Before the advent of Lutheranism, the Finnish people had been Catholic for about 400 years. A hymn in the Finnish Lutheran hymnal contains the lines “A man came from England / to sow the seeds of faith”. This is a rephrasing of Ramus virens, a medieval Catholic text sometimes called Finland’s first national anthem.
The man from England was St Henry, a 12th-century missionary bishop and martyr, who became the patron saint of Finland and its medieval cathedral, located in Turku, the oldest city in the country.
The first successor of St Henry that we know something substantial about is Bishop Thomas, another Englishman and a 13th-century Dominican. Thanks to St Dominic’s interest in evangelising the last pagan nations of Europe, the order started a convent in Turku as early as 1249, running a school and spreading the Word of God in the local language. Bishop Thomas is also known to have introduced the first library to Finland. The first book printed for Finnish use, the 1488 Missale Aboense, was Europe’s only diocesan missal following the Dominican Rite. Thus, the country that now boasts the world’s top literacy rate, education system, public libraries and freedom of the press owes the origins of its literary culture to the Dominicans.
Medieval Finland also hosted the orders of St Francis and St Bridget. The Franciscans settled in Rauma, whose old town is now a Unesco World Heritage site, and the Bridgettines had a monastery in Naantali, best known today for its popular theme park, MoominWorld. The Franciscan church of Rauma and the Bridgettine church of Naantali still stand, together with more than 70 stone churches dating from the 13th to 16th centuries. Without exception, they nowadays function as Lutheran places of worship, occasionally lent to the minuscule Catholic minority for special celebrations.
The Reformation in Finland was a fairly slow and smooth transition from Catholicism to Lutheranism, not by the will of the people, but ultimately because of a political and economic decision by King Gustaf Vasa of Sweden, to which Finland belonged until 1809. Gustaf separated the Church of Sweden from Rome and confiscated Church property for the Crown. Without seeking authorisation from Rome, the king appointed a Dominican, Martti Skytte, as Bishop of Turku. Skytte had some sympathies towards certain Reformation ideas, but signed a paper vowing to seek papal confirmation as soon as possible (it never happened).
In the late 16th century, under Gustaf’s son Johan and his half-Polish grandson Sigismund, there was a real possibility of reunion with Rome, but nothing came of it. Finland was, nevertheless, the most conservative and Catholic-friendly part of the Kingdom of Sweden, with traditional Catholic practices continuing well into the 17th century. At the same time, anti-Catholic sentiments were commonly expressed in Lutheran hymns and literature. The pope was seen as the Antichrist, and Jesuits were viewed with great suspicion owing to their role in the Catholic Reformation.
A significant change in the climate of Finnish Lutheranism took place in the 1960s, thanks to the Second Vatican Council. A talented and ecumenically minded Finnish theologian, Seppo A Teinonen, attended the Council first as a journalist and then as an observer of the Lutheran World Federation. The Council changed Teinonen’s view of Catholicism, and after becoming Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Helsinki, he went on to form a generation of pastors and theologians. Many of them adopted a new, Luthero-Catholic identity, something like the Anglo-Catholic movement initiated by John Henry Newman in England. One of Teinonen’s best students, Tuomo Mannermaa, originally a Rahner scholar, started the Finnish school of Luther studies, which sees Luther as a deeply medieval and Catholic theologian, in contrast to the German Protestant, Neo-Kantian view of Luther.
Like Newman, Teinonen went on to join the Catholic Church, and in recent years other Lutheran theologians have followed in his footsteps. Other prominent converts include Timo Soini, currently Finland’s minister of foreign affairs, who had a mystical conversion experience in Ireland in 1985. Teinonen’s many translations of the classics of Catholic mysticism, including works by St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, have shaped the spirituality of many Finnish Lutherans. Ecumenical retreats and pilgrimages are now commonplace.
Today, Finnish Lutheran pastors routinely refer to the Catholic Church as “Mother Church”, and the recent Finnish Catholic-Lutheran dialogue report, Communion in Growth, records an astonishing degree of agreement on traditionally divisive doctrinal issues. Relations between Catholics and Lutherans in Finland are excellent, and there is a deep and sincere longing for full communion on both sides. At the same time, many difficult problems remain, in the areas of dogmatic and especially moral theology.
Although Finns have sometimes called their country “the most Lutheran in the world”, they also rightly regard it as a model of ecumenism. Despite the small size of the Catholic community, Finland is a great place to be a Catholic and a Christian.
Emil Anton is a doctoral student in Dogmatic Theology at the University of Helsinki. His most recent book, Katolisempi kuin luulit (“More Catholic Than You Thought”), is a popular introduction to Finland’s Catholic and Lutheran history
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here