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How Iceland became a warm place for the Church again

Fr John Doran MHM

A THOUSAND years ago, Loki, a Norwegian Viking, set out to discover Iceland. His secret weapons were three ravens, two logs (cedar I think) and two Irish slaves. When he felt he was nearing land he released a raven. It couldn’t believe it’s luck and headed back east to Norway! The second raven had a failure of nerve and refused to fly. The third raven, having read the contract headed west towards Iceland.

The logs? Well, they were thrown overboard where they would washed ashore to help build the settlement, but they disappeared into the currents of the Atlantic. Loki went ashore, dispatching the two slaves with two horses to find the logs somewhere on that cold and lonely coast. They reappeared a year later and led the Vikings to the logs at a place they called ‘Reykjavik.’ What a film that year could have made!

The island was described as ‘wooded,’ but they may just have been referring to large bushes or the now extinct, Icelandic Birch trees. It seems Celtic monks were already there—the Westernmannen as the Vikings called them—as ruins of their chapels and cells were found not too long ago. Soon, Loki of the Ravens had had enough and set sail for Norway. His view across the mountains in winter led him to call the place ‘Iceland.’

Vikings eventually came to the country and settled there. Any monks who had been there were now gone. Within a generation, the Vikings became Christians. The king who facilitated this was the great communicator, Harald Bluetooth. The Bluetooth on your phones is named in honour of him! All of Norway and what became Denmark and Sweden, the Western Isles of Scotland, the Isle of Man, Orkney and Iceland became part of the Catholic Church, along with Shetland and the Faroes and my own part of southwest Lancashire. One Bishop of Reykjavik was Canonised.

Then disaster struck. The Danes conquered Norway. In 1540, the King of Denmark decreed that all his subjects were to become Lutheran. This was not popular in Iceland, but reluctantly, after the beheading of the Bishop of Reykjavik, the people conformed. “The greatest tragedy to befall Iceland,” is how one Lutheran Professor at Reykjavik University recently described it.

However, as we know the Church always comes back. Today there are some 30,000 Catholics in Iceland and half of them native to the country. When I was on a recent visit there, a girl proudly introduced herself to me as ‘the great, great, great, great, grand-daughter of the first Icelander to return to the Catholic Faith.’ When Christ the King Cathedral was built, a farmer brought a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child Jesus to the missionaries. It had lain in a woodshed since the Reformation and was only missing a hand. When Pope St John Paul II visited Iceland (above), he was so touched by that story that he sent a crown from Rome, which now adorns the statue in the cathedral. There are five Masses celebrated every Sunday in Icelandic, English, Polish, Spanish and Latin and all are full.

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