Words on the Word

St Eystein of Nidaros

Ez 34:11-16: You have broken the yoke.
1 Pet 5:1-4: Tend the flock of God that is your charge 
Lk 22:24-30: I am among you as one who serves.

We relate to the Church’s saints at two levels. The first level presupposes our faith in the communion of saints. The saints are part of a fellowship we, too, belong to. That fellowships transcends limitations in time and space. It is marked by an eternal contemporaneity. ‘Death, where is your sting?’, asks Paul (1 Cor 15.55). Where indeed. In the perspective of faith, death is not final; it is a transition from one condition to another, from life to fullness of life. That is why it is reasonable to address the saints and expect to be heard. We have, of course, to tune our mind and heart to the frequency of eternal life. When we do, we experience a potential for simultaneous conversation that makes the internet, even with 5G, pale into insignificance.

We all know form experience, I think, what close, intimate relationships can be formed across the centuries.

It isn’t pious nonsense to say that through prayer we know the Mother of God, St Joseph, our patron saint – and other saints that providence and the liturgy allow us to meet. Even as a friendship here and now develops over time, it takes time to get close to the saints. Let’s give ourselves time. What happens in daily life happens in the communion of saints. We may meet someone for the first time and find, even before we have said ‘Hello’, that here is a potential friend; here is an opportunity for encounter in reciprocal devotion and freedom. That sort of intuition is worth taking seriously. Our lives our enriched in this way, and we are allowed to enrich others’ lives. After all, we have been created to know, serve and – let’s risk the big word – love one another.

Your parish here in Kristiansund, home of bacalão, is St Eystein of Nidaros. He holds his staff – his bagall, in Old Norse – protectingly over you out here on the Atlantic coast. You go in and out of a church that is the Lord’s house, above all; but it is also Eystein’s. In this way he becomes a familiar presence in your lives. Don’t forget to nurture this presence. Don’t forget to pray to him, to spend a few moments, now and then, in his company. By the pastoral ministry of St Eystein, we hear in today’s collect ‘God led his people in the high north into his own paths’. He does so still. Do pay attention!

I said that we get to know the saints at two levels. So far I have spoken of the personal, relational level, which is primary. In addition we have the historical level. That, too, is important. In order to get to know a friend, we need to know where he or she comes from, what has been decisive in his or her life. This holds for the saints as well. We know quite a lot about Eystein. A great resource is Erik Gunnes’ study, Archbishop Eystein: Statesman and Churchman.

Eystein was born in Børsa about 1120 – back then people weren’t too bothered about counting exact dates of birth. He was born into a prosperous family and was well educated, first here in Norway, then in England and Paris. We easily assume nowadays that we have invented globalisation over the past 20 or 30 years. What nonsense. Eystein was very much a European. That influenced his statesmanship and churchmanship when he was made archbishop of Nidaros – medieval Trondheim – in 1157. He did much to establish Trondheim as a European capital. That is worth remembering in a time in which our horizon narrows inexorably, leading us to lower our gaze from the horizon towards our navel.

A key concern for Eystein was the establishment of a Christian code of law. He lived and worked a century before the national legislation established by King Magnus Lagabøte in 1274, an enterprise we commemorate this year. An important aspect of Christian legislation is this: everyone has a right to recognition under the law, to be considered and respected as a subject. In other words: no potentate, not even the very king, can say of another person: ‘He or she belongs to me; to him or her I do as I please.’ No, legislation is to be universal, not dependent on might or patronage. Every human being is a child of God, equipped with essential dignity from the moment of conception, and deserves to be recognised as such, even if issuing from poverty, even if afflicted with illness or debility.

This is an aspect of Christian legislation to the fore of celebrations envisaged in our country this year. On the programme is an exhibition entitled Miserabiles personae. The website of Moster 2024 explains it: ‘King Magnus Lagabøte’s legislation of 1274 was renowned for its care of the poor. Miserabiles personae is a term indicating the poor and disadvantaged in society.’ These are the people whom the law, based on the Gospel, would protect, as Eystein insisted in his day, leaning on the legacy of St Olav.

It is a gigantic and tragic paradox that the celebration of such a noble disposition coincides this year with a motion for a new abortion law whose predictable finality is the elimination of, precisely ‘the poor and disadvantaged in society’ before they have even seen the light of day, that we might forget all about their existence. The autonomy of unborn life is denied; we foster the lie that an existence invisible to us has no significance. This tendency is spreading quickly in the broader political field. If it is not halted, it will have catastrophic impact. We will have to answer for it.

The memory of Eystein, then, is about more than private devotion or national romanticism. It challenges us. What sort of stewards are we today of the values that 800-900 years ago laid the foundation of our country’s integrity? The question is a pressing one. We can take it for granted that courage will be needed to propose a Christian answer. At the same time creativity is required, for we seem to have quite lost the shared conceptual and terminological framework needed to talk about these things without yielding to rage and departing from the sphere of rational reflection altogether.

St Eystein, pray for us!


A statue of St Eystein adorned in episcopal robes by Norwegian seminarians at the English College in Rome.