Sunday, March 13, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 11 ~ St. Henrik


A short digressive introduction on why I plan for my contributions to this series to be on saints of Northern Europe:

I’ve always had an interest in the Nordic countries and felt some kind of kinship with what I imagine to be their spirit, or their spirit in former times. I speculate that there may be a genetic connection: as far as I know my ancestry is entirely English and Scottish, but which of the various strains that came together in those countries I don’t know, and it’s certainly possible, perhaps likely, that there is some Scandinavian blood in there. At any rate, the attraction has existed. And moreover the only significant time I’ve ever spent outside the USA was in northern Europe: one summer comprising two weeks in rural Denmark, a few days in Sweden, six or eight weeks in rural Finland, and ending with in London. It’s a long story, irrelevant to this topic, but suffice to say I was young and that summer made a big impression.

These lands came late to the Catholic Church and left early, jumping to Lutheranism and other forms of Protestantism at the first opportunity. Thus there are relatively few Swedes, Danes, etc. among canonized saints, and they tend to be less well-known compared to those of more southern regions. My sympathy for the northern temperament inclines me toward interest in them. And for the same reason I regret the loss of these lands and cultures to the Church. Although their re-evangelization seems a pretty distant possibility, I don’t want their place in the Catholic heritage forgotten.

End of introduction.

Of all the countries we refer to as Nordic, Finland was probably the least Catholic, now and historically, and that of course makes it not very Catholic at all. And Finland, as you may or may not know, is not a Scandinavian country. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland share the ethnic and linguistic heritage that we know as Scandinavian. Finland does not. Nor is it Russian, as its proximity to Russia might suggest (Helsinki is only 150 miles or so from St. Petersburg). The near relatives of Finns are to the south, across the Gulf of Finland, in some of the other regions around the Baltic, particularly Estonia.

The Finnish language has very little relationship to any other widely spoken European language. By way of illustration, count to ten in Swedish:

en, två, tre, fyra, fem, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio

You can see at least some connection with many other European languages. But in Finnish:

yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuusi, seitsemän, kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen

I have to start my account of St. Henrik by noting that he is one of those saints whose very existence has little or no contemporary historical support, nor is he among the formally canonized. Yet his legend and devotion to him are deeply rooted, and there seems no reason to think that they aren’t based on fact.

First, like St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Henrik , or Henry, of Finland was an Englishman. In 1153 he was sent to Sweden and became bishop of Uppsala (Sweden). The Swedes know him as St. Henrik of Uppsala. From there he was sent to evangelize Finland, which was still mostly pagan. And there he was murdered. I don’t think his death really constitutes martyrdom in the sense that he was killed directly because of his faith. But it was his faith that put him where he was, so maybe it qualifies.

The traditional story is that the murderer was named Lalli, although Lalli’s wife Kerttu was the instigator. Henry is said to have been travelling by sledge in winter, in southwestern Finland near Lake Köyliö. The location is plausible, as it’s fifty miles or so from the coastal town of Turku, a seacoast town and the oldest town in Finland, where a visitor from Sweden would likely have arrived. He stopped at the home of Lalli, who was not there, bought some provisions from Kerttu, and continued across a frozen lake. Lalli, returning home shortly thereafter, was told by Kerttu that Henrik had stolen the goods. No reason for this lie is given. We might speculate that Kerttu’s having received a male visitor provoked Lalli’s jealousy, and that she lied to say that she was coerced. At any rate, Lalli, enraged, followed Henry across the lake and killed him with an ax-blow.

The legends dwell to a great extent on the rather severe punishments received by Lalli. He is said to have taken Henrik’s mitre and placed it on his own head. But when he tried to remove it, his scalp came with it. Other stories describe a similar misadventure with the bishop’s ring, which caused the flesh to fall from the finger on which it was placed. And Lalli is said to be skiing in hell while Henrik sings in the heavenly choir.

Unfortunately there is literally nothing to say about Henrik’s theology or spirituality, no specific lessons to be learned from any words he left behind, nothing except what might be surmised from the bare facts, if indeed they are facts. If nothing else, these make him a pretty determined evangelist: sledding around Finland in winter instead of staying warm and well-fed, as would certainly have been a bishop’s prerogative.


