The Catholic community in the Faroe Islands is facing an uncertain future following the departure of its resident priest, partly due to the strict conditions imposed on foreign “religious workers.”
Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, a priest of England’s Liverpool archdiocese, had served the community in the North Atlantic archipelago since his arrival in October 2020, after the first wave of COVID-19.
“We moved from about 25 to 35 attending [Mass] during COVID to 80 to 95 most Sundays recently, boosted slightly by summer visitors,” he told The Pillar in an Aug. 30 email interview.
The Faroe Islands is a grouping of 18 rugged islands located between Iceland and Scotland. It has a population of around 55,000 people and, like Greenland, is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.
For an almost 500-year period up to the Reformation, Catholics on the islands belonged to the Diocese of the Faroe Islands. But in modern times, the Faroe Islands are part of the Catholic Diocese of Copenhagen, based in the Danish capital.
Small but growing
Msgr. Fleetwood said that in his nearly three years as the resident priest, he was able to visit nine of the 18 “astoundingly beautiful” islands, but was hampered by the lack of a car.
“There are just over 300 people registered in the parish, though I know there are many more Filipinas who have never registered,” he said. “There are confirmations every two years and First Communions every year, but always numbers you can count on the fingers of one hand.”
“Sacramental preparation has been taken care of by the Sisters, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. I was involved only slightly, since I do not speak Faroese fluently enough.”
Fleetwood said that Mass has been celebrated in Faroese since Holy Week 2021.
“Some Lutheran priests were convinced we did everything in English or Danish, and were amazed to hear I had been celebrating Mass in Faroese,” he said.
“Very few parishioners are native Faroese, so it is mainly a parish of immigrants, our largest contingents being from the Philippines and Poland, with a few Indians, and Africans from Senegal and Nigeria. There are a few Latin Americans.”
The priest, who previously served for seven years at the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome and four years at the headquarters of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) in Switzerland, said that parish numbers had been “creeping up very slowly.”
Two young converts, both Faroese, attended World Youth Day in Lisbon earlier this month, bearing a large Faroe Islands flag.
Msgr. Fleetwood celebrated his last Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, on Aug. 20.
“The main reason I decided to ask my archbishop in Liverpool if I could leave is the Danish law on foreign religious workers,” he said.
“I hardly ever saw my passport in the years I was living in the Faroes, because every time I needed to leave, I had to fill in a form requesting a re-entry permit, and they asked me to make that request at least a month in advance of my planned departure.”
“Twice, the permission had not been granted, and I was on tenterhooks until literally five minutes before the police station closed, when an email mysteriously appeared granting me permission to re-enter the Faroes.”
“I need to tell you that the police service is Danish, and the law on foreign religious workers is Danish, too. The women in the police station were extremely polite and kind, and Faroese. I think I detected a certain embarrassment that they had to treat an aging Englishman as a potential threat to the security of the Kingdom of Denmark.”
Fleetwood said that the travel requirements left him with a sense that his movements were being closely watched “and, in a certain sense, controlled.”
“The police also told me that, if I missed my re-entry date, I would have to go in person to the Danish embassy in London to apply for a re-entry permit to the Faroes,” he recalled. “I couldn’t do it in Copenhagen.”
Citizens of the Nordic countries of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are free to settle in the Faroe Islands for work or study. But people of all other nationalities need to obtain a work and residence permit.
“I am also leaving because I can’t afford to stay,” the priest explained. “The tax regime is vicious, and it means I have actually been paying for the privilege of working in the Faroes.”
“The Diocese of Copenhagen gives me a normal salary, less my United Kingdom state pension, and Faroese income tax rates are between 35% and 52%, so they are taxing my British pension at twice the rate I would be taxed in England.”
He suggested that the tax system was discriminatory because Lutheran clergy belonging to the state Church of the Faroe Islands are not taxed on heating and electricity, while the resident Catholic priest had to pay the tax.
Fleetwood said that, in addition to problems caused by red tape, he suffered at times from a sense of isolation, describing his tenure as “the loneliest assignment I have ever had.” He experienced a particular low point after he was hospitalized at Christmastime in 2022.
