Iceland, The Catholic Church in
ICELAND, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Iceland is an island located in the North Atlantic between norway and greenland, touching the Arctic Circle. A volcanic island, Iceland is noted for its hot springs and other volcanic geological formations. It forms a tableland the average elevation of which varies from 2,000 to 3,000 feet and whose highest point is 6,952 feet. A large part of the interior of the island is uninhabitable, and the island contains no arable land. Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik is home to almost half the country's total population, the vast majority of which belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the state church. Boasting one of the world's oldest parliaments, Iceland also has among the world's highest literacy and personal income levels.
As an island with few natural resources and no agriculture, Iceland has traditionally relied on the fishing industry to buoy its economy. An independent republic from 930 to 1262, it fell under the control of Norway, and then Denmark due to its reliance on imports of wood and agricultural products. Iceland has been an independent state since July of 1944.
Catholic Origins and Development . By the 8th century Irish hermits were already dwelling in Iceland. Between 870–930 settlers began immigrating to Iceland from Norway and that country's possessions in Ireland, Scotland and neighboring islands. Some of these settlers were Christians while others were pagans familiar with Christianity. Missionaries first came to Iceland at the end of the 10th century, bringing priests from abroad to convert the island's inhabitants. The first recorded missionary, Thorvaldur Kodransson brought the German bishop Fredrekur in 981, while in 996, the recently converted King olaf i tryggvessØn of Norway sent Stefnir Thorgilsson over the sea to Iceland. While these early missionaries had some success, their methods were too violent and they were forced to leave the country. In 997 Olaf again attempted conversion through Thangbrand, a "belligerent man and a warrior, but a good priest and efficient," in the words of Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla. While able to convert several chieftains, other disgruntled Icelandic chiefs eventually forced Thangbrand back to Norway, and his negative report to Olaf caused the king to threaten to kill every Icelander in Norway. It was only after the converted chiefs Gizurr Teitsson and Hjalti Skeggjason promised Olaf they would make open their conversion to the new faith that Christianity made rapid progress in Iceland.
In 1000 Christianity was officially accepted as the national faith by the Icelandic parliament—called the Althing. To keep good relations with Norway and to prevent warring between Christians and heathens, non-Christian leader Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi proposed that the Christian law should serve the whole country, and this was accepted by all; mass baptisms were undertaken in one of the island's hot springs. By this time a few small Christian churches had been built on private lands. During the next 50 years a few priests and bishops moved to Iceland, and in 1056, Isleifur Gizurrarsson, was consecrated by adalbert of bremen as bishop of Skalholt in southern Iceland.
Iselifur's son Gizurr, who succeeded him as bishop (1082–1118), built the cathedral of St. Peter in Skalholt and endowed it with his patrimony. The tithe was introduced in 1096. A second bishopric was founded at Holar in the north, where Jon helgi Ogmundarson, one of Isleifur's disciples, was its first bishop (1106–21). Church schools were founded with native and foreign teachers. Monasteries were established in the north, with Benedictines at Thingeyri (1133), Munkathvera (1155) and Modruvellir. In the south, Augustinian canons were installed at Thykkvabaer (1168), Flatey-Helgafell (1172) and Skriduklaustur. A convent was established at Kirkjubaer in the south in 1186 and at Reynistadir in the north in the 13th century.
The Church in Iceland was at first suffragan to Bremen-Hamburg, to Lund from 1104 and to Trondheim from 1152. thorlÁk thÓrhallsson, who became the first Augustinian abbot at Thykkvibaer, was elected bishop of Skaholt from 1178–93 and struggled to make the Church independent of the local government as well as the laity, many of whom had erected Church buildings on their property and now sought to gain from this arrangement. Thorlák became the patron saint of Iceland. Gudmundur godi, Bishop of Holar (1203–37), also had
difficulties, but there is no evidence that the investiture struggle reached Iceland, for the bishops were elected by the clergy and people and sent to the metropolitan to be consecrated. In Bishop Pall Jonssons' time (1195–1211) there were 220 small churches and 290 priests in the See of Skalholt alone. Between the 12th and the 18th century the total population was less than 100,000.
In the 13th century, the great century of the sagas, monks were active in cataloguing and translating Icelandic literature. Previously the libraries in the monasteries were much like those on the Continent, for Icelanders were in constant contact with Norway and some studied in Germany, France and England.
The fierce 13th-century struggles among the foremost families, combined with the continued economic dependence upon Norway for wood, grain and other necessities, drove Iceland into a union with Norway by 1264. Bishop Arni Thorlaksson (1269–98) fought against proprietary churches and in favor of clerical celibacy, but without significant success. In the 14th century bishops still had a high sense of duty. In the middle of the century, Brother Eysteinn Arngrimsson wrote Lilja ("The Lily"), a pearl of literature and theology. Then a great decline set in. Several foreigners were sent to Iceland as bishops.
Early in the 15th century the plague epidemic (1402–05) reached Iceland. A third of the population perished and few priests survived. Iceland, under the control of Denmark since 1380, was more isolated than ever; this attracted ecclesiastical adventurers. Foreign bishops such as Jon Gerreksson (1426–33) were sometimes corrupted by business or political interests and did harm, but others, such as Gotsveinn Comhaer, a Dutch Carthusian monk at Skalholt, were loved by their people. At the close of the century a new epidemic nearly as severe as the Black Death struck Iceland.
