A long way from Bilbao to Helsinki — By: The Pillar

Pope Francis appointed Father Raimo Goyarrola as Bishop of Helsinki last month, after a four year sede vacante in the diocese.

Goyarrola, a priest of Opus Dei and a physician, has lived in Helsinki since 2006, when he was assigned to work as a university chaplain in the country. His ministry soon expanded — in 2011, he was appointed Helsinki’s diocesan vicar general.  

Fr. Raimo Goyarrola. Credit: Vatican media.

The diocese of Helsinki covers the whole of Finland, a traditionally Lutheran country, which has fewer than 20,000 Catholics in just eight parishes, who constitute less than one percent of the country’s population. 

But the Catholic population of Finland grows by a few hundred Catholics each year, with some converts, babies baptized each year, and a growing population of migrants from Africa and Latin America. Still, the country is one of the most secularized in Europe, and the national confessional churches are Lutheran and Orthodox.

Goyarrola will be consecrated Bishop of Helsinki on Nov. 25. The liturgy will be celebrated in  the Johanneksen Kirkko, the best-known Lutheran church in Helsinki, with the country’s Lutheran and Orthodox hierarchy as invited guests.

“Catholics come from all over the country [for the ordination], along with Lutherans and Orthodox Finns. “Our cathedral seats 300 people at most, and this church has a capacity of 2,600 people,” Goyarrola told The Pillar.

The priest spoke with The Pillar in a wide-ranging interview about the situation of the Catholic Church in Finland, the role of the laity in evangelization, and about apostolic work in a secularized world. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The circumstances of Catholicism in Finland are little known, so the first thing for us would be a general overview of the Church in Finland.

In Finland there are officially 17,000 Catholics, but we estimate that there are about 30,000, because of the immigrants and refugees arriving from Africa — many of whom are Catholics — and then immigrants and refugees from Venezuela and Nicaragua, among other Latin American countries. 

There are only eight parishes for the country, which is the size of Italy.

But we have a very alive Church, which grows every year with more or less 500 new Catholics. 

In fact, I think we are the only Christian Church that grows in Finland. That is something that makes me somewhat sad, because it means that there are many people who are not baptized. 

Sixty-eight percent of the 5 million Finns are Lutheran, but the majority are non-practicing. Furthermore, this means that there are one million Finns who do not belong to any religion. Most of the churches are empty.

But here in Helsinki we have two parishes and we have five or six Masses every Sunday and they are all full. Our problem is one of space, [laughs], there is no room for Catholics and that requires us to have more parishes or more chapels of our own, because we celebrate Mass in 25 cities without Catholic churches. 

This means that there are 25 churches, Lutheran or Orthodox, which lend us space to celebrate the Holy Mass.

Ecumenism in this country is a wonder, it is a miracle because thanks to them, we can offer Mass in 25 cities.

Ours is a very “catholic” Church, that is, very universal: We have more than 100 nationalities, with languages ​​from all continents. This is both a wealth and a challenge because, what does the Catholic Church mean in Finland? 

Of course, the Finnish, local element is important; we live in Finland.

Eight parishes for approximately 30,000 Catholics does not sound like a lot, plus they are spread over a huge geographic area.

So, what is this pastoral work like in such a large country, with Catholics so spread across the country, and with such a small number of parishes and priests?

This requires priests to travel, travel and travel. We go where the families are, many Masses are in cities where there is no church, as I told you, where there is no Catholic parish. 

Therefore, we travel a lot.

Before the pandemic we started a Mass in a small apartment with a family in a city called Kerava, 40 km from Helsinki. 

I proposed to them “well, let’s double up, let’s invite another family!” 

The following Sunday there were already two families and we couldn’t fit in such a small apartment. So I spoke to the town’s Lutheran pastor and he let us use his parish chapel. The pandemic was beginning then, so the only thing it demanded of us was that we not exceed the limit of 20 people.

But when we got to the point where there were 27 of us, I had a guilty conscience! Still, he told us that there was no problem but that we should maintain social distance and wear masks.

When the pandemic hit, all churches in Finland were closed except ours. The Catholic Church continued with its doors open. We offered a greater number of Masses with fewer people, others followed it online, but we did not close [the churches].

At the end of the pandemic, we continued with that Mass in the [Kerava] Lutheran church and on Sundays approximately 100 people now go, including some Lutherans, who like how we Catholics pray, and who are considering being Catholic.

It’s very simple: when you are with people, when you are where they are, the Church grows. 

