An Orthodox church dominates the Karelian landscape near the town of Kuhmo. (photo: Riccardo Spilla/Grand Tour/Corbis)
Crosses mark the graves of Orthodox who died in Finland’s wars in this Helsinki cemetery. (photo: Bjorn Svensson/Alamy)
Thoughts of Finland conjure up images of fir trees blanketed with snow, crisp cold Arctic air, fresh water lakes, lingonberry preserves and reindeer. Golden icons, clouds of incense, beeswax candles and polyphonic chants do not figure in these musings. Yet, the world of Byzantium exists even in this land of Scandinavian simplicity.
The Orthodox Church of Finland includes an estimated 62,000 Finns, about 1 percent of the population. The church, however, plays a disproportionate role in modern Finland. The Finnish constitution establishes the Orthodox Church as a national church. The government collects taxes for the church while the Orthodox clergy (together with their Evangelical Lutheran peers) preside at affairs of state. In recent decades, the church has been energized by an increase of converts, an influx of Orthodox Greek, Romanian and Russian immigrants and renewed public interest in iconography, Orthodox theology and monastic spirituality.
Firmly rooted in the culture of the Byzantine East, the Orthodox Church of Finland is no stranger to the ethos of the West. Similar to the nation’s dominant Lutheran Church, Orthodox leaders emphasize the frequent reception of the Eucharist, encourage lay leadership and utilize the Gregorian calendar even for the celebration of Easter.
Origins. Though established in 1918, the autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland has ancient antecedents. Byzantine traders once exchanged their golden ducats for the flax, fur and timber of the Norsemen, who inhabited Scandinavia and the Russian north. Known throughout history as Normans, Vikings or Varangians, the Norsemen were a dynamic lot — traders, soldiers and mercenaries — who from their Scandinavian base intimidated much of Europe until the 12th century. They plundered Irish monasteries, raided Frankish settlements and threatened even the city of Constantinople, then the center of European civilization.
Perhaps as early as the ninth century, the Byzantines brought the Norsemen not just their currency, but their distinct form of the Christian faith. But the Gospels seem to have had little appeal among the Norse; the attributes and powers of Ovid, Thor and Freyr commanded a powerful hold.
Eventually, these “men from the North” assimilated with their Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Italo-Greek and Slavic subjects. They established states in the British Isles, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Sicily and, over time, most adopted Latin Christianity. In the 10th century, however, the Varangians of Rus’ accepted Byzantine Christianity. The faith took hold in the Rus’ cities of Kiev and Novgorod, helping to forge a distinct identity throughout the realm. The consequences remain even today: Modern Belarussians, Russians and Ukrainians regard ancient Rus’ as theirs.
A major commercial center on the trade route linking Scandinavia to Constantinople, Novgorod quickly became an important Christian center as well. From its cathedrals and monasteries, priests and monks worked among the people, including the Finnic tribes living in the region of Karelia and lands hugging the coast of the Baltic Sea. According to tradition, two 12th-century monks, Sergei and Herman, left Novgorod and founded a monastery on the nearby island of Valamo in Lake Ladoga, the largest fresh water lake in Europe. From this monastic center and its subsequent daughter houses, most of Karelia was evangelized.
As relations soured between Byzantine and Latin Christians after the Great Schism of 1054, affairs between the Orthodox Rus’ of Novgorod and the Catholic Swedes turned violent. Squeezed between the two, Finland became a battleground, as each power tried to control the region, its people and its faith. After generations of war, a permanent peace in 1323, known as the Treaty of Nöteborg, established the borders between the rivals and settled the religious question. Those Finnic tribes living in Swedish-controlled Finland eventually adopted the Catholic faith, assimilated with Swedish society and participated in the cultural life of the Christian West. Those living in Karelia remained Orthodox.
The Finns of Karelia celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Orthodox Eastern Slavs, and thus closely identified with what became the Russian Empire.
