Friday, November 30, 2007

Greenland priest's unique Catholic parish

While more than 80 per cent of its one million square miles is covered by an ice-cap which is a couple of miles thick in some places, Greenland is statistically the world’s largest island.

In a population of 57,000 people, there are only 50 registered Roman Catholics.

These form part of the parish of Christ the King in Nuuk, the island’s capital.

The Catholics are all non-Greenlanders except for four.

They come from all parts of the world, and most of them are only in the territory for a short time – most for less than three years.

Therefore, there’s a constant flow of changing parishioners.

There is only one church and one parish house and these are in Nuuk. The town was established in 1728 by Danish Lutheran Missionary Hans Egede.

Since 1997 there has not been a resident priest there, but an Oblate Missionary of Mary Immaculate is the parish priest and he commutes there from his far flung parish in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Fr Paul Marx himself is not there all year round – he stays for seven or eight months. In Nuuk, there are about 20 Catholics with the remaining 30 spread out along the southwest and east coast.

The Sunday congregation varies from five or six to 23 or so. Usually a number of non-Catholics also attend on a regular basis.

In the summer of 1980, the Little Sisters of Jesus established a fraternity in Nuuk with three sisters.

When asked how he feels to be the only Catholic priest in such an isolated country, Fr Marx replied: “Great! I enjoy it and find it challenging. However, I realise that to minister in Greenland as the only Catholic priest, one needs a special grace and calling from God.
Greenland is a contemplative country which suits my temperament.”

His is a very different kind of parish, located as it is in the depths of the Arctic. Fr Marx explained that in September of this year, Religion, Science and Environment – an institute founded and led by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I – held a symposium in Greenland.

The institute concerns itself with the climate and in particular with global warming. The theme of this year’s symposium was The Arctic: Mirror of Life.

“The Arctic is very sensitive to changes in the global climate, and by studying it, one gets a very good picture,” Fr Marx said. “It is a fact that the ice in the Arctic Ocean is melting faster than expected; likewise the glaciers. Something is happening.”

Fr Marx said the Gospel was first proclaimed to the early European settlers of Greenland in the year 1000.

He explained that when Leif the Lucky returned from Nidaros (present day Trondheim in Norway) to his father’s farm at Brattahlid in southern Greenland as a Christian, he brought with him two clerics sent by King Olav Tryggveson.

Fr Marx said: “The Church was then still one Church. It was 54 years before the great split in the East and 536 years before the Reformation in Denmark. In the space of a very short time, all the Norsemen accepted Christ and were baptised.”

That was the birth of the now defunct diocese of Gardar, in 1124. At one point, the Catholic Norsemen numbered around 4,000 in two settlements.

“But by 1450 or so the Norsemen had disappeared from Greenland and with them the Church,” said Fr Marx.

That position lasted for the next 500 or so years.

The Danish Government had adopted a policy of sealing Greenland off from the rest of the world, thereby making the Lutheran Church the only Church allowed in the territory.

This policy was changed with a referendum in Denmark in 1953, which opened Greenland up to the rest of the world and allowed religious freedom.

Fr Marx said the first Catholic priests returned to Greenland when Theodore Suhr, the Benedictine monk who was bishop of Copenhagen in Denmark, went to the Vatican to ask for priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to go there.

“As the story goes, he said there was this huge island of ice and rock near the north pole on the other side of the north Atlantic that made up most of the geographical bulk of the diocese,” Fr Marx said.

“That would be his trump card when he spoke with the Italian cardinals who headed the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, under whose auspices the Diocese of Copenhagen was at that time.

“Bishop Suhr told the cardinals that his diocese included the world’s largest island, which was inhabited by people of Eskimo descent.

“This island had been totally Catholic for almost 500 years. Then Bishop Suhr went on to tell them that now the entire island was Lutheran.

“The statement shocked the Italian cardinals to the depths of their Catholic souls so that they cried out “Scandalum, scandalum. We can’t allow that”. With that, they all signed a document addressed to the Superior General of the Oblates, Fr Leo Dechateletts, strongly recommending that the Oblates send missionaries to the Diocese of Copenhagen to convert the Protestants to the Church.

“Bishop Suhr took the recommendation to the Superior General, and the Superior General of course couldn’t say no.” That was almost 50 years ago now.

However, things are about to change in early 2009 when the Oblates expect to give up the pastoral care of Greenland and a new religious congregation of priests from Mexico is expected to take over.


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