The Finnish Catholic Church is struggling for survival, with just eight parishes in a country of 300,000 square kilometres, and three of those eight under threat of closure.

Driving the news

15,000 registered Catholics among a population of 5.5 million, just four native-born priests out of a total of thirty, two native-born nuns of the twenty in total… numbers wise, the future looks bleak for the Church in the northern European country, despite Catholicism having taken roots there in the twelfth century.

Not to mention the total lack of Catholic schools in Finland, and the presence there of just one seminary, though four native Finns are currently studying for the priesthood abroad.

How, then, does the Finnish Catholic Church survive, with just one diocese and the economic and social discrimination inherent to a country where 70% of the people belong to the State Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the remainder are largely ‘nones’?

Go deeper

Raimo Goyarolla, the Spanish-born administrator of the Helsinki diocese since the health-related retirement in May 2019 of former bishop Teemu Sippo, told Catholic World Report January 18 that it’s a struggle for Catholics in Finland.

In the first place, there’s the hostility Catholics face defending their faith in a largely secular public square, with frequent misunderstandings on the bioethics, life and gender issues important to traditional Catholics.

Then, there’s the financial burdens, in place ever since 2017 when the government ordered the Finnish Catholic Church to offer contracts to its former volunteer priests, and pay the corresponding, and prohibitive, taxes and employee benefits.

It’s a situation Goyarolla said has left the Helsinki diocese as “one of the poorest in Europe”, and the country “real mission” territory.

Why it matters

All that’s not to say there isn’t blue sky among the clouds for the Finnish Catholic Church.

Starting with the immigrants who have boosted the Catholic population from just 15,000 officially – the smallest percentage in Europe – to 30,000 by unofficial counts.

The growth in Catholics in Finland has been staggering – 3-4% a year in recent years – such that now Finland’s eight parishes have faithful from over a hundred different countries.

Though the influx of migrants has been welcome, Goyarolla said it’s also posed “tremendous challenge, because of the different cultures and languages” but also because of the need to properly integrate new Catholic arrivals into society.

It’s a real “glass half-full” situation, just like the vast distances in the country – and the wide spacing-out of parishes – which means many Catholic Finns simply can’t make it to Mass.

But to cover that lack, Goyarolla has had to draw on his imagination, and is looking now at new ideas, such as small chapels and other innovative meeting venues dotted between the existing churches.

There are also other things to be thankful for, Goyarolla said – like the fact that Finland is an “ecumenical paradise” and the fact that the Helsinki diocese has received financial aid assistance from German Church groups Bonifatiuswerk and Porticus.

What’s next

Still, Goyarolla said that for the Church in Finland to survive it’s imperative that Finnish Catholics contribute financially.

“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”, the administrator lamented.

“We are trying to avoid [shutting down the parishes] by all means”.

That encouragement of Finnish Catholics to give is something Goyarolla is working on with positive, but insufficient, results to date.

“But we are going in a good direction”, the Helsinki administrator said, trying to stay upbeat and recalling that the Finnish flag has the same colours as those traditionally associated with the Virgin.

“I think we are in a process of a necessary economic reform that will bring economic stability”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.