Brief History of the Catholic Church in Iceland

The Norse settlers who migrated from Norway to Iceland in the late 9th century are said to have encountered Gaelic monks from a Hiberno-Scottish mission when they first arrived in Iceland. The Irish monks soon disappeared. Among the first settlers of Iceland were also Christian people of Celtic and Norse origin, who came from Ireland and Scotland. Most of them settled down in the southwest and western parts of the country.

In the 10th century Christian missionaries came to Iceland from Norway and also from northern Germany. They christened an increasing number of the population. When the increase in the number of Christians was beginning to threaten the peace and unity of the community, the Law speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði gave a famous speech at Alþingi, the National Assembly, which met every summer at Þingvellir, stating that the only way to maintain peace in the country was to have only one religion: And now it seems advisable to me that we do not let their will prevail who are most strongly opposed to one another; but so compromise between them that each side may win part if its case, and let us all have one law and one faith. It will prove that if we divide the law we will also divide the peace.

Subsequently, the Parliament decided to proclaim Christianity the 24th of June, in the year 1000, as the general religion in the whole country - with some concessions to pagan customs. Thereafter the Christian faith and Christian lifestyle slowly but surely permeated the society.

The National Assembly also decided to contact representatives of the world church in Rome and ask them to bring Iceland and Icelanders under their ecclesiastical rule. In 1056 the first Icelandic bishop Ísleifur Gizurarson, was ordained in the Cathedral in Bremen, Germany. He settled in Skálholt in the south of Iceland. His son, Gizur Ísleifsson, established the diocese and began to divide it into parishes. In 1106 another episcopal seat was established in Hólar, in the north of Iceland. Until 1104 the diocese of Skálholt was under the jurisdiction of Bremen-Hamburg. From 1104 to 1152 Iceland was under the Metropolitan at Lund in Denmark (now in Sweden). In 1152 the episcopal seats of Skálholt and Hólar came under the new Archdiocese of Trondheim in Norway. A number of monasteries and convents, of both St. Benedict and St. Augustine Order, were founded in Iceland. They were, along with schools in Skálholt and in Hólar, the main-centers of education and culture. Around 1200 were 220 churches and 290 priests in both dioceses. (The country's population was ca. 80.000). Thanks to the influence of monks and priests a rich culture developed, not least in poetry. Ancient sagas and laws were recorded. Furthermore, monks and other people working in the church initiated progress in agriculture and in the infrastructure of society.

The most important medieval bishop was Þorlákur Þórhallsson. He was bishop of Skálholt 1178-1193. He studied in France (Paris) and in England (Lincoln) and was influenced by the reform of the universal church in the 12th century. He also tried to reform the morality of pastors and laymen and claimed jurisdiction over church property from the hands of laymen. The success of this, however, was limited. He was already regarded as a holy man during his lifetime. He was locally canonized five years after his death. In 1984 Pope John Paul II declared him “The patron saint of Iceland.” Many of his successors continued his work and the influence of the Church began to grow and became well established. The Pope´s authority was never questioned. From the 14th century and onwards the Christian law was accepted, also by the public.

Iceland was an independent state for centuries and obeyed the law passed by the National Assembly. But frequently arouse serious conflicts between powerful groups in society. In order to strengthen the executive power in the country the Parliament decided to submit to the Norwegian king in 1262. The king guaranteed the independence of the Icelanders and their right to set their own laws. In 1397 Norway, as well as Iceland, came under the Danish throne. Gradually the King of Denmark reduced the independence of the Icelandic nation and of the National Assembly. In particular, the right to trade was restricted. Meanwhile, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, harsh winters and poor summers prevailed. Many died of starvation. The only aid came from the church. Its influence was massive, much to the King´s annoyance.

In the 16th century the Danish king tried to gain control over the assets of the church. Christian III (1537-1559) used the Reformation for this purpose. He also led the Protestant clergy to power here and church organizations were placed under their control. His church ordinance was approved by the parliament in 1541 due to the presence of men-at-arms sent by the Danish king. Jón Arason, bishop of Hólar organized an opposition against this new rule. He refused to reject the pope´s leadership in spiritual matters and declared the new church ordinance unlawful. He became the leader of a movement who fought for the preservation of local privileges and for the independence of the Church. But he was, along with his two sons, arrested and executed without legal trial and conviction in Skálholt in 1550. Although some Icelanders continued their protests, they were soon suppressed. The King condemned the murder of Jón Arason and promised to respect the property of the Church. On the other hand the King did not accept all the novelties of the Lutherans. The liturgy, in particular, stayed for the most part unaltered. But monasteries were destroyed, monks killed or exiled. Only those priests who converted to the new church ordinance kept their offices. All ties with Rome were cut. It was prohibited to adopt Catholic faith. Within a few years the church had become Lutheran although many of the Catholic traditions survived for a long time. The devastating poverty of most Icelanders and the repressive authority of the Danish government choked any attempt to gain a new independent church and national rights.

The first Catholic missionaries, after the Reformation, came to Iceland in 1857. Then two French priests, Fr. Baudoin and Fr. Bernard, were admitted to minister to the French seamen who were fishing around the island. Three years later they settled in Landakot in Reykjavík, where the Cathedral stands. Fr. Bernard remained there for 15 years. At that time Iceland was a part of the so called “Arctic Mission” (Præfectura Apostolica Poli Arctici) which was established in 1855 and reached the northern parts of Europe, Asia and America. In 1869 the Arctic Mission was dissolved and Iceland was placed under the newly formed prefecture in Denmark. The mission work in Iceland was effectively suspended in the period 1875-1895, but then two priests were sent from the Mission Church in Denmark and a year later four St. Joseph sisters arrived. In 1902 they broke new ground in health care with their first hospital in Landakot. Soon after they began to teach a small number of Catholic children in their premises in Landakot. This was the beginning of Landakotsskóli.

Montfort priests first arrived in 1903 and until 1968 they supervised the mission. In 1923, Iceland was made a special mission district (prefecture). Reverend Martin Meulenberg, who had worked in Iceland since 1903, was promoted to the head of the prefecture. At the same time as the Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavík was dedicated in 1929 the prefecture in Iceland was raised to an apostolic vicariate. Consequently Reverend Meulenberg was made bishop, but the mission remained under the administration of The Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide in the Vatican. In 1968 the Catholic Church in Iceland was defined as a distinct and separate diocese with its own cathedral and the bishop came under the authority of the pope in Rome. During the period of the missionary church in Iceland, i.e. from 1903-1968, the Montfort priests where in charge with the help of sisters of the congregation of St. Joseph in Reykjavík and in Hafnarfjörður and the Franciscan sisters in Stykkishólmur. Since then, the Catholic priests in Iceland have either belonged to specific religious orders or been so called “secular priests”, i.e. under the direct authority of the local bishop.

In the 20th century the number of Catholics in Iceland grew slowly. In 1960 the members of the catholic congregation constituted about a half percent of the population (897). In 1994 the number reached 1% (2535) but is now about 3,8% of the population (about 12.900). These are mainly immigrants from Catholic countries, especially from Poland.