Iceland is probably best known by others in the world for its remarkable natural beauty; perhaps, too, for having the world’s oldest parliament, for their meticulous preservation of Norse culture and literature, their admirable national literacy rate, and their exemplary system of renewable energy. Iceland is not, however, particularly known for its noteworthy figures in Catholic history. In fact, few people know much about the Catholic Church in Iceland beyond those practicing the Catholic faith there now, comprising less than five percent of Iceland’s entire population, and consisting largely of immigrants.
Every part of the world has seen its share of holy men and women over the centuries. The very idea of being Christian is to live a life of virtue and charity, so, arguably, the Canon of Catholic Saints is like a “Who’s Who List” of model citizens to emulate from among the hundreds of thousands of other solidly good-living people in human history. It can furthermore be argued that one need not be Christian to lead a virtuous and charitable life, and we say this to emphasize that we are all part of a common humanity called to be generous in caring for one another before we call ourselves anything else.
Iceland saw its native son, Thorlak Thorhallsson, make this list in 1198. Eight hundred and nineteen years ago, in the thick of the Middle Ages, before the big name saints even came onto the world scene... tiny Iceland notched a bona fide canonized saint.
In the same historical period that would later record the lives of household-name saints such as Francis and Clare, Bernard, Benedict, Dominic, Rita and Joan of Arc in other parts of Europe, Thorlak of Iceland got there first.
How did it happen, then, that Thorlak made it into this Who’s Who, the Canon of Catholic Saints, in 1198… and yet is barely known today?
It’s all about timing and placement, even with Catholic saints. Keep first in mind that Thorlak was locally canonized in 1198, as the Pope then was not a world traveler as he is today, and Iceland was extremely isolated geographically. Local canonization was the norm around the world, not just in Iceland. Thorlak’s canonization was thus valid and recognized throughout Europe. However, it did not stop there. In 1984, Pope John Paul II officially recognized Thorlak as a Catholic saint and declared him Patron Saint of Iceland. This statement is a magnificent data point. A pontiff, who himself would be declared a saint, acknowledged and reaffirmed the holy example and patronage of Thorlak seven hundred and eighty six years later. Talk about staying power!
Proclaimed by John Paul II! What an achievement!
Why is Thorlak not widely known?
Timing and placement: Thorlak was a beloved figure in Iceland until the 1500s, when the Catholic religious establishment was razed in the Protestant Reformation. Catholic traditions were obliterated for many years before they would be re-examined centuries later to glean any spiritual good from the remnant of their memory.
We can gratefully thank the diligent Icelandic historians for preserving Thorlak’s name and legacy. As time will do, though, his life’s color has grayed into the shadow of medieval memory. He is catalogued as a strict, no-nonsense bishop who established and enforced rules. He is noted for taking on politically powerful chieftains over their refusal to cede property to the diocese and their reluctance to conform to church rules regarding their behavior. This characterization fits well into the old order, and he certainly did do these things. Iceland, unmatched in maintaining their historical identity, has ensconced him as their Model Medieval Bishop. December 23, the feast day of Saint Thorlak, is marked as a cultural holiday, Þorláksmessa, commemorating him even to this day.
As a Model Medieval Bishop.
It’s pretty hard to relate to that today. It’s harder, still to live it up in celebration of someone who cracked the moral whip and demanded property. And it’s nearly impossible to do so when it is exactly one day before Christmas Eve.
How do we make a meaningful feast day for a saint who did… (what did he do, again?)
We can’t read from his writings. They have been pillaged or destroyed by fire.
We can’t venerate his relics. They, too, were pillaged and destroyed.
We could have a meal that hearkens back to the past, but what we end up commemorating is the preparation for Christmas Eve, not Saint Thorlak himself.
How do we toast a Model Medieval Bishop when his life has absolutely no common context, no application whatsoever to our lives today?
By bringing him present with us. That’s how.
By knowing him. By knowing his story. By realizing his light.
By doing what we call Missionaries of Saint Thorlak to do every day.
To simply notice him and ask: “Can you be our friend?”