That is the effort that we shepherds make, as Pope Francis says, to “smell like sheep,” and that means going out and searching. 

How are people going to come if there are no Catholic schools, no Catholic hospitals? 

Here, there is none of that! But that has its advantages because either you go out and do things, or they don’t happen. So it stops you from falling into the trap of saying “well, let people come.” 

The thing is, how are they going to come if they are 300 kilometers from the nearest church? It is a bit of Pope Francis’ line: to be a Church going out, going out to be with people wherever they are. 

It doesn’t matter that the distances are enormous—and you can imagine winter with snow and ice, right? And Finland is a rich country, but the Finnish Catholic Church is one of the poorest in Europe. There are 11 months a year with the heating on and prices have skyrocketed with the war, and it is a church of many immigrants and refugees, so we have a significant economic challenge.

But again, material poverty is a help. Why? Because you trust God more. If we had all the money in the world, we might think that money is what solves problems. 

But since we don’t have money, here we pray a lot [laughs], and by praying a lot, we see that there are many vocations, many conversions, many incorporations into the Church.

Subscribe now

What is the vocational situation like in Finland?

Are there local priests, religious, are there any seminaries in Finland?

We have had five Finnish priestly vocations in recent years. We are 29 priests in the country, of which 6 are diocesan priests from Helsinki and another 2 “borrowed” from other dioceses. 

Something very beautiful has happened here — there are three priests who came here as refugees as children, and have discovered their vocation here, two from Vietnam and one from Rwanda.

And in addition to two other Finns, we have the Priests of the Sacred Heart with some Polish priests, the Neocatechumenal Way with eight priests, and its own seminary, two Dominican brothers (one French and one Finnish) and the Opus Dei, of that work we are 5 priests. 

Every year we have some seminarian in Rome studying for the priesthood.

I am excited to do more vocations ministry for the priesthood in Finland. I dream of my own seminary in Helsinki with local vocations. It is a priority, but it requires work, time and a lot of faith, but it will come.

What is the history of the Church in Finland?

I’ll tell you from the beginning. In 1100 the bishop of Sweden arrived and began to evangelize Finland, then from 1100 to 1550 Finland was Catholic. 

In 1550 the Reformation came to Finland and until 1917, when Finland became independent from Russia, there was no religious freedom — so no Finn could be Catholic. By the way, the first country to recognize its independence was the Vatican along with Austria.

A law on religious freedom was approved and in 1920 the Apostolic Vicariate of Helsinki was created, entrusted to the priests of the Sacred Heart. They started from scratch. 

In 1955 the diocese was established, so we have not reached 70 years as a diocese, we are not yet senile [laughs].

It is a diocese but at the same time it is a mission. Although, of course, today any diocese is a mission. 

In Finland there are one million Finns who do not belong to anything, so that is an imperative to bring them the Gospel.

Father, there is a perception that Lutherans in Finland are closer theologically to Catholicism than are other Lutheran churches.

Why is that?

The German Reformation had a very large political component, an entire anti-Roman background — and so political, socioeconomic and theological components were mixed.

But Finland was part of Sweden. And when the King of Sweden became Lutheran, it was not because of his theological convictions, but because he kept the lands, the parishes and the wealth of the Church.

Finland is very far from Rome, so there was little sociological need to mark some kind of break, especially because it was not a Reformation of the people, but that of the king. 

So, decades after the Reformation, there was still Eucharistic adoration, devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the liturgy is more similar to the Mass than it is in other confessions.

The change from a Catholic to Protestant mentality here was much more gradual than, for example, in Germany—it took 100 years or more. 

After all, we are at the end of the world [laughs], Rome is very far away and they were very simple people living in the forest — they were not very interested in the politics.

The contemporary Finnish Lutheran is, in many ways, theologically closer to the Catholic than to the German Lutheran, so it is possible to have a deep and real theological dialogue and relationships of mutual trust.

Now, on a more personal level, how does a Basque from Opus Dei end up in Finland? Because from Bilbao to Helsinki it is a long way… 


It’s funny, because since I was little I was very interested in northern Europe, I always wanted to live in northern Europe and I had that in my heart all my life. 

In 2005, the bishop of Helsinki invited the prelate of Opus Dei, who was then Bishop Javier Echevarría, to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the diocese, and asked him for an Opus Dei priest in Finland.

Originally Bishop Javier told him that we did not have enough priests, but the Finnish bishop insisted and insisted, and in Opus Dei, they eventually thought of me. 

