Helsinki, Finland. Wikimedia Commons

Adventure in the Big Chill

What it means to become a Christian in a society where the State manages life from womb to tomb. Faith gives the best conditions for living in every circumstance. The testimony of two tiny communities in Sweden and Finland.
Luca Doninelli

Rosi is a university professor. Some fifteen years ago she happened to go to Helsinki, Finland. She looked for a Catholic church. She found it. But it was too late for Mass. She went in just the same to take Communion, and there she met Fr. Ian Aarts, a Dutch priest in Finland for thirty years. Fr. Ian is a very broad-minded man. Rosi told him about CL. "We became friends," she later recounted to Fr. Giussani.

He looked at her. "This will last a long time," he answered.

"This is something," Rosi confesses, "that I understood many years later." In effect, the hardest thing, she says, is precisely this: to give birth to a true friendship. "For a friendship to be born, it is necessary to bring out what we are. In a country like Finland, where everything is organized, the self is only a cog in the great machine of society. And it stays hidden."

"Becoming friends," I answer, "is always difficult. It is easier to become a hero than to become a friend." "Yes," she replies, "but now listen to what this means in Finland."

The only Finnish saint
Rosi met Manuel, who became fascinated by the experience of the Movement and participated in the International Vacation in Corvara in 1986.

Manuel invited Rosi to the pilgrimage that annually, since the 1950s, Finnish Catholics (there are 7,000 of them, although only 200 take part in the pilgrimage-the numbers are important, we shall see why later on) make, along with some Protestants, to the spot where St. Henrik, the only Finnish saint, was killed. But he wasn't really Finnish. He was a Scottish soldier who evangelized Finland. Since then, pilgrimages to St. Henrik's tomb are the major gesture made by the entire CL community in Finland.

St. Henrik died in grotesque circumstances. Manuel told me the story as follows:
"Henrik stopped to eat at an inn. The innkeeper was not there, but his wife was. Henrik, who, as he was a prelate, was not obligated to pay for his meal [ecclesiastical privilege], paid for it anyway. But the innkeeper's wife kept the money for herself and told her husband, whose name was Lalli, that Henrik had not paid. Thus Lalli, who must not have been a very approachable person, caught up with Henrik and killed him. Keep in mind," Manuel added, "that St. Henrik had been completely forgotten in Finland. So much so that the tradition of the pilgrimage dates from the 1950s. Just think, in Finland there still exists a sports club named after Henrik's murderer, the 'Lalli Sports Club.' I don't think I have to add any more."

I hope I have misunderstood what Manuel said. This, in any case, could be the Europe of the future.

Daily life
In Finland life is very good (aside from the cold). The population is small, well-to-do, and well taken care of. The rate of unemployment is quite high, but this is not a problem, because unemployment compensation is higher than the salary of someone just starting to work. A student has a stipend of around $325 a month, plus free rent. With less than $3, in any snack bar you can eat a piece of salmon plus a vegetable. Not bad. Watch out, however, for salary raises. Just as soon as they raise your salary, they take away your housing subsidy.

The picture is already clear. Business enterprise is greatly assisted, but at the level of big companies (we are familiar with Nokia). In general, the State prefers an unemployed drunk at its mercy to a dynamic person who works, gets involved with reality, and thus risks becoming a "self," an "I." There is nothing like a confrontation with reality for developing the human personality. This is what the State fears. Thus it manages the citizens' lives completely. It's a shame that all this concern destroys the "I" worse than an atomic bomb.

The Finnish CL adherents, who meet weekly for School of Community, are no more than ten or so. Now Cesare, who works for Nokia, is there with them. Cesare tells me that their greatest problem for meetings, with ten small children, is finding babysitters. Up north, it is not the usual practice for grandmothers to take care of their grandchildren, and babysitters are very hard to find.

The State takes care of everything, the State is so good that there is no room for School of Community. Hegel, said it well: the State is God who comes into the world (and plans to stay a long time). You'll see-I say to console him-when your children start school.
Well, he answers, we already know a little about that. For instance, parents have no voice in the education of their children. The schools take the children away from them at a very young age; the schools will be the ones whose task it is to help them grow up.

Do they succeed? Not very well. Juvenile delinquency is high, but since the families have been trained not to take responsibility for their children, the only thing they know how to do is complain and blame the State. But they don't do anything about it. They recognize that there is a problem, but the fact that the solution does not exist is a given, accepted placidly by all.

Johann's story
The most extraordinary person in the small company in Helsinki is surely Johann. He works for Nokia along with Cesare and Manuel. Johann is the most faithful attendant to School of Community, even though he is… Protestant. But among us by now, the presence of Protestants, Orthodox, etc., is a normal fact. It is the normality of miracle, but a normality that arouses wonder, not habit. Johann is not Finnish; he comes from Iceland. He began associating with CL for a purely polemical purpose. Meetings always ended in argument. It seemed that he participated in School of Community only to confirm his own positions, which were completely opposed to ours. But things have changed.

Now that the embrace of our friends has happened, now that Johann is the first among us, is he happy?

"I believe so," Cesare answers, "even if he is alone. Lutherans don't have the sense of companionship: religion is something totally personal, something between me and God. If you talk of Christ with your colleagues at work, the least that will happen is they will say you are crazy."

"But there's another problem," Cesare continues. "Johann is 38 years old and he doesn't have a woman companion. You don't know what it means for an Icelander to be 38 and not have a woman. Up there, the man is an extension of the woman. Women are the ones who keep society going. Not to have a woman and children is a very bad thing. Do you see what the penetration of an experience like ours, founded so fully on self-awareness, can mean in a world like that?"

"I understand," is my answer. "But the companionship that you offer him, the fact that you care also about his problem of being without a woman, seems to me something even greater."

