Shining the Light of God on Top of the World
Written by Jeanne Conte
The brightness of Norway’s people glows at the Arctic Circle, where Catholicism grows.
How does the light of God shine in the northernmost Catholic Church in the world, St. Michael Catholic Church, which rises high within the Arctic Circle of Norway? It shines brightly indeed, this light, within a parish of more than 1,400 souls comprising around fifty ethnicities and spread over 18,667 square miles—an area larger than Denmark. Why does this matter to American Catholics? Our world today is much “smaller” than the one our grandparents lived in. Advancements in communication and transportation take us around the world in a fraction of the time of generations past. Because we are in tune with our body, if a part hurts, we feel that pain; similarly if one part of the body of Christ on earth is hurting, and we know them, we also experience their pain. Taking the time to connect with churches throughout the world offers us the opportunity to help one another. At the very least, it allows us to better understand our extended Catholic family; learn how they cope, and how they feel God’s joy and share it with the world. St. Michael Church Today Fr. Wojciech Egiert is the pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Hammerfest, Norway, a city of 10,000 found within the Arctic’s 70th Parallel. It’s built on an island washed by the Norwegian and Barents Seas. With neither assistants nor deacons since 1986, he pastors St. Michael’s as well as St. Joseph Catholic Church in the town of Alta. Each Sunday, Fr. Egiert travels 175 miles round trip between the two churches. “I only missed four Sundays last year,” he says, “because of extreme snows.” He shows a picture of snow so high it covers the first story of his two-story church. “I shovel my own snow,” he adds, then smiles and clarifies. “This is not the usual— we don’t often have so much.” Hammerfest is built around a deep-water cove—a natural harbor—hugged by steep hills with little vegetation, so avalanches are a constant danger in winter. When asked how he manages to visit his parishioners who are spread over so many miles of arctic tundra in this Norwegian Lapland and whether he encounters any wild animals while traveling, Fr. Egiert replies in good humor: “When I visit the Catholics out of town, I use a car.” He explains how the government clears all Norwegian roads, even in the Arctic. “There are no attacks from wild animals,” Fr. Egiert adds with a smile in his eyes. “Close to the Russian border, there are some bears that love to eat sheep. I suppose the bears find the priest too old to be eaten.” A parishioner, Lucia Acevedo, who speaks admiringly of Fr. Egiert, acts as a translator. “Fr. Egiert speaks or understands several languages,” she explains. “And did you see the flowers around the church and on the field beside it? He starts each one from seed.” The church is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a field of flowers blooming in Norway’s summer sun that shines both day and night. “The small park in front of the church is called by the parishioners ‘Mariaparken,’” Fr. Egiert explains. There, a statue of Mary stands surrounded by curving vines while flowers bloom at her feet. On a low wall around the garden, the words of St. Luke are inscribed in fourteen languages: “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). “More than 95 percent of Catholics in Norway are from abroad,” Fr. Egiert explains as Lucia shares a sheet listing the nationalities of their parishioners who have come from some fifty different countries, including those in South America, Africa, Europe (including Scandinavia), and the Middle East. Being an immigrant church, parishioners at large struggle to care for their families. Yet in spite of their struggles and differing backgrounds, the feel among this congregation is warm and loving.