To the Presbyterate
The presbyterate of the Prelature of Trondheim met in the Brigittine convent of Tiller 22-24 October 2023. This talk was given by way of introduction.
Forgive me if I set off from a few personal remarks. Three years have passed since I was consecrated bishop. When I arrived here, I had spent thirty years abroad. Norway had became to me a foreign country. I knew the Norwegian Catholic Church by hearsay. I had no personal experience of parish life. Not only had I never been a parish priest; I’d never even been part of an ordinary parish. I had been formed in university chaplaincies and in religious life.
I was minded to proceed cautiously. I first wanted to get to know people and places in the prelature, above all you, dear priests, my closest collaborators. I had heard of abbots going on visitation with the visitation card already written before departure, sure of their analysis based on first principles. I did not want to follow such a method. Trondheim had been without its own bishop for eleven years. That a brand new one should charge ahead on the basis of instinct seemed to me unproductive. In addition we were right in the middle of Covid lockdowns. It wasn’t a time to propose radical initiatives.
The three years that have passed have been good ones for me. After a few months I noticed I no longer broke out in a spontaneous cold sweat when I entered the bishop’s office. It was a sign I was slowly settling in.
After a few months I noticed I no longer broke out in a spontaneous cold sweat when I entered the bishop’s office.
I have been surrounded by great good will. I am often moved by people’s generous fidelity, by the will to build the Church up together, to do ‘something beautiful for God’ as Mother Teresa said. Our communities may be vulnerable, small, but they are marked by evangelical authenticity, by service and prayer and, when needed, by sacrifice. That is in no small measure thanks to you, dear priests. You do precious, fruitful work. People really appreciate you. I really appreciate you! Thank you for the service you perform, for the testimony you give.
You do precious, fruitful work. People really appreciate you. I really appreciate you! Thank you for the service you perform, for the testimony you give.
When I got here, major projects were looming. The nuns on Tautra were extending. The monks at Munkeby were preparing to build their monastery. The basement beneath the cathedral lay formless and void, like the chaos on the first day of creation. Much in the curia needed to be refounded. We have come a long way, thank God. Further, the church in Molde is equipped with a new roof. Even the Yellow House in Ålesund is ready. For a prelature like ours, with few resources, there is a limit to how much can be done at once. But we now have a certain freedom of movement for creative work. That is what I wish to speak of.
Let me begin by say something self-evident: the Catholic Church in Norway has changed a great deal in the past thirty years. This fact invites us to new self-understanding. It calls us to new forms of enterprise.
From the mid-19th century until recently, the Catholic Church in Norway saw itself chiefly as a chaplaincy for migrants and a few converts. It rather appeared, if I may be irreverent, as a fridge designed for the preservation of exotic fruit. This model has done well, but is no longer sufficient.
From the mid-19th century until recently, the Catholic Church in Norway saw itself chiefly as a chaplaincy for migrants and a few converts. It rather appeared, if I may be irreverent, as a fridge designed for the preservation of exotic fruit.
There are, as I see it, two reasons for this. First, Norway has since the late 1980s become multi-cultural. The number of Catholics has increased, making our Catholic population a vocal, considerable part of society. We are no longer as marginal as we were. Secondly, the cultural climate has changed. A Christian reference used to be natural in public discourse. That is so no more. An increasing part of the population considers the Church, the churches, as an irrelevance. We cannot allow ourselves, in these conditions, to put our light under a bushel. We cannot presume that the memory of Christian hope, Christian values, a Christian understanding of man will be upheld by others. We must get on with it.
We cannot presume that the memory of Christian hope, Christian values, a Christian understanding of man will be upheld by others. We must get on with it.
In the light of these twin, indissociable factors, it seems essential that the Catholic Church in Norway should assume an evangelising, missionary character. It is not a matter of being blusteringly triumphalist — that is counterproductive. It is a matter of ensuring that Jesus Christ remains credibly represented in our country, that his name is heard. The harvest is plentiful, the labourers few. That is how it was in the beginning, too (Mt 9.37). We must find a balance between excessive ambition and discouragement. Above all we must remember that the Church is the Lord’s, that he has a plan for it both at the large, global level and at the small, local level. We must let ourselves be used as tools in his hands so that we, by word and example, may invite others into sustaining fellowship.
