Page 8, 17th July 1998

17th July 1998
Page 8
Page 8, 17th July 1998 — Christian from start to Finnish

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Christian from start to Finnish

RITA TWISTON DAVIES reports from Finland on how, through the course of history, the country came to be influenced by Orthodox, Lutheran and Catholic Christianity DID YOU know that Catholicism reached Finland through a 12thcentury English bishop? Until I visited the episcopal church of St Henry in Helsinki, neither did I. In 1152, Nicholas Breakspear (later Pope Adrian IV) while papal legate to Scandinavia, consecrated Henry bishop. Henry then joined King Eric IX of Sweden on a crusade into Finland, but the warring Finns rejected both peace and Christianity. Losing the subsequent battle with the Swedes, they were baptised by Henry, who stayed to continue his missionary work.

Nowadays, St Henry's church (one of seven in Finland) serves just over 2,000 Catholics from 70 nations. The Bishop's See encompasses the whole of Finland a country the size of Britain and Ireland combined. The current parish priest of St Henry's, Fr Teemu Sippo, is only the fourth Finnish priest since the Reformation, though there are now two seminarians in Rome and one in Poland. Fr Teemu says Mass in English once a month and there is Latin Mass at 10am every Sunday. He explained that the Finnish Diocese is served mainly by Polish priests, though priests also come from Spain, Germany, Vietnam, Italy and France. St Henry's, built principally for Polish and Lithuanian sailors in 1860, has stainedglass windows behind the altar allegedly showing St Henry, though in green robes which Fr Teemu thinks more suited to St Patrick than to the martyr Henry became when an enraged Finnish convert (whom he had excommunicated for murder) attacked him with an axe.

Pre-Reformation Finland was a largely Catholic country, thanks to St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73) and Dominican and Franciscan friars, but in 1580 Catholicism was proscribed in both Sweden and Finland.

The eastern province of Karelia always had Russian Orthodox churches and today, after Lutheranism, Orthodoxy is the second state religion in Finland, claiming 58,000 followers in a population of 5.1 million. (Eightyfive per cent of Finns claim to be Lutheran and there are about 7,000 Catholics, half of them Finns.) With some 187,000 lakes to choose from, you might think the Finns wouldn't miss one, but they still mourn Lake Ladoga, at 6,836 square miles the largest lake in Europe. This passed into Russian control after the Winter War of 1939-40, when the Karelian boundary between the two countries was redrawn, occasioning the loss of the most significant monastery in Finnish Orthodox history, on Valamo Island on Lake Ladoga. Travelling from Mount Athos, St Sergius was the first monk to settle there. He and his follower, St Herman, are venerated as the founders of the original monastery about 1,000 years ago.

Over the centuries the monks brought soil by boat

from the mainland to cultivate the bare rock of the island, importing trees and plants as they developed a large monastery and, eventually, 13 sketes, or minimonasteries each housing about half-a-dozen monks, which are dotted around the island. One, the Resurrection Skete, is said to contain pieces of Christ's tomb brought from Jerusalem.

The monks returned to Valamo in 1993, many of the 50 currently in the monastery coming from St Petersburg and some from Macedonia. The present Igumen (Abbot) Pancratios, bearded and with his hair in a neat bun under a black hat, may look like a Russian monk in the days of Peter the Great, but he is putting his monastery on a website and has a lay information officer, complete with black leather briefcase and mobile phone.

The Igumen welcomes visitors from other traditions, saying: "We think the Orthodox Church has the truth and it is very good for people to touch the truth in this Orthodox Church." Faced with the massive task of restoring his monastery after 50 years of neglect and Soviet-army desecration, Igumen Pancratios says simply: "Our needs are the holy needs. We must be patient and live in love. These things Link us to God."

The faith that inspires the Abbot also sustained the monks who, in the winter of 1939, fled from the Russians across 42 frozen kilometres of Lake Ladoga, transporting as many monastic treasures as trucks and horses could carry. Thus the icon Our Lady of Valamo and the magnificent silver sarcophagus of SS Sergius and Herman came to be preserved in Finland. In 1940 the monks settled near the town of Joensuu, at a country house where the presence of an icon of SS Sergius and Herman convinced them that God had directed them there.

In what is now the New Valamo Monastery, they housed the 60 per cent of icons they managed to take with them, dedicating their new foundation to the transfiguration of Christ in memory of the upper church on Valamo Island. Two hundred thousand visitors a year come to the new monastery, whose whitewashed church contains the massive candelabrum (weighing about 88kgs) from Old Valamo, a 600-year-old icon

of Our Lady and a relic of the True Cross.

While Catholics are conversant with icons, liturgical chant, incense and candles, other aspects of Orthodox symbolism are less familiar, such as the iconostasis, or icon screen. The Orthodox Church is architecturally divided into three areas. The entrance symbolises the world and the main body of the church represents the approach of man (the world) to God. The icon screen marks the boundary between the secular and the divine, shutting off the altar from public view.

Thus the royal gates in the centre of the screen are only opened for the priest to pass through or at the Eucharist, and the Holy Sacrifice is renewed behind the iconostasis. The liturgy is mainly sung by a lay choir: in the small Karelian town of Ilomantsi, further east than St Petersburg, we heard divine service sung in English and Finnish, by the 17-yearold daughters of two priests and a group of children.

Here is the most striking difference for us Orthodox priests decide towards the end of their theological training whether to marry or remain

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