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‘Isä Raimo’ - The bishop casting deep in frozen Finland

I’m in Helsinki.

I walk through slippery streets, from St. Henry's Cathedral to the bishop's rectory, located in a residential neighborhood in south Helsinki — near the sea.

The iced over Gulf of Finland. Credit: Edgar Beltran/Pillar Media.

This time of year, there is not much sea at all. As far out as I can see, the Gulf of Finland is completely frozen over. 

The last two weeks in Helsinki had days of -25 and even -30 degrees Celsius. That’s pretty cold — and typical for life in the capital city at the top of the world.

But this week the temperatures increased. 

I mean, “increased”— most days it is still -3 or -4 degrees, with occasional moments of 1 or 2 degrees, which has slightly thawed the snow in the city. I’m from Venezuela. I’m not used to this.

When I arrive at the address I’m walking toward, I don't see anything to tell me I’m at the bishop’s house. If there is sign, it’s written in Finnish. I don’t read Finnish. 

I’m a little bit uncertain what to do — until I look at the door. Over the entrance, I see something Catholic — the typical Epiphany house blessing, written in chalk. This one is kind of old — it says: “20 + C + M + B + 21.”

I’d expect the bishop’s house to have a current blessing — though in fairness, the Diocese of Helsinki had been a vacant see since 2019, when Bishop Teemu Sippo resigned over health complications after suffering a fall. 

Sippo had been the first bishop born in Finland since the Protestant Reformation.

But the vacancy ended last year. On November 25, 2023, Basque priest Fr. Raimo Goyarrola was ordained Bishop of Helsinki, with his diocese covering all of Finland.

Bishop Raimo Goyarrola Credit: Diocese of Helsinki

The consecration was celebrated in the Lutheran Johanneksen Kirkko, because it can seat 10 times more people than the Catholic cathedral — 2,000, instead of 200. 

They call the place Church of John, without the “Saint” appellation — which people in Finland keep pointing out to me, to remind me, I guess, that we’re not in a Catholic country anymore.

Almost 2,000 people from all over Finland attended the consecration, including most Lutheran and Orthodox Finnish bishops, and all the Catholic bishops of northern Europe and the prelate of Opus Dei, of which Goyarrola is a priest.

Bishop Raimo Goyarrola at his 2023 installation Mass. Credit: Diocese of Helsinki.

When I get to the door of his house, Isä Raimo — that’s “Father Raimo” to us — is waiting for me.

“Welcome to my ‘palazzo,’” Isä Raimo says with some irony.

The episcopal residence is a comfortable house in a good neighborhood of Helsinki, but if you’ve seen traditional European episcopal palazzos — in Budapest, Vienna, or Utrecht— you’ll quickly understand the irony of Bishop Raimo’s joke.

To be sure, the Diocese of Helsinki is complex. Officially, it has about 17,000 registered Catholics. But officials estimate that the number is actually much higher, more than 30,000.

“The refugees who arrive are first assigned by the government to various areas of the country, normally very far to the north, where there is almost no presence of the Church and it is difficult for them to move from there, so you have to go to them and sometimes it takes a long time before we locate them or they reach us,” Goyarrola tells me.

Because of that dynamic, the Catholics of Finland can be divided into two groups: A majority of them live in Helsinki, and the rest are spread evenly across the whole country, with no specifically Catholic region anywhere. 

And to cover a territory comparable to Italy, but much colder and more remote, the diocese has only about 30 priests.

I ask the bishop about his plans over the next few days, while I’ll be in Finland, and he laughs. After four years of a vacant see, there is a lot to do — and the outdated front door blessing isn’t high on his task list.

That week, Goyarrola received a bishop from northern Europe who would celebrate Mass with expats from his country. Then he met with a journalist from The Pillar, me. After our meeting, he was visited by a Lutheran pastor who had recently converted to Catholicism, and then the superior of a religious order. Then, he met with a nurse at an elder care facility, whose owner wants to reach a management agreement with the diocese.

We talked on Jan 25: “It's just two months since the ordination,” Goyarrola tells me. He pauses for a minute, and grins.

“It's been a non-stop two months,” he laughs.

Despite an almost constant smile, the bishop’s fatigue is evident. He pauses often when speaking and apologizes that he seems tired.

“But the truth is that this is amazing, wonderful, I have received a lot of love from people,” he adds.

Bishops process in the snow during Bishop Raimo Goyarrola’s installation Mass. Courtesy photo.

When I ask him about future projects in the diocese, the bishop shifts in his seat, leaning forward, like he’s ready for action, going into attack mode.

