On the border with Russia near the Arctic Circle, Finland is a country known for its chilly temperatures, efficient education and health care systems, and high quality of life, having been ranked the world’s happiest country by a United Nations survey this year.
It is also home to one of the world’s smallest, most scattered Catholic populations: one diocese for an entire country the size of Italy, with only eight parishes and about 30 priests. And until last fall, the Diocese of Helsinki — which ministers to some 17-18,000 Catholics — had been without a bishop since 2019.
The wait ended on Sept. 29, 2023, when Pope Francis named 54-year-old Spaniard Father Raimo Goyarrola Belda, a priest of Opus Dei and former physician who was sent to Finland 17 years ago as a missionary, to fill the post. Since no Catholic church there can hold much more than 100 people, his ordination as a bishop last November was held in a Lutheran church in Helsinki.
What’s it like being a Catholic in one of the world’s richest countries, but poorest dioceses? The following is a translated version of our conversation, edited for brevity.
Bishop, can you describe what the Church in Finland looks like?
Finland is similar to Italy in land area, but only has a population of 5 1/2 million. So the distances are huge. But thanks to ecumenism, here in Finland there’s a lot of love among us Christians, especially the Lutheran and Orthodox churches, which let us use their churches to celebrate holy Mass. That allows us to offer Mass in non-Catholic, Christian churches at least once a month in 25 cities where there’s no Catholic parish.
It’s a very small church, but a church that’s very alive, with lots of children and baptisms. It grows. Many migrants and refugees have been arriving here over the years, from places like Poland and Vietnam. From Latin America, many have come from Cuba, Argentina, and Chile. Now more are coming from Nicaragua and Venezuela.
There’s also a wave of migration from Africa, from countries where there’s a lot of violence, especially Nigeria and Cameroon.
We’re a church with a lot of “local” baptisms but also those of migrants and refugees. And we’re growing a lot.
We’re a very poor church. The government doesn’t help us. The support comes from [Mass] collections, and our collections are very small because the people don’t have money. Then we need to keep the heat on pretty much year-round, and that’s very expensive. Yes, Finland is a rich, developed country, but prices are very high here.
I’m convinced that we’re the poorest church in Europe, and perhaps one of the poorest in the world. This diocese is also very young. We’re growing and I’m working toward having an actual diocesan infrastructure, including a chancery building (which we don’t have)! I dream of a diocesan retreat house, of a property to have youth camps. I dream of having a Catholic school, which we don’t have. I dream of a home for the elderly, one that also offers palliative care. I have a long list of dreams!
There’s also the war with Ukraine close by. Sharing a border with Russia, the electricity rates have risen a lot. Being poor has its benefits, but the truth is that sometimes we’re pushed to the edge.
What do you mean when you say being poor, in the sense of a ‘poor church,’ has its benefits in a country like Finland?
The advantage of being a poor church is that you have to focus on God. Because sometimes when we have means, when we have money, when we build … we have the temptation of thinking that it’s we that do things.
You think it was you that built this school? That built this parish? In our “wish list” we need more parishes, because we’re currently using 25 non-Catholic, Christian churches for services, but in the future we’ll need 25 new Catholic church buildings. When you don’t have money, you trust more in God, of course!
When I went to Germany once, I was told, “Look, we have a lot of money here, but perhaps little faith. You in Finland have little money, but a lot of faith. You guys have a future!
Poverty helps you not to get attached to many things. When you have a lot of money, you look for more money. When you have little money, you realize what’s actually necessary. You don’t fill yourself with superfluous things. That helps me.
How is a Catholic supposed to evangelize in a secularized country like Finland?
As Pope Francis says: it’s the witness of each person, wherever one may be. Evangelization begins with one’s own self, giving Jesus space: one’s own conversion and prayer life, their sacramental life.
How do we bring Jesus to others once he’s in us? First, be careful and be a good Christian. The Gospel starts wherever you are: with your husband, your wife, your kids, your grandmother, your parents, whoever’s in that first circle.
Then, living as good Christians with your neighbors, your sports buddies or teammates on the soccer team at school, or at work: Sometimes, the witness you give is as simple as making the sign of the cross before eating lunch.
We’ve already gotten through the COVID pandemic, but there are other viruses here around wintertime. Well, there’s also a virus called the New Evangelization. It’s a contagious virus that produces positive effects, like joy and peace. It’s a divine virus. And we are the “carriers” of that peace and have to “infect” with kindness, friendship, consolation, with the word we give to the person next to us.
Then there’s the digital world. You can infect people there with programs and other things too!
I think of the first Christians: There was no internet or cellphones back then, nor big projects or structures. How did the early Church grow in a pagan world? The families, the laity, that one priest who went around … all this was the Church!
Now we’re into synodality, and I see it: we are all Church. Monday morning at school, at work, or working out at the gym, you are the Church. It’s a very big, very beautiful responsibility.
How did you end up in Finland?
I got here 17 years ago. In 2005, there was a 50th anniversary celebration for the Diocese of Helsinki. The bishop invited bishops from around the world, including the prelate of Opus Dei. He asked him to please send him a priest, and [the prelate] answered that he didn’t have extra priests! But the bishop insisted, they thought of me and I said yes.