Henrik is the patron of the Turku Cathedral, which was originally built in the 13th century, and was then and still is “the most important religious building in Finland”, though of course it’s now Lutheran. Turku, was the original seat of Christianity in Finland. The cathedral in Helsinki is named for St. Henrik, but as it was built in the 19th century doesn’t look a great deal like what we generally think of when we hear the word “cathedral.” Even in very-predominantly-Protestant Alabama there are many parish churches that are larger.

How small is the Catholic Church in Finland? Around 9,000 people in a population of over 5 million. (That figure is from Wikipedia; I also ran across a news story that put the figure at 12,000.) In contrast, very-predominantly-Protestant Alabama, with roughly a million fewer people, has somewhere around 165,000 Catholics.

How weak is the Catholic Church in Finland? So small that the ordination of a Finnish-born priest in 2014 was only the sixth since the Reformation. And even he is not ethnically Finnish: his name is Hamberg, and he is part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland which is the product of the intermittent domination of Finland by Sweden over the centuries. (Russia has also ruled Finland for long periods, and the Orthodox Church in Finland, while also a small minority, is larger than the Catholic.)

As it happens, just this past January, on the occasion of the traditional feast day of St. Henrik, Pope Francis received a delegation of Finnish Christians—Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic. Here is a video of part of the event. In addition to referring to “Helinski”, the reporter says that there are 120,000 Catholics in Finland, which makes me think he misread the 12,000 number. Neither the video nor the photo at the Vatican site identify most of the participants, and I really wonder about those apparent women religious on the left. I think it’s safe to say that both the Catholic and Lutheran bishops are ethnically Finnish.

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors.

St. Henrik, pray for the conversion of Finland, and all the lands of Northern Europe.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

17 comments:

  1. In case it's not clear from the text: the photo is of the little Helsinki cathedral, not the one in Turku.

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  2. Oh, that wasn't clear to me, but then, I was in a rush when I posted it.

    AMDG

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  3. Do you mean women religious on the right? They look like Bridgettines. I'd guess the women on the left are Protestant pastors of various types.

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  4. Yes, I meant the ones on the right. I assumed what you say about the others. Brigittines would certainly make sense.

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  5. This may be the only internet comment of 2016 which compares numbers of Catholics in Finland and Alabama, Mac. For that alone it is worthy of consideration and placement in this series. :)

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  6. Skiing in hell -- now that's an image!

    About the Finnish language: I once worked with an American of Finnish descent whose last name was Hahto. I thought it sounded Japanese. Just did a search and it seems there may be a connection between the two languages.

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  7. I used to have a Nokia cell phone, which I assumed was Japanese, then I saw a 60 Minutes episode on them or something like that and they are Finnish!

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  8. I too assumed Nokia was a Japanese company, till I read a bit about the company somewhere. I think it's actually the name of a town. The Japanese connection with the language is fascinating. I'm surprised to learn, via that same article, that Finns are genetically closest to the Flemish, because I've always thought they tend to have an ever so slightly Asian look.

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  9. You're probably right, Paul, that those are the Brigittines who sent delegates to Rome. Here is something about the new saint who is credited on their home page with reviving the order.

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  10. I read the report about her planned canonization in the Catholic Herald a few months ago, and didn't put two and two together.

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  11. Skiing in hell. I wonder when (if ever) the Nordic peoples stopped thinking of Hell as a frosty place.

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  12. Look! An actual conversation on my blog. Oh happy day!

    AMDG

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    1. You've probably jinxed it now ;)

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  13. There's a passage in something by Sigrid Undset with a description of a vision of hell. I've been trying to remember where. Maybe Vigdis Gunnarsdatter?

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  14. I guess that's the same book I know as Gunnar's Daughter--if so, I don't remember that, but it's been a long time (25+ years) since I read it, so I could have forgotten. Even longer since I read Kristin Lavransdatter, and a much longer book, so the fact that I don't remember it from there, either, doesn't mean a whole lot.

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    1. Presumably so. I read it in Dutch (don't know if that's any closer to the original Norwegian; at the time I was semi-seriously considering trying to learn Norwegian). I don't think it can be more than 12 years ago in my case. If I haven't got things mixed up, there's a passage where a priest tells a story about abandoned babies, and part of the story is a description of a vision of hell.

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