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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Thorlak Thorhallsson

December 22, 2015 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In Iceland, the land on the far north of the Atlantic Ocean, the people prepare for Christmas with traditions that go back nearly 1,000 years. They thoroughly clean their homes from top to bottom. Then they prepare a meal of cured skate (shark meat), mashed potatoes, and a shot of Brennivin as they close out the final day of Christmas fasting. This is called Thorlak’s Tradition. In the tapestry of Icelandic history, he became the patron saint of Iceland.
In Iceland, the earliest inhabitants included Irish monks who came for the quiet solitude of the distant land. However, they were soon driven out by the Vikings who brought their Norse paganism in the ninth century.
Around 900, there was another Christian conversion brought by the Scandinavian and German missionaries. The Norwegian king also put pressure on the citizens of Iceland to convert as he established Christianity as the official religion. Despite this conversion, many Icelanders clung to their pagan ways, except for idol worship and infanticide.
At the time of Thorlak’s birth, after two hundred years of Christianity being restored in Iceland, the Church suffered from laxity. Like many other times in the history of the Church, the crisis stemmed from a clergy that did not observe their vows of chastity, a clergy that sold church offices for personal enrichment, and other gravely sinful practices.
In the Diocese of Skalholt in the small village of Fljotshilth in southern Iceland, the man who would become the patron saint of Iceland came into the world. Born in 1133, Thorlak came from a poor family of farmers hardly able to subsist on the bit of land they worked. His parents recognized his uncommon intelligence and skills, as did others who confirmed his devotion and understanding of Catholic doctrine. Thus, they convinced a local priest to tutor the young boy.
By 1146, Thorlak was ordained a deacon, followed five years later by his Ordination to the priesthood at the age of 18. His education did not end with his Ordination.
He soon left Iceland to study theology in France. From 1153 to 1159 he resided in a monastery where he learned the monastic life style of the Augustinians. He embraced the solitude, study, and prayer, which brought much peace to the young man so disturbed by the abuses in Iceland. In 1159 he left Paris to study in Lincoln, England, until 1161 when he returned to Iceland.
Thorlak missed the idealistic lifestyle of the monastery, especially the strict adherence to priestly celibacy and the spiritual as well as the actual poverty.
When he returned to Iceland, he was immediately assaulted by the abuses in the Church. The failure of the clergy to adhere to their virtue of chastity offended him.
Being a tall and handsome young man as well as one of known piety, he was put under pressure to marry a widow by various people in upper society. Of course, he adamantly but charitably refused their promptings. In fact, he had to withstand the pressure of a powerful chieftain who was having an affair with the bishop’s own sister!
Thorlak prayed even more to avoid and resist such secular temptations. As his reputation for holiness and faithfulness to the teachings of the Church spread throughout the country, a man who owned a large farm came to appreciate Thorlak’s saintliness.
When the farmer died, he left his tract of land to Thorlak.
Thorlak now could replicate the Augustinian rule even better now that he had the land. He knew that he could better conquer the secular temptations by founding a monastery in Iceland for prayer and study. This monastery was the first of its kind in Iceland.
Thorlak established an order of canons regular and became their abbot. He lived with them for only a few years before the Norwegian Archbishop Augustine Erlendsson called for Thorlak to serve as bishop of Skalholt, Iceland. He was installed as bishop in 1178.
As bishop, he worked to end the abuses in the Church both by the clergy and the laity. With the laxity and abuses of chastity by the clergy, the Church became chaotic. The laity began interfering with the administration of Church matters, seeking to place relatives and friends in positions of influence by simony.
Of course this led to many persons trying to limit the influence of Bishop Thorlak, but he had the support of Archbishop Erlendsson who was also seeking to implement similar reforms in Norway.
Erlendsson, in following the call of the late Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century to practice a stricter discipline of clerical celibacy, worked to have a Church more independent of secular authorities.
For 15 more years, Thorlak struggled to raise the spirituality of his sheep. He succeeded to a certain extent. In 1193, at the age of 60, he decided to resign from his position and return to the monastery he had founded. Although he had accepted the bishop’s mitre, he longed to be among the men at the monastery in solitude and prayer.
However, before this goal could be realized, Thorlak died on December 23, 1193. Thorlak’s work had been widely acclaimed in Iceland. Only five years after his death, the Assembly of Iceland declared him a saint.
It took the Roman Catholic Church a bit longer to recognize the sanctity of Bishop Thorlak. On January 14, 1984 Pope St. John Paul II declared Thorlak Thorhallsson to be a saint and named him the patron saint of Iceland.
There are only two other saints of Iceland: St. Jon Ogmundson and Blessed Guthmund the Good. St. Thorlak’s statue now stands in the Catholic cathedral of Reykjavik, Iceland.
Dear St. Thorlak, you loved prayer and solitude and saw it as a way to strengthen our wills to be in conformance with God’s will. Help us, we pray, that the clergy will seek to be disciplined and the laity will strive for holy obedience. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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