In a reminder that parish life might be the same in every part of the world, Fleetwood also said that there was a “little group of discontents” within the Catholic community who he believed had rejected him and spread rumors that he was insufficiently orthodox and even belonged to the Freemasons.
Fleetwood said that as a foreign religious worker, he was required to follow the rules and regulations set out on a Danish Immigration Service’s website, New to Denmark.
He noted that the website maintained an exclusion list, featuring the names and photographs of “foreign religious preachers” banned from entering Denmark out of concern for public order. The list was established in 2016 against a backdrop of Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe, including the 2015 Copenhagen shootings.
“The faces and names on the exclusion list all belong to Muslim clerics whom the Danish state regards as a threat to their national security,” the priest observed. “By implication, they told me over and over again that I, too, merited surveillance and control, in case anything I said incited non-Danish feelings or actions.”
Fleetwood acknowledged that this might sound paranoid. But he said that a section of the website advised foreign religious workers that it was probably better not to return to the Kingdom of Denmark if they heard anything that was not consonant with Danish values while attending a course in their home countries.
He suggested that the guidance sent a “clear message” that “the Danish government sees all religions as potentially dangerous, in the sense that they may sow confusion or encourage practices unacceptable in Danish society.”
He said: “I used to work in the Vatican (in the equivalent of their culture ministry) and was later deputy general secretary of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE), and a big part of my own education was in political philosophy.”
“Those things mean that I am very sensitive to the fact that the European Union [whose members include Denmark] incorporated into its own legislation the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but my experience of Danish legislation has made me feel that everyone subject to the legislation dealing with foreign religious workers, including me, is not currently allowed to exercise freedom of religion or worship.”
“Furthermore, I am stunned that a Western democracy depicts itself as a potential victim of the insidious effects of ideas coming from elsewhere. It also implies that every religion is an ideological construction and potentially dangerous. That tells me that there is now no pretense in those framing legislation on behalf of the Kingdom of Denmark to a Christian heritage. It is a silent but powerful statement that Denmark is no longer Christian.”
In 2021, Catholic leaders expressed alarm at a Danish bill that would require all addresses in liturgical settings, including homilies, to be delivered in Danish or made available in the language.
Fleetwood suggested that the requirement to provide translations, which he said had been suspended but not withdrawn, underlined that the Danish government “ascribes phenomenal power to ideas.”
“It stresses, once again, that all religions are seen as ideologies, and consequently as potentially unsettling for the poor, innocent, pure-minded citizens of the Kingdom,” he commented.
“On a purely pragmatic level, my homilies, like those of many colleagues, may be a good cure for insomnia. To be serious, though, I genuinely pity whoever would get the task of reading all this stuff every week.”
“Alleged neutrality made the government demand this of every foreign religious worker speaking in public in any language other than Danish, but it also means the state cannot behave sensibly.”
“Huge numbers of people in Denmark understand English and German, and a decent number cope well with Spanish, Italian, French, etc. But the truth is, the legislation was originally aimed at preaching delivered in Arabic, Pashtun, Urdu, and Bengali.”
Fleetwood noted that other European countries were also setting more restrictive conditions for foreign workers, including his native U.K.
“It may just be that Denmark is out in front, because of some elements of their current legislation,” he said.
A new blow
Fleetwood believes that following his departure from the Faroe Islands, the territory is unlikely to have an immediate replacement as a resident priest.
“So far, it seems that a priest based in Denmark will be responsible for finding celebrants to go for three Sundays at a time, which was how things worked before I went to live there,” he said.
He suggested that the Church authorities should also consider what to do when the resident deacon, who is in his 70s, retires.
He said that the Catholic community had also recently suffered a new blow.
“By complete coincidence, the Sunday after I left, sisters came from the provincial house of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to inform the parishioners in Tórshavn that the sisters will be leaving the Faroe Islands next year, after 92 years,” he said.
“Everything is now up in the air, and there is no clear solution. My departure is for administrative, financial, and psychological reasons. The departure of the sisters is a policy decision by their institute.”
“In the middle are the poor folk of the parish, who are utterly bewildered. They need prayers from us all, and guidance and courage from the Holy Spirit.”