Pillar subscribers can listen to this story here: The Pillar TL;DR - The parish at the top of the world
Oulu, Finland is cold.
Of course, all of Finland is cold. But Oulu, known as the “capital of northern Finland,” is extraordinarily cold.
Known for its white nights and northern lights, Oulu is about 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. It sees just three hours of mostly indirect sunlight per day in the winter. In all of December, the city receives only about eight total hours of direct sunlight.
When I found out that there is a Catholic parish - Holy Family of Nazareth parish - in Oulu, I knew I had to see it.
When I told him about my plans, Helsinki’s vicar general, Fr. Jean Claude Kabeza, tried to talk me out of the visit.
He kindly suggested that I instead pay a visit to Kuopio, the city with the second northernmost parish in Finland.
“It's about four hours by train from Helsinki and it's less cold,” he told me, emphasizing the word “less.”
But I insisted.
“Oulu? In January? My God…” he responded.
When I arrived in Helsinki, a couple of days before heading to Oulu, I asked Bishop Raimo Goyarrola if the Catholic parish in Oulu is the northernmost in the world.
Almost, he said.
“There are some in the prelature of Tromso, in Norway, which are further north. Oulu is further north than Reykjavik, but maybe there is one in the north of Iceland that is also a little further north of Oulu,” he responded.
Kabeza wished me luck the day before I headed out.
“Don't forget this,” he said, shaking his bottle of vitamin D pills. He knew I’d miss the sunlight.
Father (In Finnish, Isä) Pedro Pérez, a priest serving at Holy Family of Nazareth parish, picked me up at the small airport in Oulu.
“I think you could probably cover almost the entire outskirts of the city on skis,” he told me.
Though Pérez was born in Barcelona, he moved to Oulu as a child.
He had obviously become accustomed to arctic life; he mentioned quite casually that temperatures had hit -22 Fahrenheit the previous week.
But how does someone from Barcelona end up in the very north of Finland? He told me that his family arrived as missionaries to Oulu more than 20 years ago, when the parish was just taking its first steps.
His personal history and that of the parish are intertwined.
Pérez said his paternal grandfather came from the working class after the Spanish Civil War. He fell away from his faith until the Second Vatican Council, when “the Gospel touched him and he fell in love with God,” the priest said.
As he came back to the faith, his grandfather learned about the Neocatechumenal Way, an ecclesial movement founded in 1964 in a working-class area in Madrid, which focuses on Catholic formation and evangelization.
Pérez said his grandparents went on to become missionaries in Japan, connected to the Neocatechumenal Way.
Eventually his parents would also become missionaries, bringing their children on mission with them.
“In 2001 we arrived in Finland,” he said.
“I was 10 years old. I remember very well when they told us that we were going to Finland—because you give your availability to go as a missionary, but it is done by lottery, and we got Finland.”
“I remember searching the encyclopedia about Finland and discussing it with my friends on the soccer team. I also remember asking in prayer: Why us?”
Predictably, the beginnings were difficult.
“I remember well the first day of school: I didn't understand a word. It was difficult, but my father always helped us interpret this suffering with the eyes of faith. That is one of the greatest gifts of my life,” the priest said.
While he initially took his faith seriously, and participated in Opus Dei camps back in Spain as a child, Pérez drew back from faith as an adolescent.
“After three or four years of crisis, of living a bit of a double life, it helped me a lot to go on pilgrimages, to several World Youth Days - the one in Cologne in 2005 and the one in Madrid in 2011 - and I began to see things more clearly,” he said.
In particular, he began to see how his friends were living in broken families.
“Their parents were not married, they were only children, they were alone,” he said. “And my family stayed together, my friends always wanted to be at my house because they saw what a family was, they didn't feel alone,” he said.
“In this society, there is no family that can endure without faith,” he reflected.
Pérez said that as he returned to the faith, he was studying construction engineering and chatting with a girl from the parish. But he realized he was not fulfilled, and fell into a paralyzing depression.
Finally, he said, he realized that only the risen Christ would fulfill him.
“And I went all in,” he said, explaining that he joined the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Helsinki and then spent several years as an international missionary before being ordained a priest.
“Now I am in the parish where I grew up, so there are people here who have known me since I was a child,” he said. “In other places, they receive me as an adult, but here people knew me when I was a child, so it's like, ‘Ah, what are you going to tell me? I’ve known you since you were little’,” he said, laughing.