I am in love with Finland. I’m Finnish already, it’s in my heart, my head, and my passport. This is my country and I want to live and die here.
What made you fall in love with such a cold country, where the Church is so materially poor?
I arrived on a sunny day, it was 73 degrees. Everything was green, the sea looked beautiful. That helped me.
Then I met the Finns, and I made many friends quickly. I felt welcomed, I loved the language and I started learning it. Finns are honorable, hard-working, and simple people.
There were about 7-8,000 Catholics when I got here, now we’re about 17-18,000. I fell in love with the possibility of building up the Church here, in a big country at the end of the world: In Spanish, “Fin-landia” basically means “the end of the world,” and I saw myself like the first Christians who traveled very far, “to the ends of the world.”
And I did fall in love with the circumstances. It’s true that in my case, when God calls you, God also helps you. I see how God has given me many graces to live in this country and love it with all my heart.
Have you ever gotten discouraged with the situation during your time in Finland?
Honestly, I’ve never gotten discouraged. It’s a grace of God, but I’ve never asked myself, “What am I doing here, what mess did I get myself in?”
It’s been like that since the beginning. As soon as I got here I felt something enormous, a great love, a great hope, a dream of building up the Church in all of Finland. That dream continues, and I think it’s grown with the grace of being a bishop.
Starting this new year 2024, what do you see ahead as the future of the Church in Finland?
I see a young church, dynamic, growing, and missionary, that’s responsible for bringing the Word of God to all of Finland.
That means bringing Jesus in the sacrament, too. I dream of having Masses all over the country where people can be fed by the body of Christ. At the end of the day, it’s about bringing Jesus to the whole world, so that in any corner of this country where there’s a Catholic, the Word of God and the Eucharist may be offered. That’s my dream as a shepherd.
I was with Pope Francis a few weeks ago before my episcopal ordination. He often says that he likes shepherds who smell like their sheep. I told him that in my case, there’s no sheep here, but there are reindeer. I told him I want to be a shepherd who smells like reindeer, and he laughed quite a bit.
That’s my mission: to bring Jesus to Catholics so they can have Jesus, so they can bring Jesus to others. The Church is an unbreakable chain!
What can the universal Church learn from the experience of the Church in Finland?
First of all, I’d say the responsibility of each Catholic. In many schools here, there are kids who are the only Catholic students in the school. It’s the same for many who work.
It’s an adventure, something positive, because if I’m the only Catholic here, I have that personal responsibility to announce the Gospel. The other option is to be camouflaged, “low profile,” so that no one finds out you’re Catholic. No! If you’re Catholic here, you’re the only one, and what you don’t do, no one else will do, either.
The second thing that Finland offers is ecumenism. Here there’s a trust, a friendship, a love among Christians and we want to evangelize together. We want to become one so that the world may believe, as Jesus says in the Last Supper (John 17:21)
In such a secularized society, it’s necessary that we be one. That’s why I believe ecumenism is the key to the future of humanity. Perhaps America is not moving as quickly away from God, but here in Europe, the Christian spirit is dying — and at an incredible pace.
St. Pope John Paul II said that the third millennium would either be Christian or not Christian. He was a prophet in a lot of things, and I truly believe that in this third millennium we Christians all have a marvelous mission to bring Jesus to the world. Because if not, this world is going to end.
Although the dynamic is quite different, it’s interesting that the Diocese of Helsinki has something in common with the Archdiocese of LA: they’re both churches of immigrants. What role do Catholic immigrants have in Finland?
That’s an important and difficult question. There are now more than 100 different nationalities represented in Finland. For the Catholic Church, I think diversity of culture and language is a richness because we’re the “Catholic” (meaning “universal”) Church.
We’re called to all peoples, all cultures, all languages. So the key is: What’s authentic Catholicism look like in this sea of diversity? I think that what unites is Catholic, what separates isn’t Catholic. If an activity, or a thought, or something we do is going to unite peoples of other races, languages, and cultures, that’s Catholic. If it’s Catholic, it lasts.
First, one who comes from outside contributes their own culture. They also contribute a different vision of life. For example, African culture cherishes family, life, and that breathes air into European culture, where individualism is king: Me, me, and then me. That leaves no room for the family!
I think other cultures can enrich Finland’s culture. It’s true that Finnish is very difficult. In fact, many immigrant refugees prefer Germany or Sweden because the Finnish language is so complicated, and that’s an obstacle for older people. So what happens? Older people arrive with their children, and the children who learn Finnish end up integrating. They become Finns. I think Catholics in general integrate well in society, at work, with friends, in school. So that second generation is already Finnish.
So the challenge is that first generation that arrives. And when they arrive, many are fleeing wars, persecution … so it’s a beautiful social work. The Church here also helps those who arrive here socially.
Also, it’s not as easy to find work in Finland as in America. Those who come to Finland come perhaps because they haven’t found opportunities to go other places. And we understand that, and we know that those people need more help than others.