He begins to speak with his usual Basque cadence — when he’s excited, Goyarrola talks fast.

“Now, we have several things to do. We have an old convent from Carmelites who were quite elderly and returned to the United States. We want to create there a spiritual center, which functions as a retreat house and holds conferences, weekend meetings for young people, etc.” he adds.

“The other thing is the Catholic school. We want a Catholic school, we want to take the first steps. In two weeks I have a meeting for that, and we want to start in 2025.”

I ask Goyarrola if he already has land for the school. He looks unconcerned when he tells me no.

“I'm talking to potential teachers, looking for a director. We don't want it to be managed directly by the diocese, we already have enough work. I want it to be in good hands, but not managed directly by the diocese,” he tells me.

“We are thinking about doing the school in the city of Espoo, which borders Helsinki and where there are 6,000 or 7,000 Catholics, about a third or a quarter of the country's Catholics, depending on which statistic you use.”

He’s on to the next topic.

“A nurse who works in a semi-private retirement home will come to see me today. The owner is already old and is thinking about what to do, so I want to see the place and maybe see if we could manage it,” he adds.

“It doesn't need much work because it's already set up. We would have to build a chapel, change a few other things, and appoint a chaplain, but little more than that,” he tells me.

He shifts again.

“I am also talking to another architect, because we have land where we want to build a youth camp: A simple, multifunctional house that can be used for youth activities,” he concludes.

He pauses for a second. He takes a breath, and steps back from the specifics.

“As you see, I'm throwing lines into the sea and some of them will catch fish,” he says with a laugh. 

As we talk, Goyarrola casts a few more: 

“We have more practical things too —a new email system because the one we have now doesn't work well; and we need to modernize the website to improve the digital apostolate.”

“In addition, I am surprised by the national and social interest in the Church in Finland. I had an interview yesterday with a local reporter and next week I have another one. I'm approaching 50 interviews.”

He wonders about the media attention. 

“I guess I seem a bit unusual in Finland, don't I? Finnish and Basque, doctor and bishop … And ‘young and dynamic,’” he quotes from a recent profile, “but especially young.” The bishop laughs at his public profile.

I ask if he has plans for new parishes. There are only eight parishes in all of Finland.

From those parishes, priests travel to more than 25 cities, visiting most of them at least monthly, to celebrate Masses for communities where there are no Catholic churches. At those outposts, Mass is celebrated in Lutheran or Orthodox churches, in family homes or even in school gymnasiums.

“It is a necessity, but I think that first we would seek to establish chapels of our own, which are connected to parishes. We still don't have priests who could be residing there, so it can't be a parish, but at least a place of its own,” he says.

“For example, in Vantaa, which is a city northwest of Helsinki, we have a chapel that can hold 50 people, but 100 go to Mass, so in one or two years we should have something bigger,” he adds.

“I will soon hold a meeting with all the priests to update with them where the Catholics in the country are, because many people are arriving, others are leaving, and others are moving within Finland,” he tells me.

“There are cities where 15 years ago there were many Catholics and today there are fewer, and other cities where there were almost none and now they are present. This is a society with a lot of mobility, so we have to adapt.”

Consider a few examples of that mobility:

The city of Oulu had a dozen Catholics in the ‘90s, today it has about 1,000.

The city of Rovaniemi, further north, barely had any Catholics 15 years ago, but a few years ago a large group of Burmese refugees arrived, some of whom are Catholic. At least 40 Buddhists have converted to Catholicism in recent years.

“This is why we need to update the Catholic geographical map, to see where we are, because perhaps in some city the Mass is not especially needed, but we should shift it to another where there are twice as many Catholics,” the bishop adds.

“Two days ago I founded Juventus Catholica,” he tells me, moving on to another project. 

“They are a group of young people who are going to help at the diocesan level to organize youth retreats, three times a year for now, and the Finnish Youth Day, for the first time,” he explains.

“They are very active young people who are going to enhance this work because while it is true that we need more parishes, for that to work we need more vocations.”

I take that opportunity to ask the bishop about another “line” he has cast into the water: how to get more priests.

“Today I'm meeting with the superior of a religious order who is visiting, let's see if he sends us more priests,” he says, laughing. 

“I am speaking with several congregations, with female orders, especially contemplatives, because I think that everything is born from prayer. We need the power of prayer from contemplative communities,” he adds.

“And of course, whoever wants to come is welcome. I am open. But it is not easy …. you have to learn the language, which is not easy at all.” 

“Maybe in other dioceses they make things a little easier for religious communities to establish themselves, but I am very honest, I tell communities that they have to be autonomous, that they are welcome, but that we do not have resources,” he says.