“But they have been three fantastic years,” he reflected.
The Pope, the Lutherans, and the mayor
When we arrived at the parish, we were greeted by the parish priest, Fr. Donbosco Thomas, originally from India. He was joined by Francesco, an Italian seminarian and missionary, raised in a missionary family in Croatia.
The other priest of the parish, Fr. Francisco García, is on a mission for a few months near the Finnish border with Sweden. I tried to catch the name of the city, but it seemed unpronounceable.
Fr. Pérez showed me the church, which was designed with the goal of integrating with the local architecture.
“If you see it from the outside, it doesn't clash. It blends in with the landscape. Even though it doesn't look like a Lutheran church, which is normally more elongated, it doesn't look strange next to the rest of the local architecture,” he said.
The church, which has a round shape, displays a painting made by Kiko Argüello, founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, with different scenes from the life of Christ. There is a strong Neocatechumenal Way presence at the parish.
I am not an art expert, but I noticed in the paintings a synthesis between the classic and the contemporary.
“Something that Kiko Argüello said about contemporary religious art is that it is not understood,” Pérez told me. “If you need it explained to you, it loses its pedagogical or evangelizing purpose. It is so abstract, so radical that no one understands it. There is no canon.”
“It wouldn't be the poor man’s Bible [in that case],” I responded.
“Exactly, hence the synthesis of a sacred art that incorporates the modern, but is direct, that is understood,” he said.
The parish, dedicated to the Holy Family of Nazareth, began as a chapel in 1991 and was formally established as a parish in 2001.
Pérez said the parish can credit its existence to Saint John Paul II and the Lutheran church.
“John Paul II had the intuition that the classic model of the missionary – celibate, religious – would not work in these countries. They wouldn't listen to people like that and he knew it well, because they didn't listen to him when he came to Finland and Scandinavia,” he said.
“When they started the [Neocatechumenal] Way, there were not only priests and religious, but also families, couples. But it was John Paul II who saw clearly that it was these families who had to go out as missionaries. And so comes the first missionary family in Finland, Óscar and Paola, who at that time had about four or five children, and they settled in Oulu after a time in Helsinki.”
He added that those first missionaries were welcomed by the Lutheran bishop, who was familiar with the Neocatechumenal Way.
“He gave them an apartment owned by the [Lutheran] diocese where they lived with their family and Don Marino, an Italian priest who came with them on a mission, and even allowed them to offer catechism in the Lutheran churches and preach on ideas from the Second Vatican Council,” he added.
At that time, there were very few Catholics in Oulu - maybe a dozen in the whole city.
“But providentially, a few years later, things changed. Due to the wars in the Balkans and Vietnam, Catholic refugees arrive in Oulu and the community reaches 300, 400 Catholics,” Pérez said.
One day, he continued, Paola had the idea to go to City Hall and ask to speak to the mayor, despite the fact that she had no appointment. She pointed out the growth in the Catholic population and told the mayor, “We need to build a church.”
“And the mayor, surprisingly, said yes. He told her that the mayor's office had land that could be donated to build the church and that's how it started.”
The mayor was Lutheran, Pérez noted. “That is why I say that the support of the Lutheran hierarchy and the Lutheran laity was fundamental.”
A few months later, the priest said, the missionaries visited Rome and presented Pope John Paul II with a drawing of the plans for the church. The pope donated some money to start and the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa that currently hangs in the presbytery.
“And coming to Helsinki in ‘89, he blessed the cornerstone of the church,” he said.
“So, in 1991 the chapel was built, which today is the multipurpose room of the church. Funds were raised to build the church room and then what is today the church as such, which was founded as a parish in 2001.”
Today, Fr. Donbosco Thomas said, the parish offers Sunday Mass in both English and Finnish. Typically, about 150-200 people attend each Mass. In a parish territory with about 1,000 registered Catholics, those numbers are pretty good, I told him.
But the priests of Oulu serve an even broader group of Catholics than just those who attend Mass at Holy Family of Nazareth.
“From here we serve five other communities,”Pérez said. “We go with some frequency to celebrate Mass in Rovaniemi, which is the capital of Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland. Also to Tornio, which is on the border with Sweden, where Fr. Francisco is now, and Kemi, near there. Kajaani, which is southeast of here, about 125 miles and Raahe, about 50 miles.”