They called me, they asked me if I wanted to go to Finland and I immediately said “yes, yes, yes” [laughs]. 

So they told me to calm down, to think about it carefully, that Finnish was a difficult language, a different culture, very cold, very dark.

But I was determined, and here I am, very happy and with a Finnish passport, heart and head. 

In this country I feel at home, I am very happy here. So I think that a very human desire of mine and a divine desire came together. Because in the end God is involved in our good wishes, God wants you to be happy, and in my experience — it’s not that I’m old, but I’m already of a certain age [laughs] — I see that what makes me happy, with my own very human dreams, that God has granted me.

In fact, I am fulfilling a dream I had as a doctor. 

I have not lost my vocation as a doctor; Jesus was a doctor, almost all of his first miracles were healings. So as a pastor and doctor, sometimes our work is curative, with the grace of God through the sacraments, but also sometimes it is palliative, consoling, listening, accompanying and giving affection.

The kind of palliative care shows that the patient is not just morphine and pain, and caring for them is reaching their spirit, being in their suffering, offering comfort.

Subscribe now

We know that one of Pope Francis’ main themes is the reception of migrants.

How has that pastoral work been in Finland, which has refugees from around the world? 

Our challenge is that the people who arrive are very far from the churches, literally. 

The first thing is to figure out where the migrants are, because when they arrive in the country, the refugees who are admitted are usually sent to cities which, unfortunately, are very far from the Catholic churches.

Once you are admitted to the country, I think the system works well, since you receive Finnish courses, education grants, among other things. And then, little by little people integrate when they meet others from their home country or region.

There is an area that is three-and-a-half hours from the nearest Catholic church, and we have started a Mass once a month there, in Spanish, because there are a lot of refugees and migrants from Latin America. The local Orthodox church lent us the church for Mass.

In situations like that, you start with the Mass and that generates more sacraments, confession, baptisms, marriages, confirmations.

But still, it is a parish in the diaspora, three-and-a-half hours from the nearest Catholic church, and you can only get there once a month. So the challenge is that many people are very far from the churches—literally.

Another challenge is the language. 

A few years ago, with the war, thousands of refugees came from Burma, some of them Catholics, and they only spoke Burmese. 

We managed to bring a priest from Burma, with an agreement with his bishop, so that priest is with us. 

We try to serve the people where they are. It’s not easy, but we are doing everything we can and reaching many people with the few resources we have.

About half of Finland’s Catholics are immigrants and refugees, the rest are Finnish people.

Do you find that those communities are connected to each other, or are they mostly separate?

This is a debate that has been going on in Sweden for many years because there are many immigrants and within the parishes, each language group has its own chaplaincy — parishes will have a Hispanic, Vietnamese, Polish chaplaincy, and others.

My Swedish colleagues have told me that when you have a parish with many small groups, they do not know each other.

Here we try to serve people as much as possible in their language, respecting their culture — but at the same time we are in Finland. 

This is a Finnish Catholic Church regardless of whether you come from Vietnam, Kenya, or El Salvador.

It is hard to learn the language — a cultural and linguistic challenge — but I see in Finland a positive kind of integration of new people. We have an annual celebration across the diocese, and there you can see the catholicity of the Church — people of all colors, all languages. You can see also unity, and everyone speaks, or tries to speak Finnish. The language is a unifier — and local Finns get excited when they see someone making the effort to learn the language.

I see a united Catholic Church, with cultural and linguistic challenges. But I believe that Catholicism is so strong that it makes up for the differences, you know? 

How do you carry out an apostolic mission in a country with such a post-Christian culture, and without Catholic traditions, which Finland has not had for 500 years?

How do you begin the project of evangelization? 

We are in a global village. There is the internet, so the Catholic Church is known globally, although here we are in a small family.

Benedict XVI was key in the theological and intellectual environment of Finland, he gave immense prestige to Catholicism. 

John Paul II visited Finland in 1989 and was very well received. It was an impressive visit and the Finnish people went out of their way to welcome him. 

Now, Pope Francis has a very positive medial profile; 

So you have three popes who are very well regarded here, with prestige, which has helped the local Catholic Church a lot.

Now, how to do our apostolate? 

Pope Francis says it: with your testimony. At your workplace, wherever it may be, you sit down to talk with one or another, you ask what they did over the weekend and they tell you “Nothing, we went to the summer house” or “I went out and got drunk” — and when they ask you, you tell them “Well look, I had a great time as a family, we went to Mass on Sunday and then we went out to eat together as a family.”

