“Brethren, do not be weary in doing good” (2 Thess 3:13)
(from the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará – SSVM Iceland mission)
Handing on the Catholic Faith In the Shadow of a Glacier
From our mission in Stykkishólmur, we have been entrusted with the task of handing down the teachings of the apostles to the children of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We live in the largest of the three large villages on our peninsula: Stykkishólmur, population 1,100. In addition to our town, we travel to the other two villages during the week in order to teach the children catechism and prepare them to receive the sacraments. The drive is a long one. It takes about hour in good weather, more than an hour in bad weather, and when the winds are exceptionally strong and the road icy, the road (there is only one that takes us there) closes and the class has to be cancelled. As we drive, I am reminded often of what St. Thomas teaches, “The good of grace in one is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe”. I am reminded of this phrase because the scenery from Stykkishólmur to Ólafsvík is possibly the most beautiful in the world and one cannot help but marvel at the beauty of creation. Yet, all that beauty and goodness cannot compare to the goodness of grace in one of the children that we go to teach. Sometimes we are preparing only one child to receive Confirmation or First Communion, and the missionary could be tempted to think, “All this driving, all this time for one child?” But as we drive to bring the truths of the Catholic Faith to these children, we are given the opportunity to meditate on their infinite value. If these mountains and rivers and waterfalls are only a shadow of the goodness of the whole universe, how much more is the good of grace in one of our children? “The good of grace in one is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe”, not just the good of nature here on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, but the whole universe.
Teaching catechism in these towns has also taught me about the delicate love of the Lord for each soul. I feel like we are arriving at the end of the world as we drive through the mountains and valleys of the peninsula. And it is here that the Lord sends us because He “…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). At one point in the drive, we come up the side of a cliff and normally there is no one on the road in front of us or behind us. There is no town or people to be seen. There is only God´s creation, and as we turn the corner around a waterfall, in the distance, Ólafsvík comes into view. This little town is situated at the foot of a majestic glacier. It is to the souls of His children here in Ólafsvík that the Lord sends us. He knows and loves each of His children intimately, whether they are one of a million in a large city, or in a far off fishing village in Iceland. We missionaries are blessed to be His instruments, to work with Him for the good of grace in these children – so that they may grow in grace and be brought to eternal life.
Because there is neither a Catholic Church nor facility in these towns, we used to teach the children in their homes, rotating house to house each week. The different age groups never mixed or even saw one another because each class was in a different house, depending on the children´s parents. We found that teaching in their homes failed to bring the children together as a group and provided too many excuses for distractions. The children were not learning as well as they could and should have been. We began looking for public places to teach the children, without much of a clue as to what we would find. To our surprise and delight, both of the towns opened their doors and provided public buildings for our use and for free! This is a concrete example of the generosity and openness innate in the Icelandic culture. Since we´ve begun teaching in the public buildings, we have seen attendance solidify, so the children receive a better formation. They have also become a group of friends now. This helps so that they don´t feel so alone in their faith, rather they have begun to understand that the Church is a family.
I´ve been told that this winter was one of the longest and hardest in the past twenty years. Since I have only lived in Iceland for four years, I cannot say the same, but I can say that it certainly was the hardest so far. There was six months of snow and ice and storm after storm after storm. During this winter, we had to cancel more catechism classes than a normal winter simply because the road was closed or the winds were too high and the roads too icy. We were not sure if the children were going to be able to learn enough to be prepared for the sacraments. We added classes through skype, extra classes and retreats when the weather got better, and by the grace of God, the children were well prepared, and took part fully in the Masses of Confirmation and First Communion with great devotion.
The last week of May, we brought a group of girls from Iceland to participate in the 2nd Youth Gathering held by our sisters (SSVM) in Brunnsum, Holland. Youth from Holland, Ireland, Lithuania, and Belgium were also present. The girls took advantage of every moment and contributed to the atmosphere of festive joy. We arrived a few days early and visited the south of Holland. Maastricht was the first place we visited. The image of Our Lady, Star of the Sea is in the Basilica and we prayed there, and as is very common in Holland, each of us lit a candle and prayed for a special intention. Walking through the city, the girls proved to be interested and eager to learn about the history and culture of Holland.
In the morning on the day that the Youth Gathering began, we went to visit our contemplative sisters in a neighboring town, Valkenburg. It was a special visit for our girls because one of the contemplative sisters had been a missionary in Iceland and had known the girls since they were little. As she answered their many questions, she gave the girls a concrete example of fidelity to God´s call and to life of prayer and sacrifice.
The weekend began and the girls participated with great enthusiasm in all the activities: talks, workshops, sports, prayer time, confession, and the Holy Mass. The plenary talks presented by Father and the workshops were all in English, but we had small group discussions in Icelandic and were happy to see that the girls understood most everything and we could apply what we received during the talks to everyday life. After the Youth Gathering, we made our way up to the north of Holland where we learned how they make the typical Dutch clogs and cheese. We also visited Amsterdam, where we went to the King´s Palace, took a tour through the canals in a boat, and participated in the Holy Mass in the Church of St. Nicholas. The girls were in the best of spirits, learning new things at every moment and singing the theme song from the Youth Gathering again and again. The only complaint that I heard was that the Youth Gathering was not long enough – they wanted it to last the whole week!
A New Tabernacle for the Lord
There is much construction going on at this moment in Stykkishólmur transforming the old preschool and convent into a Spiritual Retreat Center/Hotel and so we moved to a little, traditional Icelandic timber house right in front of the Church. During the moving process, we received more help and charity than we could have imagined. Our friend, the town baker, who is an artist, built for us a new altar for our little chapel and our many other friends helped us to move furniture, sew curtains for the house and mantles for the chapel, and to hang pictures and hooks, etc…
The workers who have been working in construction for two years here have certainly become our friends. They have been so generous with their time and have helped a great deal with moving everything. But we are most grateful because every day, at nine in the morning, there is a complete silence. Not because they are lazy and do not want to work, but because that is the hour of Holy Mass. The construction site is all around the chapel and the noise level can be quite high. But during that hour, they do the jobs that cause less noise out of respect and for that we are extremely grateful.
In order to thank them for all of their charity, we wanted to invite them for dinner, not just the workers themselves, but their families as well. We invited them by splitting them into groups and arranging the evenings that were best for them. In this way, more than twenty families have come to visit since we settled in. First we showed them the chapel and everyone was impressed with the beautiful altar. Then we shared supper and afterwards showed a short video about the Religious Family, prepared in Icelandic. As a parting gift, we gave them each a rosary. Most of them were familiar with the rosary because the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who founded the mission in Stykkishólmur, used to give the newborn babies and their families rosaries when the baby was born in their hospital here. Most of the families shared with us fond memories of the sisters who were here and we can see all the good that the sisters brought to this town. We hope, by the grace of God, to follow in their footsteps and do much good for the people of Iceland.
We commend our mission to your prayers.
In Jesus and Mary,
Sr. Maria Porta Coeli