“To celebrate a Mass in Rovaniemi, you have to leave two-and-a-half hours in advance and set up everything in the Orthodox church they lend us,” he explained. “Leaving some time for confession before Mass and greeting people afterward, add an hour of Mass and two-and-a-half hours driving back and it's almost eight hours.”
“Sometimes we give catechism or a family invites us to dinner, so many times we go in the morning and come back late at night,” he said.
While the travel can be difficult and time-consuming, it is a practice that has been carried out for more than 30 years, he added.
“Also, you have the addition that in Rovaniemi there are many Burmese, which complicates the language issue, so we rely a lot on laypeople for catechesis,” Pérez noted.
“A few years ago we managed to get a father from Burma to come who could serve the Burmese communities in the country, including those in Rovaniemi,” added Thomas.
“In my first years here, we baptized around 40 Burmese who were Buddhists,” he said proudly.
Asked how he broke the language barrier, the priest simply raised his arms and laughed, as if to say he didn’t know.
“A Burmese Buddhist family called me, telling me that there were Catholics in their community. This was almost 13 years ago, and we started going, and some Buddhists were converting,” he said.
‘You’ll be speaking Finnish like a parrot’
Myanmar is very far away from Finland, but India, where Fr. Thomas is from, is barely any closer. So I took the chance to ask him how he got here.
“With that name, I guess I can safely assume you’re a cradle Catholic,” I told him.
He burst into laughter. And smiling, as he usually does, he told me that, yes, his family is Catholic, and from Chennai, in southern India.
“I had a very good education with the Salesians, so at 15 I thought of my vocation and asked to join them, but they said no, because I was too young. They told me to finish high school. But when you’re young, you don’t like taking no for an answer, so I felt rejected.”
“Around this time my parents started going to meetings of the Neocatechumenal Way, and I was hesitant at first, but I started going, but to please them a little bit. So, for a year and a half I’m attending without taking much in, but slowly I started to see,” he said.
A pilgrimage to the site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas the Apostle would lead him to discover his calling.
“So, we’re in a meeting in the pilgrimage place, with a priest talking about vocation and asked if anyone felt like joining the seminary,” he said.
“And I stood up. I was a bit of a jokester so my friends were like ‘Bosco, what are you doing? This is serious stuff, sit down.’ I wasn’t known for being particularly serious, you know, I was talking with girls, drinking. Not in a bad way, just having fun. But not with the kind of attitude of someone discerning priesthood.”
But after a period of discernment, he studied in Bangalore and London and was ordained in 2004.
“Two years later, a letter from the Bishop of Helsinki arrives, asking for priests. One day, I step into the bishop’s office to ask him for a few weeks to go on Christmas holiday, and he tells me ‘Bosco, I have a holiday for you,’ and shows me the letters asking for priests from all over the world, and specifically the one from Helsinki,” he recounted.
And he just said, “Look, something moves my heart, Bosco, I just think you’re suitable for this. What do you think?”
“And I said yes. He told me that if I didn’t like it I could always come back,” he added.
“But it was hard. The beginning was hard. A lot of loneliness, a lot of doubts. I had to start with this new language from scratch. I thought I came here to preach the Gospel and I simply could not preach in this language. So it was a small crisis, a spiritual battle inside of me,” he said.
“I remember my spiritual director here telling me, ‘Bosco, don’t look back. Don’t worry, you’ll be speaking Finnish like a parrot in no time,’ so I stayed strong and in 2009 I was appointed parish priest here, and here I am still after 14 years.”
Fighting secularization with community
One of the biggest challenges facing the Church in Finland is the growing threat of secularization, which affects not only the local Catholic Church, but Lutherans too.
“You see things getting worse,” Thomas said. “Until a couple of years ago, the children from a school nearby came to the church at Christmas to see the nativity scene, we gave them a talk about Christmas, and we had an ecumenical prayer service. But now the school has stopped doing that.”
“You see the dissolution of the family,” he continued. “Fewer people getting married, fewer people having children, and if they have, they have only one. But then they split up. So you have this big crisis of loneliness in Finland.”
“I was in Sweden before,” Pérez commented. “And there you see that on many occasions, second-generation Catholic migrants attend Mass less [often]. But that doesn't happen that often here - it is a miracle, the transmission of faith between generations works.”
“In other parts of the country things are more balanced, but our parish is predominantly foreign, there are maybe 15 or 20 Finns coming to Mass on Sundays, the rest are migrants or Finns of foreign origin,” he added.
