New Bishop of Finland: Unity Among Christians ‘Is Key for Peace in the World’
Newly consecrated shepherd of Helsinki, Bishop Raimo Goyarrola Belda shares his hopes for the local church, discussing unity among Christians during his recent visit to Rome for the week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
ROME — The journey of Father Raimo Goyarrola Belda, a Spanish priest of the personal prelature of Opus Dei, to becoming the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Helsinki began almost 20 years ago.
As Bishop Goyarrola tells it, Bishop Józef Wróbel in 2005 invited many bishops, including Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, the prelate of Opus Dei, to Helsinki for the anniversary of the diocese.
“After the Holy Mass, there was a lunch in the bishop’s house, during which the bishop asked the prelate of Opus Dei: ‘Please send me one priest,’” the new bishop, 54, recalled. “And I don’t know why, but he thought of me.”
Although he had been hesitant at first to send any of his priests, the prelate of Opus Dei eventually called Father Goyarrola to ask him whether he would consider moving to Finland.
“I answered very fast: ‘Yes; yes!’” Bishop Goyarrola recounted. Even though the prelate of Opus Dei told the young priest to pray and think about his decision, since moving to Finland not only meant moving to another country but also getting accustomed to “another culture and another language,” Bishop Goyarrola explained that he knew it was God’s will: “I was ready to go to Finland.”
The Opus Dei priest, in his 30s, arrived in Finland in 2006, where he began his pastoral work as a university chaplain, military chaplain and religion teacher in public schools. In addition to administering the sacraments in Finnish parishes, Father Goyarrola was also entrusted with the particular mission of serving the Spanish-speaking community in Finland. In 2011, he was appointed Helsinki’s diocesan vicar general.
‘An Ecumenical Feast’
On Sep. 29, 2023, during a Mass celebrated at St. Henry’s Cathedral in Helsinki, the apostolic nuncio to the Nordic countries, Archbishop Julio Murat, announced Father Goyarrola’s appointment as the new bishop of Helsinki. Then, on Nov. 25, Father Goyarrola was consecrated bishop of Helsinki in St. John’s Lutheran Church (known locally as Johanneksenkirkko). Owing to the ecumenical dialogue in Finland, the Diocese of Helsinki is allowed to use Lutheran and Orthodox church buildings in 25 cities around the country for Catholic worship.
“Our cathedral in Helsinki is very small,” Bishop Goyarrola said. “Perhaps there are enough seats for 200 people, but in Lutheran church Johanneksenkirkko, there are seats for over 2,000 people.”
Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm presided over the ordination, which many ecumenical representatives attended.
“Over 2,000 people attended my consecration,” the bishop recalled. “It was amazing; it really was an ecumenical feast. There were many Catholics, of course, but also many Lutherans, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Methodists and Anglicans. It was like a council in the church!”
Present at the ordination service was also Benedictine Father Augustinus Sander, an official of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, who presented a special greeting from Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the dicastery. Sharing the joy for the Catholic Church in Finland but also that of the entire Finnish ecumenical contingent, Cardinal Koch encouraged the new bishop of Helsinki in his service to unity, saying that the new bishop’s “truly Catholic heart beats for ecumenism.”
Recalling the many graces that the Church in Finland has received in its ecumenical efforts, Bishop Goyarrola argued: “I think ecumenism is a key for peace in the world. In fact, I think that the present and future of the world depends on this unity among Christians.”
Christian Unity Since the Reformation
Despite the numerous and growing denominations nationwide, unity among Christians is not something foreign to Finnish history and culture, the bishop explained.
“During the first four centuries [after its Christianization], Finland was Catholic,” Bishop Goyarrola underlined, pointing out that Finland was at that time a part of Sweden.
“Then came the Reformation. But it was a, let’s say, political reformation,” Bishop Goyarrola argued. In fact, when King Gustav Vasa of Sweden — which at that time included Finland — broke away from the Catholic Church in 1527 and violently established Lutheranism as the state religion, historians have argued that it wasn’t so much about his religious convictions as much as it was about freeing Sweden from foreign economic and political interests such as the Kalmar Union with Denmark, the Hanseatic League in Lübeck and the Catholic Church in Rome.
