Iceland offers a history rich in faith and harmony

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on February 5, 2019

In Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja) towers above the city. It is the tallest church in Iceland, rising almost 75 metres. Locals boast that you can see its spire from almost anywhere in the city — like a compass of sorts.

It was designed to resemble Iceland’s basalt rock columns that were formed over the ages by the cooling and solidification of lava and are scattered across a landscape that is home to 130 volcanoes.

Lutheranism, a branch of Protestantism, is the country’s official religion. Iceland’s constitution enshrines religious freedom and requires the state to safeguard the Lutheran Church as the country’s national church. It is by far the most practised religion in Iceland, but Catholicism, while practised by a small minority of the population, has long and interesting roots in this island nation.

Hallgrimskirkja, for example, owes its height to the fact that the leaders of the Church of Iceland were determined to dwarf the historic Catholic cathedral. Known as Landakotskirkja in Icelandic, which translates to Christ the King Cathedral, it was built in the neo-Gothic style in the 1920s. The whole of Iceland is made up of one Catholic diocese comprising seven parishes with approximately 13,000 registered Catholics — with most of the country’s Catholic priests imported from Europe.

On a recent trip to the “land of ice and fire,” I was surprised to learn that Irish monks were likely the first inhabitants of the island, arriving in the ninth century. This is according to the Book of Icelanders, a medieval text that describes the country’s origin stories. Given the country’s link to Nordic paganism, this was unexpected news. After all, it’s common knowledge that Iceland was settled by Vikings who practised pagan beliefs in keeping with Norse mythology. The gods they worshipped included Thor and Odin, names most North Americans associate today with comic book characters.

Our bus driver, a friendly Icelander named Eavarr, said his ancestors many generations ago were part of the National Assembly, called the Althing, which decided Christianity would become the official religion of Iceland, replacing paganism around 1000 AD. He also tells us about ancient stones called “Christianity rocks,” lava rocks that have been around since that time. These rocks can be found in Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where parliamentary meetings were once held.

According to a history compiled by the Catholic diocese of Iceland, the National Assembly contacted representatives of the world Church in Rome, asking them to bring Iceland under their ecclesiastical rule. In 1056, the first Icelandic bishop, Ísleifur Gissurarson, was ordained. The island remained Catholic for 500 years until the Protestant Reformation reached Iceland in 1550 and the king declared Lutheranism to be the state religion. 

When the Catholic bishop refused to renounce Rome, he was arrested and executed. All ties were then cut with Rome and Catholicism was outlawed until the second half of the19th century, when a small number of missionary priests and nuns arrived from Europe.

During our travels, we quickly discovered that because Iceland is an island and much of its food is imported, eating is expensive. Where a modest lunch in Canada costs about $10, in Iceland you pay about double that for a small sandwich. But one option for affordable meals we came across was a relatively new food hall in downtown Reykjavik. Upon entering, I noticed that the Mexican eatery featured a friendly painting adorning the front of its counter: Our Lady of Guadalupe. The man behind the counter said he had no idea why Our Lady was featured. To him, it was just art. Regardless, it was comforting to see a familiar face in such an unfamiliar place. 

Another familiar name we encountered was J.R.R. Tolkien, the Catholic author of The Lord of the Rings fantasy series. The story goes that Tolkien learned Icelandic — although he never visited the country — so he could gain inspiration from Icelandic Viking sagas, some tales of which are found in his novels. 

In 1989, more than 1,100 years after Catholic monks first set foot on the island, St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Iceland. He acknowledged the past division but noted how Iceland’s history and culture were shaped by the Gospel since the arrival of the first Europeans.

“Because of the rich spiritual heritage reflected in the treasure of poetry and saga which your ancestors bequeathed to you, Iceland has much to say to a world that yearns to be inspired by the truth and to create a society of justice, peace and universal harmony,” he said.  

Visiting the island 30 years later, I think the same holds true today.

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