Parish territory the size of Belgium
On December 2, Bishop Teemu Sippo, SCJ, blessed a new chapel in Vaasa, a small town on Finland’s Baltic seashore. It is the second chapel, or mission station, attached to Holy Cross parish in Tampere.
Finland might not be what first comes to mind when one hears about “mission stations.” But in a country where a single parish, such as Holy Cross, covers a territory the size of Belgium, such missions are vital.
“There are only seven Catholic parishes in this country,” said Fr. Zenon Strykowski, SCJ, regional superior of Finland. “In terms of territory, Holy Cross is a midsize parish. Also in terms of numbers.”
“Midsize” officially means 1,200 parishioners, but Fr. Zenon said that there are also many Catholics who are not registered.
He and Fr. Zdzislaw Huber, SCJ, serve Holy Cross and its missions. Besides the new chapel of the Sacred Heart in Vaasa and the chapel of St. Michael in Pietarsaari, there are also five missions attached to Holy Cross that meet in Lutheran or Orthodox chapels, or in private homes.
“We take turns going almost every weekend to the distant locations of our parish,” said Fr. Zenon. These visits generally last one to three days. A priest gets to each location generally once a month.
A religious sister and lay woman are also a part of the parish team, doing youth ministry at many of the locations.
Because of the extreme distances, each small faith community has its own life and program. “No one expects that people would travel to Tampere from distant places in our parish 200 or 300 kilometers away,” said Fr. Zenon.
However, the communities do try to come together for things such as confirmation retreats.
Immigrants represent half of Finland’s Catholics
Finland has a population of approximately 5.4 million people. Of these, less than 12,000 are Catholic. And half of these Catholics are immigrants, representing approximately 100 countries. In Helsinki, where two of the diocese’s parishes are located, over 80 languages are spoken.
Swedish is one of the most frequently spoken languages in Vaasa, the area where the new Sacred Heart chapel is located. “We can read Swedish, and celebrate Mass and the sacraments in this language,” said Fr. Zenon of him and Fr. Huber. Each of the Polish SCJs speaks several languages.
Ministry in Finland is done amidst a multitude of cultures and languages. However, it is also done in a spirit of ecumenism. Most native-born Finns are Lutheran. As noted above, several Catholic faith communities meet in Lutheran churches.
“Quite often, not only during the Week of Prayer for the Unity of the Church, we participate in ecumenical meetings and events,” said Fr. Zenon. “We Catholic priests in Finland know many Lutheran ministers and Orthodox priests.”
There is generally a good relationship among the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Even the 2009 ordination of the current Catholic bishop, Bishop Sippo (the first Finn to serve as bishop of Helsinki since the Reformation), took place in the Lutheran cathedral. Among those in attendance were bishops and other clergy of the Lutheran and Orthodox churches.
SCJs a vital part of Church in Finland
The Diocese of Helsinki encompasses the entire country of Finland but as Fr. Zenon noted, there are only seven parishes. The Priests of the Sacred Heart have responsibility for four of those seven. Almost half of the priests in the country are SCJs. The congregation is a vital part of the Catholic faith in Finland.
Reflecting on that Fr. Zenon says that “It is really very exciting and challenging to serve here. After a long period of more than three centuries of non-existence in this country, our Church is growing. There is always new inspiration for us to serve here with joy.”
He says that he and other SCJs are inspired by the many people whom they have had the opportunity to instruct in the Catholic faith. “It takes time and requires a lot of effort as we are all people from many backgrounds,” he said. “But it inspires us.”
And in a country where there are few priests and religious, there is also a strong effort by SCJs to “to guide and inspire lay Dehonians to be community builders, welcoming and caring people in constantly growing parish communities,” said Fr. Zenon.
To learn more about the Diocese of Helsinki, click here to visit its website. Of course, reflecting its mix of many cultures, the site is available in four languages.