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Bet You Can’t Pronounce This Saint’s Name

In some ways, our times are not so different than those of Thorlak, whose feast day we celebrate today. He's an inspiration, unusual name and all.

Casey Chalk

The saint is the patron of Iceland, a twelfth-century bishop. His diocese was Skálholt, and his name was Þorlákur Þórhallsson. We’ll call him St. Thorlak.

In some ways, our times are not so different than those of Thorlak, whose feast day we celebrate today. Thorlak faced a culture in which secular powers sought to flex their muscles over the Catholic Church. He confronted sexual immorality in his native culture. Perhaps most importantly, the continuance of Þorláksmessa, the Icelandic feast still practiced in his honor, and a growing Catholic population on this deeply Protestant island, offers hope to those of us fearful of our post-Christian culture.

Thorlak was born to impoverished peasants in the south of Iceland in 1133, less than two centuries after German and Norwegian missionaries began evangelization efforts there. When he was a young boy, the family lost its farm and broke up. Despite the family’s travails, his parents ensured that he received extensive religious instruction from a local priest, resulting in ordination to the diaconate before the age of fifteen. He was a priest by the age of eighteen.

After years abroad in England and France—during which time he determined to live by the monastic rule of St. Augustine—he returned to remote and frigid Iceland. He held fast to the discipline of clerical celibacy, which was itself a bit of an outlier in Iceland. He was even pressured to marry a wealthy widow!

Thorlak founded a monastery according to the Augustinian rule, serving as its first abbot. He was ordained a bishop in 1178.

As bishop, Thorlak was committed to implementing Pope Gregory VII’s reforms, which included a strict discipline of clerical celibacy, and championing the independence of the Church against meddling secular authorities who benefited from the practice of simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges. These reforms reached a fever pitch when Thorlak courageously confronted the most popular and powerful chieftain in Iceland, a man who reportedly was having an extramarital affair with Thorlak’s own sister. Talk about an awkward Christmas.

Thorlak died on December 23, 1193. Iceland’s national assembly declared him a saint five years later in 1198. His life and the stories of dozens of miracles attributed to him are described in great detail in the Icelandic saga Þorláks saga helga (the Saga of Saint Thorlak). More than fifty churches were dedicated to his memory. Nevertheless, he was not formally canonized until 1984, when St. John Paul II declared him patron saint of Iceland. The Polish pope visited Iceland five years later in 1989—a country, at that time, with a Catholic population of around one percent.

The Protestant Reformation was not kind to Thorlak. A sacred reliquary of his in the Diocese of Skálholt was destroyed by Protestant Reformers, who dispersed his mortal remains about the cathedral grounds. Today, his only known remaining relic is a bone fragment kept at the St. Magnus Cathedral in the Faroe Islands. (Not that Catholics surrendered Iceland without a fight: A small sixteenth-century battle between Catholic and Protestant forces ultimately resulted in the Catholics’ defeat and the beheading of one of their bishops.)

Despite the fact that Catholicism was all but wiped out in Iceland in the post-Reformation era (and formally made illegal by secular authorities), the Mass of St. Thorlak remains an Icelandic holiday, celebrated every December 23. To this day, it is considered the last day of preparations before Christmas, on which many Icelanders purchase Christmas presents and finish decorating their houses and Christmas trees. It is also considered the last day of the Catholic Christmas fast, so locals eat fish, such as the buried and fermented skate (yum?).

In spite of centuries of repression, Catholicism is making a small comeback in Iceland. French missionaries in the nineteenth reintroduced the faith to the country. As of October 2019, Catholics constitute 4 percent of the population—many of them Polish, Lithuanian, and Filipino immigrants, but also some converts from Lutheranism. There are now about six diocesan priests, nine religious order priests, and thirty-eight sisters in religious orders in this country of under 400,000 people. There is also a novena, approved by the bishop of Reykjavík, in honor of Thorlak.

The Advent and Christmas seasons, respectively, anticipate and celebrate miracles. The story of Thorlak seems just such a miracle: a devoted follower of Christ and his Church who helped carve a Catholic culture out of the cold of Iceland, repudiating secular political influence and sexual deviancy. Despite centuries of Protestant efforts to stamp out his memory—a long Icelandic Advent, indeed—his legacy lives on, now in a resurgent Catholic Church in Iceland that even has local, anti-Catholic media a bit concerned.

Even if we are not prepared to eat fermented fish in honor of a medieval Scandinavian saint, we Catholics can take inspiration from Thorlak’s devotion to Christ. It was not easy to be a devout, chaste Catholic in Thorlak’s isolated twelfth-century Iceland. It would have been easy for Thorlak to capitulate to local elites seeking influence over the Church, to give in to the social pressures to abandon his vow of chastity, or even to permit the sexual immorality common among the nation’s elites for fear of losing his head. Nevertheless, he remained firm until the end, and he has inspired almost a millennium of Catholics, including his spiritual descendants in Iceland today, to keep the Faith against all adversity.

This December 23, as you brave the cold, perhaps make your last purchases for Christmas, or already begin your holiday with family, consider Thorlak, an almost forgotten saint whose piety and courage paid dividends over the centuries in helping preserve the Church in a mostly post-Catholic country. Worryingly, some Icelanders would prefer return not to their Catholic roots, but to the pagan roots of their Norse ancestors—much as some impressionable Americans are flirting with neo-paganism. The manifold threats to our Church—be they secular authorities, sexually perverse elite institutions, or anti-human neo-paganism—are all the more reason to request Thorlak’s intercession, and remember that even when all seems lost, Christ continues to build his Church. That’s certainly still true in Iceland. Saint Thorlak, pray for us!

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