Still the state keeps a hand on the "steering wheel." They pay all the costs in regard to buildings and salaries for all of the Lutherans. The king, who was in name head of the church, is that no more. It is also still a law saying that the king has to be evangelical Lutheran.
In the public life of Norway there are a few Catholics but we are not as visible as we should and wish to have been.
ZENIT: In many of the northern countries there existed strong anti-Christian movements since the 90s. Is the puritanical slant the reason for that? Is the Catholic Church successful in the spreading of the teaching or is it lumped together with other denominations?
Don Markussen: Scandinavia has ever since the 1970s felt the growing secularism. Traditionally Norway, Sweden and Denmark havebeen very Christian. The Reformation in 1536/7 wiped out the Catholicity in Denmark and Norway, but not totally in Sweden. Both in public as well as private the inhabitants have traditionally kept a strong Evangelical Lutheran faith. The political changes in the beginning of the 1900s and especially since the 1960s have made the situation change dramatically. Today only about 1% of the Lutherans in Norway practice; I will guess the situation is the same in Sweden and Denmark too.
We too, as Catholics in Norway experience this situation. The high number of practicing Catholics and church attendance with us is mostly due to the constant growth because of immigration. In my parish, less than 8% of the parishioners are ethnic Norwegian, the percentage is a little higher in the other parishes. Our challenge is therefore very much to catechize and help parishioners to practice their faith and aid them spiritually in a growing secular society.
ZENIT: We are in the year of the faith. Which initiatives were started to spread and communicate the faith?
Don Markussen: The beginning of the Year of Faith was marked in all parishes with a solemn Mass. In addition the different parishes have local arrangements, seminars, pilgrimages etc. The three dioceses will arrange a national pilgrimage to Rome in October this year and the diocesan publications and our Catholic bookshop (we have only one – in Oslo) make sure that there are publications in the different languages available. Although Norway as a country and nation is rich, the Catholic Church is quite poor. We do not therefore have the same resources as many other countries have.
ZENIT: What does the Church in Norway need most urgently?
Don Markussen: Our great challenge in serving the many new immigrants takes most of our focus. We do not have time to stabilize and to reflect upon our Catholicity. Just to give you a glimpse of our development. We were as Catholics allowed back in Norway in 1843 (having been banned since 1537). At that time there were 40 foreign Catholics living in Christiania (the old name of Oslo the capital). When I was born in 1966 we were 6,000, at the time of my ordination in 1996 we had grown to 40,000 and today we are 200,000. During my childhood and adolescence "everyone knew everyone." Today's reality is completely different. We are not only experiencing a rapid growth but also a growth of parishioners from practicing Catholic countries who come to a secularized country where you do not find a Catholic church on every corner. Keeping the faith and practice is therefore a serious challenge for each individual newcomer and for us priests to manage serving as many as we manage and assisting in their spiritual and sacramental life – often in a language they either poorly or perhaps do not understand at all.
But we trust in the Holy Spirit and the divine mercy. We do as best as we can, please pray for us.
Sigurd Markussen was born 1966 in Oslo and was ordained a priest in 1996 for the Oslo diocese. He has served as national youth minister (1996-1998), parish priest in three different parishes until fall 2012, then moved to Rome to study for a licentiate in dogmatic theology. He is co-president of Caritas Norway. For many years he was member of the priestly council of the diocese, the last five years as moderator. He also served as a member of the bishop’s board of consultants for many years and is currently vice-rector at the German priest college “Campo Santo Teutonico” in the Vatican.