He stops briefly, to tack toward another project.

“When I was in Rome [recently], I spoke with several theology professors with the idea of ​​being able to form a theological school, which would be the seed of a seminary,” he tells me.

Helsinki diocese does not have its own academic seminary. 

When there is a local vocation, seminarians are sent to Rome or France for their studies, and then return to be ordained. 

There is a Redemptoris Mater seminary in Finland, with formation provided by the Neocatechumenal Way. Eleven seminarians are enrolled, from all over the world. The men, who will eventually be ordained for the Helsinki diocese, study online at the University of Lugano.

But Goyarrola thinks the diocese is ready for a school of theology of its own.

“A theological school would serve to train permanent deacons, because several married people have already asked me to be deacons. Deacons would be a great help, so that certain communities can have more access to the sacraments, so we want that quickly,” he adds.

“And there are some Lutheran pastors who have converted to Catholicism who want to be priests. Some others who remain Lutherans have told me that if the door was opened to them to be ordained priests, they would convert. We already have experiences of Lutheran pastors converting to Catholicism and becoming ordained priests in Norway and Sweden, so we are evaluating that possibility — but with caution,” he tells me.

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Goyarrola takes a breath again. He’s been talking for a while.

“I have many projects, how do you see it?” He laughs at the size of the task ahead of him. Then he plunges back in. 

"And there is more. Now we are going to the second phase of the ecumenical dialogue with the Lutheran Church, after a first dialogue on the Eucharist and the ministry in which we saw that we have many points in common,” he adds.

“On Monday all the Lutheran bishops of the country received me, and afterwards the Lutheran pastors of Helsinki organized a meeting with me. In February, meetings for the first ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church in Finland begin,” he tells me.

“The Vatican has already sent us some advice to begin that dialogue,” he adds.

The Finnish Orthodox Church, under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is one of the two historical denominations in Finland, along with the Lutheran Church. Finland was part of the Russian Empire for more than 100 years, which is why several areas of the country have significant Orthodox minorities.

About 70,000 Finns are Orthodox, which is about 1% of the country’s population.

“We have received feedback from several Lutheran churches about what they do not understand or what was left hanging in the first document, so we are seeing what we focus on. I think a main theme will be collegiality, synodality, seeing Peter's role in all of this. The episcopate can also be a topic, we have a session in the spring to specify what we will talk about,” he adds.

He takes a breath again. He looks at his watch. It’s noon.

“Should we pray the Angelus and then have lunch?”

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…

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We sit for lunch. At the bishop’s table that day is the diocesan judicial vicar, two diocesan employees, and a visiting Polish priest.

At lunch we talk about how difficult the Finnish language is to learn.

Bishop Goyarrola is Basque, so I tell him that if he already knows Basque and Finnish, he should go for Hungarian, to speak the three most difficult languages ​​in Europe.

He responds with a list: “I don't speak Spanish well, I don't speak Basque well, I don't speak Finnish well, much less can I speak Hungarian. Although we do have a Hungarian priest who comes to celebrate Mass for the Hungarian community.” 

We sit down again to talk after the meal. Before I ask a question, Goyarrola starts telling me about his episcopal consecration.

“It is very nice that after two months many pastors continue to tell me that they have not seen anything like that Mass. It was a spectacular thing, we were very united. There were all the Orthodox and Lutheran bishops, the Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal communities, and many Catholic bishops, all united.”

“The interest in Catholicism in a country that has no Catholic tradition at all is notable. On December 6, Finland’s independence day, the president invited me to the presidential house for an ecumenical religious service. I went, and together with the Lutheran and Orthodox bishops, we blessed the president and the entire nation,” Goyarrola says, seeming still incredulous that he had the opportunity.

“When I greeted the president at the reception afterward, and introduced myself, he tells me ‘yes, yes, I know you, I know who you are’ and thanked me for praying for him.”

He then remembers another project underway:

“Today a survey is coming out from the Medical College on what Finnish doctors think about euthanasia, which is a highly discussed topic at the moment in the country and that survey will have enormous political weight,” he tells me.

“I am a doctor and that is why I have been very involved in this, the solution is palliative care. I am convinced that those who support euthanasia do not understand what euthanasia is and do not understand what palliative care is.”

When it was released, the survey indicated that around 55% of Finnish doctors support euthanasia, although only 29.3% say their support is strong. Forty percent oppose euthanasia, with 29% saying they strongly disagree. The survey analysis indicated that the majority of doctors working in palliative care are opposed to euthanasia.

