In Europe’s least Catholic nation, the Church grows amid financial hardship

Recent years have seen the Catholic population in Finland rise by 3-4 percent per annum, and the country’s eight Catholic churches now have parishioners from almost 100 different countries.

St Henry's Cathedral, Catholic Diocese of Helsinki, Finland. (Wikipedia)

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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About Ray Cavanaugh 12 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

30 Comments

    • Of course it is. Immigration and procreation of the faithful absolutely does constitute Church growth, even when conversions are relatively few. Throughout most of history these are the primary means by which how local Churches have grown.

      • Another historical claim without basis. Throughout history local churches were founded and grew thanks to the Apostles or to those missionary bishops or priests who succeeded them in evangelization work, with the work eventually taken over by native clergy.

        • That indeed has happened throughout history, but it is not the *most* common way the Church grows. For most of the law two millenia, the Church has grown the same way other major world religion has normally grown: through sheer procreation (and the subsequent rearing of children in the faith, itself an act of evangelization because strictly speaking no one is actually born into the Church; even the infant of Catholic parents has to be incorporated into the Church via baptism).

          History aside, as a matter of sheer logical and empirical fact, an increase in the number of persons in a given territory via migration is, indeed, an increase in the number of persons. In 1970, the Church in Finland was made up of less than 3,000 souls and Catholic constituted 0.1% of the Finnish population. Today, the Church there is made up of some 14,000 Catholics, who are 0.4% of the population. As a matter of sheer empirical fact, that is numerical Church growth.

          • Not a growth among natives, whose place in a host society may be tenuous and temporary. To call an increase in mere numbers without consideration of who is being added is misleading and obscures the reality that Latins have failed to convert the Lutherans or their non-Christian brethren.

          • The Church is not growing globally; people are just moving around.

            When people move around, that isn’t the same as there being more Catholics in toto. It isn’t good news about growth. That’s swelling.

            I took money out of my bank and put it in my pocket. Wow! Look how much more money I have. I do empirically have more in my pocket!

    • The increase in the number of Catholics is evidently a matter of fact.

      In just the same way, the reason for the increase is largely due to an increase in the Catholic population, due to a presumably-ongoing influx of Catholic immigrants; and that, too, would be a matter of fact.

      • The health of a local church is not determined by numbers alone, and getting some idea of it needs to take into account the significance of the difference between native Finns being converted and the importing of warm bodies from overseas to fill the pews. Being unable to grasp this difference is a deficiency that should have been corrected already, and even if RC media suffer from it still, bishops should not.

  1. Why does Finland with so few Catholics need to have parish churches. Why don’t the faithful have “house churches”, meeting for prayer and a meal regularly in one or two homes in a community? Priests can then travel to these homes to offer Masses. And, if they ordained sufficient numbers of deacons, they could lead communities in prayer and distribute Communion to the people regularly with reserved hosts already consecrated?

    • And you’re an ordained minister of the Church? Where possible, it is eminently appropriate that Christians have consecrated spaces where they can offer divine worship with the appropriate ritual solemnity, and whose edifices are powerful sacramental signs symbolizing the Church and publicly testifying to God’s presence in the world, and where the Eucharistic sacrifice — not a mere “Communion service” — can be appropriately celebrated. What a really dumb thing for a “deacon” to say.

  2. A very informative article, but I wish the author — and other popular Catholic writers — would quit saying things like “though he has never received official canonization” of saints who have never been canonized in an official papal ceremony. *Most* of the saints publicly and officially venerated by the Church were not canonized by the papacy, a development that only began in the twelfth century and was not finally universalized until the seventeenth. Whenever the Church affords a man an official public cult, he is “officially” canonized, and good Saint Henry has been publicly and liturgically commemorated in Sweden and Finland since before the Reformation, and is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on January 20. The man was officially canonized centuries ago, and remains officially canonized today.

  3. All of Scandinavia needs to be re-evangelized. During the Reformation, the nobility seized all Church properties and declared the kingdoms “reformed”. The ecclesial bodies that remained were “national churches,” a disaster because they had to serve two masters. In Denmark, as an example, 80% of the people are Lutheran but only 3% claim to be Christian. Sweden, Norway and Iceland are similar.

    • Maybe but the Latin churches in Europe are not up to the task.

      Latins should consider the possibility of unaddressed issues from before the Protestant movement that were not addressed by Rome.

    • For the most part the Protestant Reformation was no reformation but a property grab. Check out what happened in Germany to begin with, also England. It was also a political matter and if the princes had not supported Luther he would have ended up like Huss and others. Poland could have fallen into the same trap and become Protestant but for the Jesuits.

