OSLO, Norway — The strains of Salve Regina reverberate through the contemplative Dominican Convent of Lunden outside Oslo.
As the setting sun lets its last rays fall through the entrance gate of the red-brick building, the twittering birds outside seem to want to compete with the chant.
Nine sisters from five nations create an oasis of prayer and contemplation here, and, in a way, the convent is a microcosm of the Church in Norway. Most Norwegians associate the Catholic Church with monasticism. The nuns who live here are from Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Norway. Some are converts, reflecting similar characteristics of the Church in this Scandinavian country.
But things are changing.
With European Union expansion in Eastern Europe, Catholics from traditionally Catholic countries are immigrating, so the Church in Norway is becoming less a Church of converted native intellectuals.
Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo, a former Lutheran, resides just behind St. Olaf’s Cathedral in the center of Oslo. He is member of the Augustinians at Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, Austria.
“Our Church is sensing a new era about to dawn,” he said. “There are about 200,000 Catholics in Norway. In 2004, an official survey estimated the number of Catholics at 57,000.
“Many immigrants are from Poland, a smaller number from Lithuania,” the bishop said. “The face of the Catholic Church, formerly German-Dutch, is now rather Asiatic-East-European, whereby native Norwegians only form 10% of our Catholics.
“Immigration is the reason we cannot be seen any more only as a ‘convert Church’ of scientists and artists but also as a Church of simple craftsmen and skilled workers.”
Meanwhile, Sister Hildegard of the Dominican convent, a native of Germany, said the nuns are praying “intensely” for home-grown vocations.
“The openness of our community is central because we live in an area which on the one hand is Protestant, on the other hand highly secularized,” she said. “As a community we have to underline the Catholic elements. Whenever people long for quietness, peace, prayer, liturgy or a little talk on spiritual, ecclesial or personal matters, we are there.”
She noted that most in the convent are converted Lutherans.
“They have found something in the Catholic Church that they have missed at theirs,” she said.
But, Bishop Eidsvig said, there are only 150-200 conversions in Norway each year.
“The number of native Norwegians becoming Catholic is decreasing,” he said. “A third of the converts are intellectuals who have become Catholics because of liturgical, theological and especially ecclesiological and sacramental reasons, the second third has become Catholic because of marriage and the last third is motivated by various reasons, apart from the liturgy and longstanding contact with the Catholic faith while working abroad.”
“They are also Lutherans who are tired” of discussions about what legal status same-sex “marriages” should have in their church, and “Orthodox, who are fed up with the inner Orthodox struggles,” he said.
Christianity in Norway can look back at a long history. After the first steps in the 10th century, it got a more solid base in the 11th century. But the forced reformation of the Danish King Christian III in the 16th century resulted in the decline of the Church. As a result of the Enlightenment, freedom of religion was granted in 1845. It led to a modest fresh start for the Church.
Today there is one diocese, Oslo, and two apostolic prelatures, Trondheim and Tromso. The Catholic community is small, but active.
The average Norwegian associates the Catholic Church with religious orders and ancient monasteries. As an example, the Capuchins are running a parish in Oslo, not far from a mostly Arabic quarter.
On the way to the west coast, passing waterfalls, deep blue fjords, wooded slopes, torrential rivers and snow-covered peaks, one passes the famous Norwegian wood churches with well looked-after cemeteries.
In Haugesund, Father Ireneusz Zielinski, a physician from Poland, is pastor of St. Joseph parish. His inconspicuous white church is situated at the end of Haugesund’s main street. Outside, a small Vatican flag stands out among Norwegian flags.
“Some time ago it was very quiet here,” said Father Zielinski. “Three hundred Catholics in a vast area. But now! Approximately 4,000 Catholics … the number of Mass attendees is steadily increasing, especially the workers from Eastern Europe have turned the situation upside down.”
On a Sunday morning, the church is filled with Poles, for whom the faith is a great support. In addition to celebrating Mass, teaching catecheses and making home visits, Father Zielinski is often occupied with non-pastoral matters, such as sorting out legal papers. He will translate, for example, or help someone who has been betrayed by the people who offered them jobs but who do not pay the taxes for them.
A second Mass tends to draw a smaller congregation — Norwegians with international backgrounds. Their families come from Burundi and other countries, and they have been living in Norway for a long time. They are integrated into society and have Norwegian nationality.
As the community is not that big, meeting at the parish house after Mass strengthens their experience as a community of believers. Among the visitors is a member of a Pentecostal church, who has attended Mass for the first time. After having timidly revealed his identity, he asks the priest if he would like to participate in an evangelization together with his Pentecostal community.
“I will have to think about that,” Father Zielinski answered. He has to take care that some people do not get the wrong idea.
Later, Vietnamese Catholics gather for a monthly Mass in Vietnamese.
The most important task for the community is the mission, said Father Zielinski: “Our Church has to be missionary, evangelizing. On the one hand, Catholics have to be strengthened in their personal attitude of faith, ripening like a fruit.
“On the other hand we have to stress the Communio aspect, the communal aspect. In our secularized world people run after all esoteric offers on display. But only Christ redeems.”
Father Zielinski, a member of the Community of the Beatitudes, hopes that more of the new ecclesial movements will go to Norway to help with evangelization.
“There is plenty of work,” he said, “enough for all.”
For Bishop Eidsvig, the main tasks to be carried out are obvious: “Deepening our faith, proclaiming our faith and the example of Catholics, who live and radiate what they believe.”
And, according to Sister Hildegard, Catholics have good standing in Norway. And she said she has a high endorsement to back up that feeling.
“The Norwegian queen [Sonja], being a Protestant herself, is very fond of the Catholic monasteries,” she said. “She has already visited some of them and we have also visited her. She appreciates our prayers very much. The very personal Christmas cards are also a sign of sympathy and benevolence.”
“And years ago, our then-Holy Father John Paul II visited this country,” Sister Hildegard continued. “He was standing together with the royal couple on their balcony. This was a terrific sign.”
Robert Rauhut, based in Munich, Germany, filed this report from Oslo, Norway.