Modern era. In 1617, the Swedes overran Karelia. They torched the ancient monasteries of Lake Ladoga and drove out its monks. By then zealous Lutherans, the Swedes imposed Protestant practices on the surviving Orthodox populace. The Swedes translated Lutheran catechisms into Church Slavonic, required their use in Orthodox parishes and forbade the formation of Orthodox clergy. Rather than live subjugated, the majority of the area’s Orthodox population migrated to the Russian city of Tver, where their language and customs survived until the early 20th century.
In 1721 — after more than 20 years of war — the imperial forces of Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great retook Karelia. On the islands of Lake Ladoga, devout Russians reestablished the area’s ancient monasteries and a flowering of religious life ensued.
From St. Petersburg, their new capital on the Gulf of Finland, Peter’s successors turned their attention to the West. Eager to gain access to ports and commercial routes, as well as secure the area around the capital, they pressed for control of all of Finland.
In 1809, Tsar Alexander I wrested Finland from Sweden, though retaining a constitution created for it by the Swedish king in 1772. Until Finland’s independence in 1917, a diverse Orthodox Church flourished there: a Russian-dominated church in the capital of Helsinki and in garrison churches serving the Russian Imperial Army; a Finnish-dominated church serving parishes in Karelia and remote areas, particularly above the Arctic Circle, inhabited by indigenous populations such as the Skolt Saame; and a church serving the Swedish-speaking bourgeoisie.
As Finnish leaders consolidated their power and asserted their autonomy, Orthodox leaders translated the liturgical books into the Finnish and Swedish vernaculars. They also translated works of Orthodox history, spirituality and theology. To encourage further developments, the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church set up an eparchy in 1892 for Finland’s diverse Orthodox community.
Nevertheless, the assertion of Finnish identity — even within the Orthodox Church — prompted an era of Russification, which began soon after Tsar Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894.
Independence. The abdication of the tsar in 1917, and the turmoil that followed, enabled the Finnish state to sever its ties with Russia and declare independence. In 1921, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and All Russia granted autonomy to the Orthodox Finns as well. As the Bolsheviks stepped up their persecution of the Orthodox Church of Russia, Orthodox Finns asked to be taken under the protection of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. Despite the protestations of the Moscow patriarchate, this was granted and, in 1923, the Orthodox Church of Finland was declared an autonomous church under Constantinople.
While some Orthodox parishes could be found scattered throughout the new country, the center of the Orthodox Church of Finland remained in its eastern province of Karelia.
The Winter War (1939-40) between Finland and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent Soviet annexation of Karelia, however, soon changed that. About 90 percent of the parishes and properties of the church were lost, including its seminary and monasteries in Lake Ladoga. Rather than submit to Soviet oppression, Orthodox Karelian families, monks, priests, seminarians and sisters fled for the security of central Finland.
The Finnish government quickly resettled the refugees. Throughout the 1950’s, new parishes were founded, churches built, a seminary set up and eparchies erected. Monks reestablished the Valamo monastery in central Finland and, shortly thereafter, a convent for women religious was built nearby. Today, the centers receive hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year and host an ever-growing number of academic workshops and spiritual retreats. Icon conservation studios also flourish.
In 1988, the Orthodox Church of Finland closed its independent seminary and moved its students to the state-run University of Joensuu, where an Orthodox theological faculty was established. Cantors, catechists and seminarians live in a separate residence near the campus, where they focus on liturgy and spirituality and study with other students at the university, which also offers degree programs for seminarians in the Lutheran tradition.
Archbishop Leo of Karelia and All Finland has governed the church since his election by representatives of the clergy and laity in 2001. Confirmed by the ecumenical patriarch soon after his election, the archbishop is assisted by three bishops, two of whom are charged with running their own eparchies.
While the Orthodox Church of Finland includes some 150 churches and chapels scattered across Finland, its influence reaches far beyond Scandinavia. Orthodox Finns support the apostolic endeavors of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in Kenya and Uganda. They participate in international ecumenical forums with the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. And they have partnered with their Russian colleagues, providing moral support and financial assistance to reconstitute the original Valamo Monastery in Russian Karelia.
Though small, the Orthodox Church of Finland is unique in the Orthodox world, fusing in a creative way the contributions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox clergy and laity — regardless of gender — and in fostering ecumenism in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.