Catholic in Norway

From an article in The Norway Post by Anne Skylstad

Catholic in Norway

I came to live in Norway in 1966. My great interest in missionary work had led me from my home country Scotland to Africa, where I met and married, my then non - Catholic Norwegian husband, when we were both working at a university college run by the Oblate Fathers in Lesotho. My husband had assured me that there were Catholic churches in predominantly Protestant Norway, and some convents too! And there were even Catholic schools in three of the towns. Our first home was far from any town, however. We lived for a year in Øvre Årdal, a village at the inner end of Sognefjord, Norway's longest fjord. Getting to church meant an overnight ferry to Bergen, and another overnight ferry home - extremely difficult for a family with a young baby. In those days it never occurred to me to attend the Sunday service in the nearby Norwegian (Lutheran) State Church. I am not sure that I would have been made welcome. Had it been in present-day times, with far more contact and positive feeling between Catholics and Protestants I most certainly would have gone to the local church sometimes, and I feel I would have been well received.

As it was, I was able to attend Mass three times that year, because the parish priest of Bergen very kindly offered to come to us. I found I had moved from one missionary country to another! Many foreigners like myself, have come to Norway unaware that the combining factors of the country's sparse distribution of population, its mountains, fjords and harsh climate can seriously hinder them in the practice of religion. I was fortunate in that our family soon moved permanently to Ålesund where there is a church and a resident priest. Only Catholics living within reasonable travelling distance of one of the 31 parish churches - all in towns or city districts - are able to take part in parish activities. Many of the others are dependent on a priest coming to them, or meeting them half-way at some appointed centre where Mass can be held.

Being able to get to church is not only a matter of proximity or convenient transport services. Sunday is very much a family and social day, and church-going in general no longer has high priority in secularised Norway. Catholics with non-Catholic spouses - and there are several thousand of them - do not always feel free to put Mass first on the agenda when weekend plans are being made with family and friends. There can be a similar problem with regard to children attending the classes in religious instruction, which many parishes organise monthly, on Saturdays. There is strong «competition» from sports, the school band and the scouts, for example, all very healthy and commendable activities. A child who is the only Catholic in the class will find it difficult to risk losing friends by going off to do something different like attending classes at church.

It was so much easier for those of us parents who were brought up in close-knit Catholic communities and attended the local school. Or did some of us just drift along with the crowd, without making a personal commitment to the Faith? If so, without the support of that social network, it may never be possible to come to terms with the feeling of loneliness which is part of belonging to a tiny minority church. The chances are that it will be more convenient to drift along with the friends and neighbours, Catholic or Protestant, who do not feel the need to practise their religion actively by attending church services.

Only children living in Oslo, Bergen or the small south-coast town of Arendal, have the possibility of attending a Catholic school. I admit I was not happy about our three sons being deprived of the kind of education I considered best for them. They attended the religious instruction classes at our church, and took part in the religious knowledge lessons at their own local school. I had no problem with this in principle, since the syllabus of the subject in state schools comprises Bible teaching, the life of Christ and the church's year and not doctrine as such. Our boys were fortunate in having good, conscientious teachers. From the age of nine and right up to student age they attended summer holiday gatherings specially for Catholic children and teenagers. Summer «camps» like these are still organised at centres in various parts of the country, and are very popular. Dedicated leaders and chaplains do wonderful work in giving young people the opportunity to get to know each other in a holiday atmosphere and experience a feeling of solidarity, while at the same time learning more about their faith.

Adult Catholics wishing to gain a greater understanding of their religion by attending lectures or participating in study groups, have more possibility of pursuing their interests regularly if they live in one of the large town or city parishes. The greater Oslo area with four large parishes and several religious communities of priests and sisters, understandably has the most to offer. Recent statistics show that 15,000 (42.5%) of the country's 35,000 registered Catholics live in this area. Almost 32,000 (89.6%) of the total number live in the 20 parishes of the Oslo diocese, which in fact covers the whole of southern Norway, up to and including the large parish of Bergen in the west. Further north there is the church district of Central Norway - Trondheim Prelature - with 5 parishes and 2,285 Catholics. My own parish church of Our Lady in the town of Ålesund on the north-west coast serves the whole region of Sunnmøre, our nearest «neighbour» south being St. Paul's Bergen which lies 380 kilometres down the coast. This is moderate compared with the enormous distances in thinly populated Tromsø Prelature in the north, where 1,368 Catholics live in 6 parishes.