The harvest is plentiful, the labourers few. That is how it was in the beginning, too.
I want to point towards three especially important areas:
I. Teaching. Formation and catechesis are fundamental. Our world no longer takes faith for granted. It is fascinating and terrible to see how fast a heritage of faith can vanish. We have observed this in Norway for a while; now we see the tendency spreading in previously archcatholic countries like Ireland and Poland. To be a believer today is to swim against the current. People must know and understand why they do it, what goal they move towards. I have established a planning group for catechesis that has started work. Its purpose is to define present needs and resources in order to see what proposals are needed. The Oslo Centre for Catechesis is keen to help. Catechesis is not just about courses to prepare First Communion and Confirmation. We need to create an environment, a culture conveying our Catholic Christian patrimony in fullness as a way of being human, as the basis for a humane society. I invite you to be creative in this respect. Catechesis for adults and children is one thing; catechesis for adults is no less important. In both cases there must be a convivial dimension to what we propose.
To be a believer today is to swim against the current. People must know and understand why they do it, what goal they move towards.
II. Community. A lot is being said and written about the need for fellowship. Loneliness is a problem for public health. People young and old feel cut off. We have projects on the go. Communities for young adults in Trondheim have born fruit. The model could be developed. We are planning a residential community for the elderly in Levanger. The initiative corresponds to urgent need, that is something civil authorities have confirmed. This project will be our prelature’s major undertaking in 2024. If we lays its foundations well, it may perhaps be imitated in other parishes. How can we foster communities in outlying areas? The challenge is ongoing. EWTN Norway provides a local resource full of rich material to nurture prayer and togetherness. Do use it and make it known. The neocatechumenal way provides crucial anchorage for some. The Stella Maris communities have been precious for others. Is there more we could, should, do to centrally coordinate diaspora initiatives? Should we organise gatherings? Or is it best to treat individual situations separately?
Loneliness is a problem for public health. People young and old feel cut off.
III. Oneness. A peculiarly Norwegian Catholic term is ‘ethnic pastoral care’. It was long a cornerstone in pastoral planning. It presupposes the fridge concept. Early in the 2000s, when immigration was compact, it still answered a need. Now the principal task is another: the fostering of unity out of rich diversity. Naturally we will propose adapted measures when needed, in services and courses; but our priority must be to bring Catholics together, not to disperse them in cultural and linguistic groups. This means that Norwegian has to be our common language. To learn a foreign language is hard work, but it is an indispensable part of our apostolic task. The language is simply an essential portal. God has called us to Norway. We have said ‘Yes’ to his call. If faith is to thrive here, also in groups that are not of Norwegian origin, it must be in Norwegian; for it is faced with Norwegian culture, Norwegian needs, Norwegian challenges that the fidelity of individuals will be tested. We cannot turn inward in cozy huddles. The Church is catholic, universal. That must appear in our oneness with one another. Genuine oneness in Norwegian and Catholic terms is a necessity if we are to rise to our task and witness credibly to Christ today, here in this country.
We cannot turn inward in cozy huddles. The Church is catholic, universal. That must appear in our oneness with one another.
These are areas on which I am keen to focus. You all have much to contribute. Thank God, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Much is already in place in our parishes. We have a growing local Caritas with great potential; I would love to see it developed also in smaller parishes. NUK [Norway’s Young Catholics] does important work, but needs to find a more coherent identity and method in the Norwegian Midlands. In the weeks ahead, I will set up a pastoral council to assist the clergy. Our presbyteral college is growing. It is a grace to have the Priests of the Sacred Heart among us; we have a new deacon; we have an Episcopal Vicar for Synodality; and there are young men considering a vocation. On our own, we are all too conscious of our limitations; together, though, we can do great things.
Well, this will have to do be way of introduction. Thank you once again for all you do, for all you are. Let us put our trust in God and ground ourselves in the promises we have made as we abandon ourselves anew into the Lord’s hands, asking him to use us freely for his purposes.
Our help is in the name of the Lord!
Photograph: Jan Erik Kofoed