Because of the nonreligious, political nature of the Reformation, “Finland remained very Catholic, even after the Reformation,” the bishop continued, explaining how even decades after the Reformation, there was still a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and various saints among Finns and Eucharistic adoration in churches around the country.
Because of this, Bishop Goyarrola explained, “there was and still is a very fine line between the Lutheran church and the Catholic Church in Finland. Actually, I think that the Lutheran church in Finland is the Lutheran church closest to the Catholic Church in the entire world.”
“We are very close in both theology and liturgy, but also in heart and in mind,” the bishop said.
A Small but Growing Church
Comparing the size of Finland to that of Italy, the new Finnish bishop pointed out that while Italy today counts 225 dioceses and archdioceses, Finland only has one diocese. Further, in contrast to the 25,000 parishes dispersed across Italy, Finland only has “eight parishes and 25 priests.”
“We travel a lot by car and by train,” Bishop Goyarrola explained, “since it is a very large country, and there are many Catholics around the country.”
On Sundays, he shared, each priest may have to celebrate three or four Masses in churches that are sometimes up to 125 miles apart.
Officially, there are about 18,000 Catholics in Finland, representing 0.3% of the population. While the numbers are small, the Catholic Church in Finland is “a growing Church,” Bishop Goyarrola emphasized. “Each year, [the Church welcomes] 500 to 600 new Catholics, either through baptism or immigration.”
Like the Church in other Nordic countries, the Catholic Church in Finland is an “immigrant church” — only half of the registered Catholics are native Finns.
“It is truly a Catholic Church because there are more than 115 nationalities,” the bishop added. “The key is to understand that Catholicism unifies,” he added, explaining that despite being so different, Catholics in Finland are united in and by virtue of Christ. “For this reason, the Catholic Church in Finland is really Catholic because it is one.”
At the end of the day, where we come from is not as important as where we are going, the bishop pointed out. “We all want to go to heaven. And this also unifies us.”
‘Preach the Gospel With Your Life’
Reflecting upon the challenges of evangelizing in such a large country with such a diverse Catholic population and so few priests, Bishop Goyarrola pointed out that everyone, regardless of their state of life or vocation, is called to preach the Gospel.
“It is with our testimony, our witness of faith, our friendship with friends, our love, our advice to someone who needs our advice, our prayers for them, our conversations about God, about family, about life,” the new bishop shared, that we can evangelize today’s society.
While being the only Catholic at school or work might be a hard reality for many, Bishop Goyarrola said, it is also “an opportunity to preach the Gospel with your life, your hope and your joy, just as the first Christians did.”
Comparing the Church’s evangelizing efforts in Finland to those of the first Christians who gave a witness of Christ with their faithful lives, the bishop added: “In a way, every Christian is a church since every Christian belongs to the body of Christ,” and as such, “every Christian is called to evangelization.”
“And in Finland,” the bishop continued, “where we are so few [Catholics], evangelization is very important, because if you don’t preach the Gospel with your life, there is no one else to do it.”
Problems to Solve and Dreams to Achieve
“I usually say that on my table there are two very long lists,” Bishop Goyarrola said. “One list is the list of problems and challenges, and it is very, very long. But on my right side, I have a list of dreams, and it is longer than the list of problems.”
Among his many hopes for the Church in Finland, the new bishop mentioned vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but also to the sacrament of holy matrimony.
“Often, when we talk about vocations, we only think about the priesthood,” the bishop said. “But faithful matrimonies are as important. If there are faithful matrimonies, there are children, and if there are children, there are vocations.”
Retirement homes for the elderly, palliative care units for the sick, and Catholic schools and summer camps for children also top the bishop’s list of dreams.
“We have to pray and work together to make those dreams become reality,” the bishop said enthusiastically.
The Finnish Catholics are a “people that are faithful to the Gospel and faithful to Our Lord, Jesus Christ,” the bishop added. “And if you are faithful, wherever you are, you can change the world.”