Before saying good night-at the Planibel Hotel by then it was 12:40 a.m.-Rosi, Manuel, and Cesare wanted to be sure to send best greetings to Johann. And to Fr. Ian, who continues to guide our friends with curiosity and affection. Every Sunday, after Mass, he offers coffee to everyone-a chance to enjoy in peace the wonder of our friendship.

Daily life in Sweden
But the idea of going to bed was out of the question. I had not finished saying goodbye to the three of them before I was stopped by three others: Samuele, Magdalena, and Pär. They are Swedish ."We've been waiting for you for two hours, and now you're not getting away from us." I estimated another two hours. And two hours it was.
Things in Sweden are not going much better than in Finland. The dominant ideology reaches everywhere. The complete welfare state, theorized after World War II by the economist Gunnar Myrdal and his wife Alva, provides for the State to take care of the citizen "womb to tomb." In fact, earlier than the womb, when the State, once you enter your teen years, sends to your home a packet of condoms with instructions for use. This is an anti-AIDS measure. It's called preventive medicine (on this topic, I advise everyone to read, or reread, the great novel by H. Stangerup, The Man who Wanted to be Guilty, Marion Boyars, 1991).

But not even older people are more highly esteemed. When they turned 65, Pär's grandparents received a nice letter from the State with advice on how to wash themselves….

"Here the individual is completely alone in front of the State," Pär explained. "If we are friends, it is because of an event that has nothing to do with the State." "I'm afraid that one day they'll realize this." "I'm afraid, too…. Rather, I'm not afraid."

Pär is a true northern hero. He told the story of the CL community in Sweden.
It was a Brazilian girl, Aparecida, who had come to Stockholm on a scholarship, who started School of Community in the Catholic mission, guided by Fr. Paolino. She was joined by Martin and Magdalena, brother and sister, who were Baptists.

Pär, instead, is a Catholic, and a strict one. He seems to have stepped out of a Dreyer film. His family-he recounts-would meet with others in a sort of cultural circle, where they would study and debate philosophical and theological questions. They were Thomists. Many of the conversations that took place in that extraordinary place hinged on a defense of Catholic thought. St. Thomas Aquinas was opposed to Kant, with clear victory going to the former and unmistakable humiliation being the lot of the latter.

One day Pär happened by the Catholic mission, and Fr. Paolino showed him the little group of School of Community. Pär approached them, already with a diffident attitude: what could they teach him? Nonetheless, he began to meet with them. When someone feels superior (or else feels inferior, so he acts superior), the atmosphere is ruined, even in a School of Community group. Pär certainly did not want to play second fiddle to this half-Japanese Brazilian. In fact, relations between the two were not idyllic. But the story went ahead just the same.

"There was something that these people had and I didn't have." Then, Aparecida went back to Brazil and Pär was left with Magdalena, Martin, and a few others.

"I couldn't read Fr. Giussani's words without submerging myself in the experience from which these words arose," he says. "Through a tiny opening, the whole universe opened up for me."

"What difference was there between the Catholicism you learned at home and Fr. Giussani's?" "From the doctrinal point of view, none. But there was one detail: Fr. Giussani's realism. That is, the correspondence between his words and human experience."

Martin (and Magdalena)
Magdalena watched us in silence, nodding her head. When I asked her something, she would point to Pär. A significant absence was felt in our group: that of Martin, Magdalena's brother. He was not at La Thuile. The two of them started talking about him.

If Pär is a northern hero, so surely is Martin. He is another impressive personage, not like anyone we find in our temperate climes. His story seems to have come right out of a movie.

In a completely a-Christian society like Sweden, Martin, from the time when he was a Baptist, surprised whomever he met by his serious approach to the Christian event. As a scholar of Latin language and literature, he had attacked energetically the texts of the Fathers of the Church. His fascination with those writings produced in him, however, a profound disquiet: the truth recounted by the Fathers did not correspond with his own Christian experience. There was something more in them, which he had to discover.
During a trip to southern Europe, Martin visited the Cathedral of Vienna. There he had a sort of flash, which led him to become a Catholic. It was a veritable aesthetic blow: it was enough for him to see that cathedral to understand better what the Fathers were saying. The space embraced by those forms corresponded with Totality. Everything was taken in, grasped. Good. For Martin, the encounter with CL made that intuition real, transforming it into an experience. The place that saved Totality was a human companionship.

Culture and its surroundings
Swedish culture is profoundly hostile to Catholicism and its claim. Up there, carpe diem prevails as an ideal: grab the fleeting moment. How tyrannical this position can be was described by Fabio Esposito in Traces (n. 9). The socialist theories of Myrdal and his wife have swept the field clear also of that profoundly dramatic culture, both Catholic and Protestant, which we still today identify as the "northern spirit," and which is expressed in the works of authors like Ibsen, Strindberg, Undset, Lagerkvist-authors who have been very dear to us in the course of our history.

But Pär shakes his head. "Today there is no human reality that corresponds any more to these great authors, not even in the Lutheran camp. They have swept everything away. The only one to give value to their dramatic force has been Fr. Giussani, even though many of these authors, albeit great, belong to a Protestant tradition that fought a bitter battle against the Catholics. For this reason, it is harder for me than for you to love Lagerkvist."

He was quiet a minute, then added, "We are a small company, but we have the task of making Sweden recognize that the foundation of her identity is realized, today, in experiences like ours."

These were his last words. It was a quarter to three. The words came to my mind that an old university buddy of mine had seen on a wall: "For anything less than this, I won't budge."

Outside, the night was splendid, the first one after two terrible days. The Milky Way was in the sky, and the flags flapped in front of the Planibel, in the surrounding silence.