Remarkably, if anyone should take the time to pick up the historical texts and start reading, we see what made him a saint in the first place. He was not named “saint” because he was a Model Medieval Bishop. He was recognized as a holy man because he bucked this establishment.
Saint Thorlak’s entire priesthood – in a remote land bound by the Medieval Church – was indeed one of establishing and enforcing rules. But he did so with unprecedented mercy.
Mercy. Now, there’s a word we have all heard. In fact, in 2015, Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, calling on people worldwide to rediscover and embrace compassion, understanding and forgiveness… to reconcile with one another, and with God. To stop living like rule-bound Pharisees and live like Jesus, loving others because we love God and we affirm the presence of God-in-others.
“Mercy” is not a word we associate with the Medieval Church.
Saint Thorlak lived his entire priesthood with unprecedented mercy – at a time when mercy was not widely taught, and was not widely shown… in a country used to making its own rules, whether the Medieval Church agreed or not… in a powder keg of power clashes waiting to happen.
Saint Thorlak lived mercy. He established rules by demonstrating the spiritual motives behind them. He expected the best from his countrymen – but he knew how high the moral standards of the virtuous life were, and how powerless most of us feel to reach that high. He knew the rules, he knew the reasons, and he knew the harsh penances to be assigned to those who didn’t reach them. (Those were not just legend; they were reality.) So, what did he do? He counseled people individually about living more virtuously, determined their penance, and then assigned them a fraction of the prescribed debt of prayer or fasting. The remainder, he took upon himself, and completed for them. He slept little and ate little, between the prayer and fasting he did on behalf of his flock, but worked no fewer hours because of it. He simply denied himself leisure.
Folks: Did you get that? St. Thorlak was a serious, dour-faced bishop because he saw how difficult the Church’s punishments were, and he performed them for us.
Penitents saw what he did for them, and it made them pause. Here was someone with the right to lord power over them and to exclude them from good standing, from the one institution that could help families barely surviving on a remote island that was subject to harsh seasons, rough seas and dangerous weather. Instead of shaming and scolding people for their weakness, he shared in it – without compromising the morality he was teaching. He did not excuse immorality. He pointed it out and proclaimed the better way. But he took the punishment. In everything he did, he showed mercy.
Thorlak lived mercy in many other ways. He personally invited destitute and diseased people to dine and stay with him in his own residence, but he did so in secret, so as not to draw praise for something he felt he ought to do as a matter of course. He championed the dignity of women, taking political leaders to task who openly kept numerous mistresses while wife and children were used for show. He set up funds for poor families so that they could remain together rather than split apart for lack of provisions.
Where are these remarkable stories of Saint Thorlak? Are they legends, exaggerated with retelling, romanticized over time?
No! They are found throughout the same texts cited by historians, starting with The Saga of Bishop Thorlak. They are all right there, in plain sight!
Saint Thorlak is not hidden in the shadows of time. It is, rather, that few people take the time to see the light of his mercy, which was far ahead of its time.
Perhaps the light of Saint Thorlak has been hidden in the shadows of time because he was more a saint for our time.
Last week, we proposed marking Þorláksmessa by letting those in our path know how they bring light to us. Not only is this consistent with the way Saint Thorlak lived, but it brings to life the timely verse from Luke 1:78 as we head toward Christmas: “In the tender mercy of God, light from heaven will break upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness.” (Since we’re talking a feast day in Iceland, we can’t help but notice the play on words at a time when Iceland receives just over four hours of total daylight).
We close with this miracle account from The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, a very literal case of light rising from Iceland: “During the winter, the eve of Maundy Thursday after the death of Bishop Þorlákr, a farmer called Sveinn saw such a great light in Skálholt over Bishop Þorlákr’s tomb that he could hardly see the church for it” (chapter 20).
May we all be witness to this light rising from Iceland. May we be part of it. May we contribute our own light to this celebration of mercy and love of God through the way of Saint Thorlak.
Skálholt in Winter
There will be no Missionary Thought next week as we pray with everyone around the world: Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, PEACE to all people of good will!