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Heralding the Christmas season with St. Thorlak, patron of Iceland

As we stand on the cusp of the Christmas season, Mother Church gives us a relatively unknown saint to help herald the birth of our newborn king. St. Thorlak, whose feast is celebrated on Dec. 23, is the patron of Iceland, and for native Icelanders, the day has become synonymous with the arrival of Christmas.

As with many notable figures who hail from the harsh terrain of Scandinavia, St. Thorlak has a variety of legends and tales associated with him. In true Icelandic fashion, he even has a saga written about him, and indeed, this saga is rife with stories about St. Thorlak that prove he was worthy of his saintly title.

Born to his poor farmer parents in 1133, St. Thorlak showed promise early on in his intellectual and spiritual formation, and he was ordained a deacon at age 15 and then a priest at age 18. He moved to France and England for a brief period of time to further his studies, and while there he became enamored with St. Augustine and committed himself to his monastic rule of life.

As you can imagine, the pagan nations of Scandinavia were not very receptive to Christianity during the days of St. Thorlak, and while the Catholic Church had established a presence in Iceland by the time he was born, it was not without its faults. Most chiefly, many clergy were causing scandal by not faithfully living their vows of celibacy. It was providential, then, that St. Thorlak’s devotion to the Augustinian rule of life had reinforced his own vow of celibacy. Upon his return to Iceland, temptation reared its nasty head as St. Thorlak was pressured to marry a wealthy widow. However, by God’s grace he held fast to his vocation, and in 1168, he instead founded a monastery according to the Augustinian rule, where he served as the abbot.

In 1178, ten years after establishing the monastery, the Norwegian Archbishop Augustine Erlendsson, another follower of the ancient Augustinian rule of life, asked Thorlak to become bishop of the Icelandic diocese of Skalholt. Though he was reluctant to leave his monastic way of life, he recognized the need for reform among the Icelandic Church, especially among the clergy, and he accepted the post.

In the 15 years he served as bishop, St. Thorlak displayed the utmost courage and resolve as he faced opposition from all sides. He sought to implement some of the reforms in the Church that Pope Gregory VI had started over the past century in an effort to reverse some of the abuses that had seeped into the Icelandic Church. As he remained resilient and faithful to the Lord, he found some success in helping to sanctify the flock with which he was entrusted, and he became known not just for his humility, but also his boldness. During his reign as bishop, he sternly rebuked some of the chieftains of the time who attempted to undermine the Church’s authority on important moral issues.

In addition to his spiritual fervor, St. Thorlak also had a heart for the poor. Tales from his saga mention how he helped a poor man find a lost piece of string and aided a poor farmer’s wife in clubbing a seal so that her family could survive the Icelandic winter. It is stories like this and many others that owed to the revere of St. Thorlak among the Icelandic people.

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Eventually, St. Thorlak desired the solitude of monastic life once more, and planned to resign from his episcopacy to return to the monastery. However, he died on Dec. 23, 1193, before he could carry out this wish. The good work he did as bishop laid the foundation for the remnants of Catholicism that are still in Iceland today, and he was unofficially canonized five years later by the Bishop’s Assembly of Iceland. The Church formally recognized his canonization in January 1984, when Pope John Paul II named him the Patron of Iceland and added his feast to the Church’s liturgical calendar.

St. Thorlak has proven to be a powerful intercessor, with miracles attributed to him that are befitting of a mighty Norse bishop such as himself. One such story recounts a ship of merchants who encounter a fierce storm while at sea. They called upon St. Thorlak’s intercession, and the storm calmed, granting them safe passage. Chalk it up to a divine coincidence of sorts that the name Thorlak is derived from the Greek god Thor. Furthermore, some of the qualities he displayed during his life, such as his rigidity in manner and his strong adherence to the rituals of monastic life, have earned him an honorary recognition as the patron saint of those with autism.

Today, Icelanders celebrate Dec. 23 as Þorláksmessa, or the Mass of St. Thorlak, as the final day of Christmas preparations. They gather to eat cured fish before they break their fast for the holiday festivities. As a volcanic eruption disrupts Christmas plans in Iceland this year, may we call on St. Thorlak to intercede for the Icelandic people — for his own people — that they may show the same courage and resolve that he did in his time, and that St. Thorlak’s faithful efforts to spread the Gospel to the Icelandic people in his time will come to full fruition in our times with the hope that Jesus Christ freely gives us during the Christmas season.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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