With little more than 15,000 registered Catholics in an overall population of 5.5 million, Finland has the lowest Catholic percentage of any European nation. However, recent years have seen the Catholic population rise by 3-4 percent per annum, and Finland’s eight Catholic churches now have parishioners from almost 100 different countries.
Catholicism established itself in Finland in the mid-1100s. But the faith largely disappeared in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. However, a Catholic presence resurfaced in Helsinki in the mid-1800s, when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. In 1917, Finland became an independent nation, and its new code of laws guaranteed religious freedom.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Finland was established on June 8, 1920. In February 1955, the vicariate was elevated to the Diocese of Helsinki, which has remained the country’s sole diocese.
The center of Finnish Catholicism is St. Henry’s Cathedral, named after Finland’s patron saint, about whom there is much legend but scant historical documentation. Though he has never received official canonization, January 19 is celebrated as Henry’s feast day.
About 70 percent of the Finnish population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Of the remaining 30 percent, the vast majority have no religious affiliation.
When Rev. Teemu Sippo became the Bishop of Helsinki in 2009, it was the first time a native Finn served as a Catholic bishop since the early 1500s. He resigned in May 2019, several months after suffering a traumatic head injury during a fall. Finland does not currently have a bishop.
In the meantime, one of the biggest challenges involves integrating Catholic immigrants from a wide array of nations into the Finnish Church and into Finnish society at large. Such integration presents a “tremendous challenge, because of the different cultures and languages,” as well as the long distances between parishes, says Fr. Raimo Goyarolla.
A native of the Basque Country in northern Spain, Goyarolla has served in Finland since 2006 and is also a Finnish citizen. Formerly the Vicar General in the Diocese of Helsinki, he was called upon to lead the diocese in the aftermath of Bishop Sippo’s accident.
Goyarolla relates that Finland’s largest Catholic immigrant groups come from such countries as the Philippines and Iraq, along with Kenya and Nigeria.
Ethnic Finns who are Catholic have typically joined the Church as adults. Goyarolla says that, “little by little,” there are more Catholic marriages among Finns, but the overall number remains “very low,” and most Catholic Finns marry non-Catholics.
Goyarolla says that only two of the 20 nuns in Finland are Finnish natives, and that foreign-born nuns tend to come from India and Poland. Of the 30 priests in Finland, four of them are Finnish natives; the 26 foreign-born priests come from a total of 17 countries.
There currently are no Catholic schools for youths in Finland, says Goyarolla, who adds, though, that there is one seminary in Helsinki. Also, four Catholics from Finland are currently seminarians abroad.
Goyarolla says that the reputation of the Catholic faith has improved in recent years. But he also relates that Catholics in Finland do sometimes experience problems, particularly in the bio-ethical realm. “In Finland, there is no freedom for the objection of conscience” regarding abortion, he points out. Another issue he cites is that the “ideology of gender is infiltrating the minds and hearts of the people.”
The Church, however, gets along very well with other Christian groups. In fact, Goyarolla describes Finland as an “ecumenical paradise.” But it’s a ‘paradise’ in which Catholicism plays a small role. Officially, just one-fifth of 1 percent of the population in Finland is Catholic. Goyarolla confirms that this number would mean that Finland has the lowest percentage of Catholics of any European nation. However, he also points out that the Church estimates there are almost 30,000 Catholics (about twice as many as the official number) in Finland.
Goyarolla figures that many Catholics are unable to make it to church because they simply live too far away. After all, Finland, a country of 130,558 square miles (338,145 sq km), has just eight parishes.
In order to reach Catholics who live prohibitively far away from a parish, he would like to see small chapels and meeting venues established, so there would be more places for Holy Mass and religious education.
Right now, however, the Church is having enough trouble just holding on to its existing establishments. Though it has long since received official recognition in Finland, the Catholic Church has not enjoyed the same financial status as the predominant Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Goyarolla relates how Finland’s Catholic priests had long served on a volunteer basis. But, in 2017, the Helsinki Diocese was ordered to hire its priests as workers, so that the government could collect taxes on their salaries. The ensuing rise in taxes and state-mandated requirements to provide employee benefits on a level with private companies has placed a very large burden on the diocese.
Fortunately, the diocese has received assistance from the German groups, Bonifatiuswerk (the Boniface Association) and Porticus. “We are very thankful to them,” Goyarolla emphasizes. But despite these benefactors, the Diocese of Helsinki remains “one of the poorest in Europe.” Reflecting on his diocese’s predicament, Goyarolla says, “This is a real mission.”
Due to financial hardship, some Catholic facilities have already closed down. “We had to demolish the diocesan center for retreats and summer camps, and many experts advise us to shut down three of the eight parishes,” says Goyarolla. “We are trying to avoid [shutting down the parishes] by all means.”
In order to raise some funds, the Church has written to each Catholic in Finland, asking for a contribution. Goyarolla says that the result has been positive, though insufficient as of yet. “But we are going in a good direction,” he feels. “I think we are in a process of a necessary economic reform that will bring economic stability.”
Though the nation’s sole diocese clearly has its challenges, Goyarolla remains upbeat about the future of Catholicism in Finland. He also finds it reassuring that Finland’s flag has the same blue and white colors worn by the Virgin Mary.
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