Catholics in Norway constitute less than 1 per cent of the country's 4 million population. Our Church is considered a missionary church, one which is dependent on outside help, both with respect to its supply of priests, and to bearing the overall cost of running the Church. Throughout the years many dedicated priests have come from other countries to serve in Norway. There are at present 58 priests, including 3 bishops (one retired) and one apostolic administrator working in the country. The Church is still receiving generous contributions from abroad, particularly from what was West Germany. With it now being possible for churches in the countries of Eastern Europe to receive and utilise foreign aid, Norway understandably expects to get less. The Church has an annual per capita income from government and local- authority funds, but this covers only a minor part of the expenses. One of the challenges facing the Church is how to encourage the faithful to find ways of assisting their parish to become more self-supporting. Our central church authorities need to be relieved of some of their financial burden, if they are to uphold the number of parishes and the present level of pastoral care.

It is interesting to note that it was only in the middle of the last century that Catholics again were allowed to practise their religion. In 1843, a royal decree was passed permitting the establishing of St. Olav's Parish in Christiania (the former name of Oslo). In 1993 the Norwegian Catholic Church was able to celebrate the 150 th anniversary of the official return of the Faith which had been banned from the country with the reformation of 1537. Roughly a century later, Catholics numbered only 3,000. In 1960 there were 6,000, and now there are more than 35,000, an increase of almost 500 per cent in 36 years. The reason for this rapid rate of growth is the large number of Catholic immigrants who have settled in Norway in recent years. The proportion of foreign-born registered Catholics is 63 per cent. There are for example 7,700 from Asia, 2,600 from South America, and 6,600 from Europe (including 2,500 from Poland). In St. Olav's parish in Oslo about 110 nationalities are represented among the parishioners.

It has not been easy for the Church to cope with this new situation. Without letting the Norwegian members feel neglected, parish priests have had to work hard to care for the very varied needs of the newcomers. Considerable numbers of these have come from distant cultures and climates, and adjusting to the Norwegian way of life can be a long and painful process. Though much is familiar, they may still not feel a real sense of belonging in our church. Perhaps they miss their own particular type of music, or their own national or local customs such as outdoor processions, or even just the general bustle of the large city church back home. The Mass, which is at the centre of Catholic worship and practice, is the same in essence and form the world over. The language used, however, is that of the country, and Norwegian is not easy to learn. Particularly those whose mother tongue is in no way related to a European language, will find it difficult to learn Norwegian well. Some larger parishes are able to arrange Masses in Vietnamese, Tagalog, English, and other languages, an arrangement much appreciated by the groups in question. There is the added advantage of relief for the problem of overcrowding at the main Sunday Mass. There are those who feel that «foreign» Masses can have a dividing effect on the parish as a whole, and slow down the process of integration. For the Catholics concerned, however, there is no doubt that it means a great deal to be able to hear Mass in their own language in the new country.

For many of us, it has been Sunday Mass in Norwegian from the start. I remember the feeling of frustration during my first months in the parish. I could read my English missal and follow the Mass, but it took time to become familiar with the prayers, responses and hymns. I wasn't used to being so passive at church, and the priest's sermon meant little to me. I was thankful, however, to be able to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion regularly, and was comforted by the warmth of welcome extended by the German priest, the small community of Dutch nuns (who left in 1974) and all the parishioners. I was fortunate too in that my husband, who was not a Catholic until more than twenty years later, always accompanied me to church, and was quite happy to interpret when called upon. Perhaps it was my wanting to communicate better, and participate more fully in parish life, that provided the main incentive for my efforts to become proficient in Norwegian. Anyway, I eventually learned the language well enough to be able to assist the priest with the religious instruction classes, and thus put to use again the Catholic teacher training I had received at the Sacred Heart Convent in Edinburgh. I find working as a catechist here very rewarding, but a real challenge, as the age range of the children in a group can be quite considerable. Also, since many of them do not speak Norwegian at home, their understanding of the language can be very limited, during the first years in the country. Classes are held on Saturdays. After a break for refreshments we all gather in the church, parents too, for an afternoon family Mass at which the children take an active part.

The main service of the week is the High Mass at 11 a.m. on Sunday, when there are about 30 - 50 people present, including quite a few children. About half of the parish's 25 nationalities are likely to be represented in the congregation - people from the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, South America, Poland, Ireland, and so on, including a few Norwegians! The parish is typical in that it reflects the general multi-national picture presented by the country's Catholic population as a whole - a universal Church. After Mass there is «kirke-kaffe» (church coffee), a wonderful, Norwegian tradition. Members of the congregation gather in the parish meeting-room to enjoy coffee and biscuits and a good chat. Parishioners can exchange news and plan any forthcoming activities. For some it is a welcome break before starting on the long jouney home. Not least, it provides the ideal opportunity to welcome any newcomers, and help them become better aquainted. It has been an enriching experience to watch the parish grow, and to work together with people from other cultures and language groups, who share a common Faith and want to practise it in Norway.

av Webmaster publisert 26.05.1997, sist endret 26.05.1997 - 09:45