“But we put a lot of effort into catechism classes, so that the entire family participates in transmitting the faith to young people. So each year we have 20-25 children preparing for First Communion and about 15 preparing for Confirmation. Before Covid it was a little more, but it has been recovering a little since then.”
One of the keys to successfully transmitting the faith, Pérez believes, is the sense of community.
“We dedicate the summer to young people,” he said. “We do camps, pilgrimages. From here, more than 40 of us went to World Youth Day in Lisbon, and we spent the whole year doing activities to pay for the trip—selling nativity scenes, cakes, whatever, and that strengthens the community.”
“And it all begins in the community among priests. Communion is not spontaneous, you have to invest time and effort. Pray together, eat together, talk. If you start letting go of that, everything goes away,” he said.
“We started by setting an example of community.”
“Finns don’t speak openly about religion, so it’s challenging, because for us it’s very natural to talk about our faith,” said Thomas.
“So, you have to be a witness, be authentic light. Live a good Christian life, and people start noticing. They don’t listen to sermons, they see how you live,” he stressed.
“I think something that has helped with the locals in recent years is that the Church has become more Finnish — 20, 30 or 40 years ago, whoever preached the Gospel to you did so with a markedly foreign accent and had customs foreign to the country,” added Pérez.
“The truth is the truth, no matter who tells it, and those who came before us have done a spectacular job of evangelization. But now we are more priests raised or born in Finland, and people respond differently. It's like when you hear the voice of someone in your family, there is an accent that conveys love and closeness.”
“In the end, what unites us is Jesus Christ. When I see so many different people worshiping together at Mass, I say: this is Catholicism. Catholicism is not a word in a dictionary, it’s life. It’s this,” Thomas said.
“We want people to integrate, to avoid a Church divided into small churches,” he said.
The priest noted that occasionally travels to Helsinki to offer confession and spiritual guidance to the Sri Lankan community there, since he speaks Tamil. However, he said, he always advises them to learn the local language and get to know the culture.
“I cannot separate them wholly from normal parish life. I need to be a mediator between the local culture and their own identity,” he said. “It’s a balance between keeping them within parish life, but also making them feel good, making them feel at ease, like they belong here.”
‘It's not my work’
I asked Perez after the parish Mass if I could speak with some members of the parish.
I heard him speaking Italian on the phone.
“They'll see you now, I'll take you walking,” he told me, without much preamble.
“With those shoes?” asked Thomas, his eyes wide open in surprise at my not-very-warm boots. It was -7 and snowy outside. “He’ll get frostbite.”
I assured him that I’d be fine for just a few minutes.
We arrived at the house after walking about 10 minutes from the parish. Isä Perez entered without knocking—as if it were his house.
Later I discovered that, indeed, for many years it was his home. Its current residents are Daniele and Lucia, an Italian missionary couple of the Neocatechumenal Way with 10 children who have lived more than 20 years in Oulu.
We climbed the stairs, and Daniele showed me a family photo, telling me, “I'm going to explain them all to you: Here is Sofía, who is 26 and is now Sister Lidia, she recently took her final vows in a Cistercian congregation in Peru.”
Lucia asked me if I had eaten dinner. I told her no, but that I would have dinner at the hotel. She opened her arms, offended. “You're not leaving without dinner,” she insisted.
I had planned to have reindeer for dinner at the hotel and spend some time in the sauna. But you don't say no to a dinner invitation from an Italian family.
“Samuele, no, no. Nicco, no. Francesco! Checco, come,” Daniele said, finally nailing the right name. He asked his son to take care of some dinner things, while Balto, the family dog, got acquainted with me.
Lucia scolded Balto for licking my shoes. I insisted that it was fine.
“The good thing is that with Balto we have started dog ministry,” said Lucia jokingly. “Because here on the street, people don't say hello much, not even when you go with children, eh? But they see the dog and they greet it, they want to pet it and you can talk to people and after several conversations, you tell them that you are Catholic, you can invite them to church, and so on. So, Balto is an apostolic dog,” she added, laughing.
“Okay, let's go again. So that's Sofia, then Anna, 25, who is an itinerant missionary in Ireland. Then, Samuele, 24, who married a sister of Father Pedro and already has our first grandchild on the way. Then, Elia, 22, who is in the seminary in Copenhagen. Francesco, 19, who is studying security because he wants to be a police officer, and then Emma, 17, Nicolò, who is 15, Miriam, 13, Pietro, 12, and Michele, 10.”
