A 19th-century depiction of St. Henrik being murdered by Lalli. (Image via Wikipedia)
During the Week
of Prayer for Christian Unity, which went from January 18-25 this year, Pope
Francis emphasized the particular importance of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. It was no
surprise, then, that the predominantly Lutheran country of Finland played a
large role in the week’s activities.
As has become customary, the Pope received an ecumenical delegation from
Finland, led this year by the Lutheran bishop of Turku, Kaarlo Kalliala, together with the Catholic bishop of
Helsinki, Bishop Teemu Sippo, and Finnish Orthodox Metropolitan Elia of Oulu.
These Nordic representatives were in Rome for another tradition: the annual
pilgrimage to honor St. Henrik of Uppsala, the martyr patron saint of Finland,
whose feast day is January 19. In this context another major event was the
seminar “Finland 100,
Finland 1000Shaping the Finnish Society,” hosted on January 20 in the magnificent
Villa Lante on top of the picturesque Gianicolo Hill, where the Institutum
Romanum Finlandiae (Finnish Cultural Institute) and the Embassy of Finland to
the Holy See are located. The event, which was held in connection with the 100th
anniversary of Finland’s independence, was meant to focus primarily on the
figure of St. Henrik, who was aptly described as “the hero of the day” by the institute’s
director, Tuomas Heikkilä, in his presentation. Heikkilä is a young professor
of medieval history, the author of the book Sankt
Henrikslegenden (The Legend of St.
Henrik), currently only available in Swedish and Finnish, and the keynote
speaker of the seminar.
But who was
Bishop Henrik and what do we know about him? According to the late-13th century
document “The Legend of St. Henrik,” Christianity was introduced in Finland in
the second half of the 12th century following a successful crusade led by King
Erik of Sweden, who brought Bishop Henrik with him as a representative of ecclesiastical
power. Henrik was the English-born bishop of Uppsala, the most important
diocese of Sweden at that time. He had come to Scandinavia in 1153, apparently
with the papal legate Nicolaus Albanensis, who would later become the only
English-born pope, taking the name of Adrian IV.
Finland, baptizing the people, and building many churches, King Erik returned to
Sweden. Bishop Henrik remained in Finland, where he was subsequently murdered
by a supposedly pagan Finn whose name was Lalli. The story goes that Lalli’s
wife falsely accused the bishop of stealing food and wine, and that Lalli retaliated
by killing Henrik with an ax. Over time some Finns have revered Lalli as “freedom
fighter” of sorts, resisting foreign influences personified by Bishop Henrik.
In the opinion of
Prof. Heikkilä, the real picture is somewhat different and more complex. For
example, the name Lalli is the diminutive of Laurentius, a Latin name, and this
could not have been but for already-present Christian influence in the region. There
is also the fact that Erik’s “crusade” is described as a brief and bloodless
event, not even slightly comparable to those to the Holy Land. Most likely, Prof.
Heikkilä claims, Christianity had already arrived in southern Finland a couple
of centuries earlier, and the expedition led by King Eric and Bishop Henrik was
intended to further consolidate and expand the Christian presence there. For the
evangelization process to proceed smoothly, it was also necessary to
institutionalize ecclesiastical life, and thus Henrik became the head of the
new diocese of Turku and the first bishop of Finland. Thanks to his efforts,
Finland entered the family of medieval Christian nations, laying the
foundations for the development of the future character and identity of the
Finns as a Christian people. Soon after his martyrdom, St. Henrik was venerated
not only in Finland, but throughout Scandinavia and northern Germany; his feast
was already being celebrated on January 20 (it became January 19 after the
Reformation) starting from the 13th century.
But the work of
St. Henrik is also fundamental for another reason, Prof. Heikkilä pointed out. “Prior
to the arrival of Christianity and the Church to Finland, we did not have
literacy, we did not have any books,” he said. “So the books were actually
brought by the ecclesiastics, by the clergymen, by the Church.” During the
Middle Ages, literacy was totally dominated by the Church; therefore it is no
surprise that “The Legend of St. Henrik,” the first literary work written on
Finnish soil, was written in Latin. Because it was written in Latin, the lingua franca of medieval Europe, this work
could be disseminated far and wide, not only in the rest of the Swedish kingdom
and Scandinavia, but also in continental Europe, with copies being discovered
also in Austria and Belgium.
“It was against
this pan-European background that the Finnish identity was being built during
the Middle Ages and later on,” Prof. Heikkilä said. In other words, the figures
of King Erik, St. Henrik, and Lalli came to reflect the medieval view of
Finland as part of the wider European Latin Christianity. With the advent of
the Reformation and, even more significantly, the subsequent rise of Romanticism
and of nationalist movements, the figure of Lalli grew more prominent, until
there was a sort of role-reversal: whereas since the Middle Ages St. Henrik had
been seen as the champion of evangelization and civilization, with Lalli representing
backwardness and paganism, now Lalli was being celebrated as a defender of fundamental
traits of the Finnish charactersuch as unyielding firmness and loyalty to
traditionagainst what were regarded as the foreign influences brought in by
St. Henrik. This interpretation was particularly potent amid the nationalist
movements of early-20th century Finland, which won its independence from Moscow
in December 1917.
vision is still present among the Finns today, Prof. Heikkilä pointed out; when,
in 2004, the national broadcasting company YLE launched a survey asking its
audience to identify the greatest Finns of all time, St. Henrik was not among
the top 100, whereas Lalli ranked 14th.
But be as it may,
St. Henrik was by far the most important historical figure in Finnish history,
Prof. Heikkilä maintains.
“I think that still
when we look at the Finnish history and the Finnish identity, he is far more
relevant than Lalli,” he said. It is to St. Henrik that Finland owes the very
establishment of its western roots. “According to our understanding and
tradition, it was with St. Henrik that we got our Latin alphabet, we got our literacy,
we got our Christian values.”