Today, every parish in the Diocese of Copenhagen is remembering our patron saint, Saint Ansgar. We celebrate his feast day as a solemnity; and a solemnity is the most important kind of feast day in the life of the Catholic Church. The solemnities we celebrate every year are a special way for us to honour the Blessed Trinity, significant events in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ as well as His death and resurrection, the Mother of God, All Saints, All Souls, the patron saint of a parish, the patron saint of a diocese and the patron saint of the country. Every Sunday is a solemnity, as well. The fact that Saint Ansgar’s feast is a solemnity tells us that it is one of the most important dates in calendar of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Copenhagen.
If we look back at the life of Saint Ansgar, we discover that he was a holy and good man. He lived a very strict life of penance: he wore a shirt made of hair next to his skin, lived mainly on bread and water, and was really kind to poor people. But we also have to recognise that his mission to the Nordic countries was not a success. When I asked Bishop Kozon what we can learn from the life of Saint Ansgar, he answered that it is important to recognise his perseverance. He was a French monk who was appointed a bishop in northern Germany by King Louis, and then Pope Gregory the Fourth made him his legate for the northern lands. He had to work hard to organise the Church in Hamburg and Bremen, and so had hardly any time to go north into the lands where he was supposed to introduce Christianity. He had limited success in Denmark and southern Sweden. The real missionary work was done much later by others.
Many missionaries today can feel great sympathy with Saint Ansgar. They are sent to countries far from their homeland and often they live quite lonely lives, far from families, friends and the support they would normally have. But what is their job? What are they supposed to do? In this parish you have five missionary sisters who live among you, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. I am sure they would be happy to answer any questions you have about how they were prepared for their new life in the Faroe Islands. I am also sure that their answers could surprise you. I am not a missionary. I am a priest from an English diocese, technically a Fidei Donum, a “gift of faith”. Your bishop asked my bishop if he could borrow me for a while. Interestingly, neither of them said for how long! So I have never been trained or formed as a missionary, although I have worked in several countries and had some very unusual assignments.
I think Saint Ansgar must have felt frustrated, because his task was to introduce Christianity to the lands of the north, what we now call the Nordic countries rather than Scandinavia. He was frustrated because he could not do the job he was asked to do. He did not waste his time, but his achievements were very modest.
But what is the job of this little Catholic community in the Faroe Islands? It is not to introduce Christianity, because Christianity has been here for a long time, even long before the Protestant Reformation. Mariukirkjan is a spiritual home for all the Catholics who have come to live and work in this country, who do not want to abandon the faith which has nourished them throughout their lives in countries and cultures far from here.
The sisters and the priests who have served this parish community are not really here to make converts, but some of you have felt drawn to the Catholic way of being Christian. That is not an easy step to make; anyone who becomes a Catholic has to learn a whole new way of understanding faith and the journey is a long one. It is easy to lose one’s way, so it is vital to keep an open mind and ask questions, in order to understand how to live and behave in a new spiritual home.
I cannot speak for the sisters, but I believe the community in Mariukirkjan does its job simply by being here and being faithful to the teaching of the Church. Our job is to live the Christian life the best way we can, to offer a good, humble and quiet example to those who meet us. Our job is not to change other people by telling them what to believe and how to behave, unless they ask us to explain our faith. Our gift to the Faroe Islands is our presence as a Catholic community. I think people have welcomed this gift from the sisters gladly for more than ninety years.
As a priest, my presence is different. I preach God’s word as well as I can when we listen to the Scripture at Mass, and Deacon Christian helps at various times of the year. I also have to administer the sacraments: baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, Eucharist or Holy Communion, marriage and the anointing of the sick. Deacon Christian also administers the sacraments of baptism, marriage and the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Although I have been with you for two and a half years, I have not performed a baptism or a marriage. Hardly anybody comes to the sacrament of Confession or reconciliation, and I have only rarely given anyone the sacrament of the sick. Things I would do every day in my home country I hardly ever do here. I feel very close to Saint Ansgar in that way.
May God bless our Catholic community here at Mariukirkjan! May we always be a sign of His presence among His people.
Fr. Peter Fleetwood