I asked them how they got to Finland.
“The first family that left Italy for Finland is from our parish, so we knew about this community and we also knew many families who had gone as missionaries in Singapore, in Africa, in other Nordic countries. So we always had that in mind and in the year 2000 we showed our availability,” said Daniele.
“So, in October 2000 we went to a gathering where you listen to experiences and discern this topic, and we were with John Paul II in San Pedro and we received this cross that you see on the wall, where Jesus is dead, because going on a mission is dying. For you, it is giving your life for the mission,” added Lucia.
“At that time we had three children, so in October I left in a van with all our things,” said Daniele, to Lucia's laughter.
“‘All our things’, as if there were many. Everything fit in two or three bags,” she said.
“The first thing was to learn the language, because back then, there weren't as many foreigners as there are now,” said Lucia.
She said she started a course in Finnish, two hours a week, which she described as “a humbling experience.”
“I cried a lot. But it helped me trust God a lot,” she said. “We had no work, no money. What do we do? We arrived close to winter and [needing to put] 3, 4, 5 layers on the children. We didn't have those clothes.”
“I discovered that there was some state aid that we could apply for and shortly after Daniele started working as a gardener and things improved,” she continued.
Francesco, the eldest son still at home, joined the conversation. I asked him if it has been a challenge living as a Catholic in Finland.
“It's different, you feel different, especially when you're little. You see that you are not like the others because you are a Christian. But now it's not a problem, I have Finnish friends,” he said, while his mother looked at him proudly.
“The first sign of God's faithfulness to us is with our children. Look, the first daughter, who has already made her vows in the convent, the boy who has married in a Christian way, the other who is an itinerant missionary, another son who has a call to the priesthood,” said Lucia.
“And what can I say?” she added in Italian “Lord, non è opera mia (It is not my work). You did this.”
“The first mission has been our family,” says Lucia. “This mission grows with the children, there are many young people who receive the faith of their parents and then they remain loyal.”
Emma, who is 17 years old, joined the conversation. Her mother asked her if she wanted to add something about what it is like to be Catholic in Finland.
“When I was little, I didn’t think much of why we were here, I really didn’t care why we came here nor I was proud of it. I just didn’t understand it. I just wanted to fit in, which was difficult,” she said.
“So, it was different, not only because of our faith. Italian culture is very strong in this house, so at home we speak in Italian –and very loud– with our big hand gestures, and with my friends it was different.”
“And they noticed this difference when they came to my house. And, of course, when they saw or I told them I had nine siblings they were always like ‘Wow!’ because they maybe had one or none,” she said laughing.
“Having my parents together was also an anomaly. When I was 12 almost all my friends had their parents divorced or separated,” she said.
“So, when they came to my house to play it was very different to them. Once one of these friends told me, ‘You’re never alone here, there’s someone around all the time.’ And a few years later, some of these friends told me that coming to my house helped them a lot because they saw love at my home,” she continued.
She said she appreciates catechesis and church, “because even though I have friends at school, I’m the only one who is Catholic, so it’s nice to have a place where there are other Catholics too that share your faith, and where you can speak freely about your faith.”
I asked the couple if raising their children in such a secularized environment has been a challenge. Finland does not have Catholic schools and the state has partial control of the educational programs of even private schools.
“It's a bit of a fight at school, but every time we've gone and said that we don't want our children to participate in this topic of sexual education or anything else, they've respected it,” said Daniele.
“But there are 10 children, they know us very well and for a long time at school,” he added, laughing.
“But we have united with many Lutherans, even pastors, who are a little more traditional and want to defend the family and do not agree with these liberal ideas,” he said.
Shortly after this, we had dinner with the six children still at home and Daniela, a student from India who is temporarily living with them.
Daniele offered me pisco as a digestivo. “We brought it from Peru during Sofia's vows,” he told me.
Shortly after, I returned to the hotel. I wrote to my wife about what I had experienced in the last few days.
Soon we have to think about our family and professional future, and I told her everything there is to do in Finland.
She understood my hint.
“No, no. It's too cold,” she told me. She repeated the ‘no’ several times, almost as a filler.
“And if you keep telling me all of this, I'm going to want to go too.”