The 16th Century and Reformation . After the 15th century spiritual decline and economic misery set in; celibacy was less observed by priests and discipline in the monasteries was relaxed. The influence of the reforma tion was felt via Denmark, prompting Bishops Jon Arason of Holar (1524–50) and Ogmundur Palsson, OSA
(1522–40), of Skalholt to unite in an effort to prevent it. However their efforts proved futile. Soon German merchants had introduced writings of the reformers. A priest named Jon Einarsson was accused of reformed preaching at Skalholt. Gizurr Einarsson, educated at the bishop's expense in Germany, became acquainted with the Reformation; together with Oddur Gottskalksson, son of Bishop Gottskalk Nikulasson and others, he worked to alienate people from the bishops.
The efforts of the Reformers proved successful. Christian III, the Lutheran king of Denmark, sent two warships to Iceland and with the help of Lutheran Gizurr Einarsson, abducted Iceland's aged and blind Bishop Ogmundur onboard one of these ships. The bishop later died, probably en route to Denmark, and Gizurr installed himself as the first Lutheran bishop at Ogmundur's former see at Skalholt.
The Reformation continued to be imposed upon the Icelanders between 1537 and 1552. Denmark's King Christian III claimed the property of the Church, much of which was destroyed. Monks were forced to leave their monasteries, with the consequence that the pillage of monastic libraries resulted in the loss of much valuable information about the Icelandic Middle Ages. Bishop Jon Arason, who continued his ministry in defiance of the orders of King Christian as well as the king of Iceland, held his see at Holar until he too was taken prisoner and beheaded with both his sons at Skalholt (1550), a martyr for his faith and his country.
The Church after the Reformation . The history of the Catholic Church in Iceland following the Reformation was closely associated with the history of the Lutheran Church in Denmark. The Catholic Church was now illegal, although the faithful continued to worship in secret gatherings. With relations with Rome and almost all of Europe now at an end, Iceland maintained a cultural exchange only with Denmark. Society remained static but stable: the king of Iceland provided good schools to replace those of the Church, while Oddur Gottskalksson translated the New Testament into Icelandic (printed 1540 in Roskilde, Denmark). Gudbrandur Thorlakson, Lutheran bishop of Holar (1571–1627), edited an Icelandic version of the entire Bible (1584), as well as translated and published many other devotional writings using the printing press brought to the county by Bishop Jon Arason.
In 1783 terrible earthquakes struck Iceland, destroying most of Skalholt. Two years later Reykjavik became the Lutheran bishopric for the south, spreading its influence to the whole island after Holar was suppressed in 1801.
When Denmark revised its constitution to include freedom of religion in the mid-1800s, a similar change in Iceland soon followed. Two Catholic chaplains administering to the spiritual needs of Iceland's French fishing fleet started missionary work in Iceland in 1857, and an increasingly liberal Icelandic government granted total freedom of religion in 1874. By 1900 secular priests had established a church and the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the kingdom's first hospital in Reykjavik under the vicar apostolic of Denmark. In 1903 the German montfort fathers (SMM) arrived on the island.
Church Reasserts Itself in Twentieth Century . In 1923 Cardinal Willem van Rossum, prefect of Propaganda Fide, visited Iceland's Catholic minority and was welcomed by the Icelandic government. Van Rossum announced the creation of the Vicariate Apostolic of Iceland, and in 1929 Montfort priest Martin Meulenberg, (d.1941) was ordained as bishop. The cathedral of Landakot was also constructed during this period; for many years it would be the largest church in Iceland.
A resurgence of interest in the Church continued prior to World War II, with literature reflecting aspects of the Catholic faith and the growth of the Catholic community. A Carmelite convent was opened in Hafnarfjördur, while schools and hospitals run by the Church sprang up in other communities. Jóhannes Gunnarsson, the first Icelandic bishop in three centuries, was ordained in 1943. Iceland became independent of Danish rule in 1944.
Reykjavik was made a diocese in the mid-1960s, and by 2000 Iceland had four centers of Catholicism—Reykjavik, Hafnarfjördur, Stykkisholmur and Akureyri—although the majority of the country's Catholic minority made their home in Reykjavik. While the Icelandic government financially supported the Lutheran Church as the state church, freedom of religion was guaranteed in the country's constitution and continued to be protected in full. In the 1990s a church registration and tax was imposed by the government, with a portion of the proceeds distributed to the Catholic Church.
By 2000 Iceland had 12 priests, 4 parishes, 9 churches and one school, the Lankdakot School located in Reykjavik, which provided religious instruction to over 160 students. Religious instruction was also provided by Iceland's public schools, although debate had risen by 2000 over whether such instruction should be "Christian" in nature or more inclusive of a variety of religions. In June 2000 Iceland celebrated its first millennium of Christianity by hosting a representative of Pope John Paul II at ecumenical festivals around the country.
Bibliography: Sources. Diplomatarium Islandicum (Copen-hagen-Reykjavik 1857–), 16 v. to 1956. f. jÓnsson (Johannaeus), Historia ecclesiastica Islandiae, 4 v. (Copenhagen 1772–78). "Die Kirche in Island," v.2 of Ekklesia, ed. f. siegmend-schultze (Leipzig 1937). Literature. b. thÓrdarson, Iceland Past and Present (2d ed. New York 1945). h. p. briem, Iceland and the Icelanders (New York 1945). j. c. f. hood, Icelandic Church Saga (London 1946). e. o. sveinsson, Age of the Sturlungs: Icelandic Civilization in the 13th Century, tr. j. s. hannesson (Ithaca, NY 1953). v. waschnitius, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 3:932–935. w. gÖbell, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, eds., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 5:799–801. g. schwaiger, Die Reformation in den nordischen Ländern (Munich 1962) 86–99, 165–166, bibliog. Scandinavian Churches, ed. l. s. hunter, (New York 1965). Annuario Pontificio (1965) 753.
[m. p. jakobsson/eds.]