As Goyarrola tells me about it, the tone of his voice changes. He gets serious, and leans forward toward me. 

“As a doctor, how can I be in favor of killing someone? I can't kill someone. This is all a political decision, without a medical or scientific basis.” 

“It’s pure ideology,” he says. “But we have to keep fighting. It is not enough to say ‘no to euthanasia!’ and do nothing. We need to say yes to life, yes to palliative care.”

“I have the advantage that I am a doctor and I am involved in these issues. A year ago we founded the Association of Catholic Health Professionals,” he adds.

The bishop tells me that an oncologist had come to see him recently, and asked him to give a talk on spirituality and palliative care to the medical staff at a Helsinki hospital, some 60 doctors and nurses. He was shocked, the bishop said, that the doctor asked if he might bless the hospital.

“Imagine that, there is not a single Catholic, but I will give them a talk and bless the hospital. That is the Church going out, it is going out to find people where they are. I just threw another rod there,” he says, laughing.

The conversation turns to evangelization. It is no secret that Finland is one of the most secularized countries in Europe.

“Many are seeking the truth and getting closer to God through digital media. For a bishop I'm young, but at the end of the day I'm from another generation,” he tells me.

Goyarrola takes his phone from his pocket. “I use this thing, but I use it to make calls. That’s like another world to young people,” he says, laughing again.

“So with this Juventus Catholica association we want to start a digital evangelization project.”

“We have a very beautiful challenge, because Catholics have a message that is super attractive: marriage, family, children, life, education, freedom. They are values ​​with a Christian background, but they must be made known,” he says.

“We must give a new face to the Church. In recent years a lot of garbage has fallen on us, many times it’s real, sometimes it’s exaggerated and sometimes it’s lies. But the Church is wonderful because it reflects Christ, we are the body of Christ.”

“It is giving this positive message in a society full of war, corruption, depression, sadness, suicide, showing people that the Church is a mother, who welcomes, who caresses, who embraces. People need tenderness, they need a positive message. Again, it is not saying ‘no to euthanasia,’ it is saying ‘yes to life, yes to caring for and accompanying and loving those who suffer,’” he adds.

“In addition, the presence of the bishop in so many interviews is a wonderful sign of the presence of the Church, because they are inviting me to forums that are neither Catholic nor Christian. And that’s not because it's me, it's because we have a message which attracts, and people are thirsty for spirituality, they are thirsty for God,” he tells me.


Before we had begun our conversation, I had asked the bishop if he had any place where I could pray for a while. The next few days would be busy for me, traveling around Finland getting to know the reality of the Church in the country. I wanted to make the most of a few minutes in the presence of the Lord.

Credit: Edgar Beltran/Pillar Media.

For a while, I thought he had forgotten about the request. But as we talk, Goyarrola seems to remember.

“Do you want to see my chapel?”

He asks with a bit of irony: the bishop’s personal chapel is a small, very simple room. 

But it was also a meaningful place for Goyarrola.

“This chapel was the bishop's bedroom, which he gave to Saint John Paul II when the pope visited Helsinki in 1989. So JPII slept here, and the bishop went to the living room sofa, I guess,” Goyarrola said, again laughing.

He points me to a photo of a reflective-looking John Paul II, framed on the wall of the chapel. 

“This photo was taken as the pope returned to Rome from Helsinki that year. I like to think that he was praying for Finland at that time. That helps me turn to his intercession,” he adds.

Credit: Edgar Beltran/Pillar Media.

The bishop looks at his watch, and bids me goodbye.

He says he has meetings, Masses, a party with an immigrant community. He’s busy. If there’s a theme to his life, it’s that he’s busy.

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But while I am in Finland, the bishop continues to make time to talk. He talks with me like he talks with a lot of people — like he wants to learn what he can about how to take up the mission of his office.

A few days after our first meeting, as we prepare to meet together with Lutheran bishops, I ask Bishop Goyarrola how he sees the future of the Finnish Church.

“We are a poor Church, but we are growing. We are a Church of refugees and young people, so although the people are generous there is not much money,” he tells me.

“But these people are like the widow of the Gospel, those two coins of absolute generosity are the engine of our growth. You can see the fruits of that generosity in the conversions,” he adds.

He starts laughing. He’s thinking of a joke.

“Now, it wouldn't be bad if a rich Pharisee came by and donated two talents to us, eh?”

"It's hard. We have a lot of problems. But I totally trust in the Lord.” 

“I am not afraid of anything because we have Jesus,” Goyarrola reflects. He seems to mean it.

And with that, Isä Raimo walks off down the hallway, starting to tell me about another project. 

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