  4. I thought that evangelism was the primary promoter of the faith.

    An aside… Helsinki was the host for the Putin/Trump summit. Watching the American President submit to a former KGB killer was the lowest I have ever seen a president go when facing a mortal enemy who is at Cyber war with the nation. The constitution states that treason is the highest crime one can commit by aiding and abetting a foreign adversary. Currently Trump has the compartmentalized support of the Catholic Church when for his entire life he has been diabolically in contrast with Catholic tenets. Trump is a disgrace to the Christion faiths and the nation!

    • “Submit” in what way? Its so funny that the left views even speaking to the political opposition worthy of prosecution on some crazy level. I guess these people are of the opinion that World War three is preferable to TALKING. TALKING does not necessarily mean collusion, bribery, or any of another type of false accusation. Sometimes TALKING is just what it says….TALKING.

    • What does this partisan rant have to do with this article? It is uncharitable to spew politics anywhere and everywhere because you have nothing to add to the actual discussion. I would humbly submit to the moderators that refusing to comment on the actual article can be uncivilized and unhelpful.

  5. Thank you for this article from Finland! As a Finnish Catholic myself I’d like to comment some inaccuracies from the article:

    The diocese is currently led by the diocesan administrator fr. Marco Pasinato, the rector of the diocesan neocatechumenal seminary in Kauniainen (not in Helsinki, but within the “metropolitan” area still). Fr. Raimo (Opus Dei) is also very active and held in high appreciation, but he does not in fact lead the diocese after the retirement of bishop Teemu (SCJ). St. Henry is truly official saint, with notable cult from pre-reformation era. And he is actually the only official saint we have and we do have his relics also present even today. We do have beatified Hemming from pre-reformation era and we have couple martyrs from reformation – like the last Finnish bishop who died in shipwreck when fleeing the unrest caused by reformation, but these are the ones who fall under the title “unofficial” and are not notably venerated today.

    The article could have also brought up some specialities of Finland, like our “own” Orthodox Church of Finland, that is under the patriarchy of Constantinople (while there is also a notable presence of orthodox christians from Russia and the patriarchate of Moscow). We have quite good relations with these brothers from the east, and this has also kept some understanding of saints and blessed Virgin Mary present in Finland throughout the history. Orthodox Church also has a official status of “Peoples Church” that grants them same privileges (like collecting taxes) that the Lutheran church has – and there’s about 60 000 orthodox christians, of whom majority are native Finns. The looming union with Constantinople (hopefully within next couple centuries) will create quite interesting situation for us.

    To reflect further our situation: We have quite notable presence of Opus Dei, Neocathecumenal Way and Polish Sacred Heart priests (SCJ). We also have a small but still notable phenomenon of theologians and theology students converting to Catholicism especially in University of Helsinki, where 2 to 4 students of theology have converted annually in the recent years. This is small, but still quite interesting “brain leak” from the Lutheran community containing couple doctors of dogmatics etc. And the economic situation is bad or more like catastrophic – caused partly because of the injustice from the government but mainly because we are too lazy and indifferent to put financial effort for the local parishes and diocese.

    • Thank you for these additions and corrections. I was surprised that the author did not mention the diocesan missionary seminary recently founded by the Neocatechumenal Way.

  6. Real work of evangelization is best carried forward by the poor. The rich are struggling under the mighty burden of their wealth. The early apostles and disciples too were poor.

  7. What sort of evil government would tax a church? And why aren’t Christians from the Pope down loudly protesting this shocking violation of the separation of church and state?

      • Every Christian nation of Europe had separation of church and state up until the invention of Protestantism, when many of the countries of NW Europe created new churches as branches of the state. Only a few of these still remain – England, Denmark, but NOT Finland.

  8. I think all would agree that even by European standards, Finland is a bit of an outlier. The comments by “Local” pretty clearly set forth some differences between the country and especially the members of EU countries with diverse Christian populations. All of this is subject to change, probably gradually, as differences tend to melt away with time. But the point of this article, that evangelization seems a slow but steady process, is well taken.

  9. Until recently 95% of the population was poor and now the middle class live much better than the nobility in previous centuries. Jesus and St. Joseph did not belong to the poorest class, which was formed hired for a days work. In any case, in the Bible, much of what is said about the poor refers to the anawin, those lowly who had in God the only hope, and not sociological poverty, which as a I state above was almost universal at the time. Are there any poor in Finland, probably only immigrants but they get abundant subsidies. The “poor” in America are not really poor and if they went to work they would loose the freebie they get and become poorer.

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