And they will tell you: “Mass on Sunday, what is that?” and you explain to them and that’s it. 

Evangelization is giving an example in ordinary life, you see someone with a sad face and you ask them how you can help them, you ask them if they want you to pray for something or someone specifically. The lived testimony of offering closeness to people is key.

I have a lot of experience with atheists — not those who have made the conscious decision not to believe, not those whose religion is not to believe — but the kind of people who have simply never believed, without much thought. I find they are very open, and when they see that there is trust and affection and friendship and you talk about God as a very normal thing, then they start to ask.

Every year quite a few people convert to the faith here, and it all starts with a normal and ordinary dialogue. 

You just have to start talking to people — invite them to eat, and when there is more friendship, tell them that we pray for them, that we are there for them. That bears fruit.

Furthermore, it is within everyone’s reach: The risk in our Church is to think that the Church is the bishops and the pope, but the layman is also the Church! 

You are the Church on Monday in the factory, you are the Church on Tuesday in the gym lifting weights and praying for what’s around you, the layman is the Church on Wednesday making food for the children. Everything you do well, for the love of God and offered to God, you do as the Church.

That’s it: testimony, prayer, friendship. And then comes talk—which comes out naturally, because people talk about who they are. And when there is naturalness and closeness, prejudices fall and interest arises. God always gives grace and moves hearts.

Subscribe now

Finland is a very politically progressive country, with strong support for abortion, euthanasia, and a vision of sexuality at odds with the Church.

How does that impact the work of the Church for you?

We swim against the current. The ideology of the moment is clear, but I like to say that our message is positive.

I never try to say “no” because that doesn’t contribute anything. 

It is not saying “no to euthanasia”, it is offering the alternative of palliative care. I am convinced that if you offer quality palliative care for all Finns, no one will ask for euthanasia. 

What is the point of saying “no to euthanasia” without providing a solution? 

And the Catholic Church has solutions that come from 2,000 years of experience.

For example, I don’t like to say “no to abortion.” 

That rhetoric would be shocking in Finland because people think that abortion is a right, right? So I say “yes to children,” because in Finland we need children. 

The Finnish demographic pyramid has already been completely reversed; there is a social concern because taxes are not going to be enough as more people begin to collect their pensions.

So we begin in simple language: we need children. And in that way, you began to explain that the Catholic Church is in favor of life because we defend children. 

Unfortunately we swim against the current, not because we want to contradict anyone, but because we offer a path that is natural, that is ecological. It is a path of peace, of happiness, of adding, not of confronting anyone.

The doors are open for people who want to enter this path called Jesus and this path that is Jesus will give you life.

It is a beautiful path and a true path. 

In fact, it is important to emphasize that the truth is beautiful, the truth of Jesus in the Gospel, the truth of the Church, is a beautiful truth.

And Jesus is still alive in the Church. The Church is the visible face of Jesus that presents us with a path of happiness here on earth, which then continues to Heaven to live eternally in peace and joy. 

Now, that road is uphill, it is a mountain—you have to go up. 

We find that the current moves downwards, it is easier to follow it. But we want to go to the top of the mountain to see the landscape, which is immense, it is wonderful. 

It is not that we want to contradict anyone, it is that we want, with freedom, to change the course of the current towards heaven.

Do you think the Church in Finland has something to teach the Church in the rest of the world?


I’m in no position to say that! 

But I do think Finland is a global example of ecumenism. We had three years of official dialogue with the Lutherans, and we produced a document that has been congratulated in Rome — it is a wonderful document about the Church, ministry and the Eucharist. 

Finnish Lutherans believe almost the same as us in these aspects, we are very close.

When the news of my appointment came out, many Lutheran pastors and Orthodox priests wrote to me, congratulating me, putting themselves at my service, asking what I need, asking me to ask them for whatever I want. It’s amazing!

We are also a very international Church, we have more than 100 nationalities, so I could say that there is an example here of coexistence. 

We live in a globalized world, with people from all over living everywhere, so I think a critical issue is how to coexist.

We must raise the level a little — and see that from heaven, God sees one earth, one humanity and one Church. 

So the differences are when we look at ourselves, from the bottom up and think that we are superior. That’s why the key [to coexistence] is service: first the pastors, the priests. 

When we serve, it seems to me that integration is much easier, locals and immigrants come together, to serve together. 

That’s the key verb: serve. Someone who comes from outside and feels served will then learn to serve, and then he will serve those who come from outside—it is a contagious chain.

So maybe fewer words and fewer theories and instead, this:  “I’m going to serve. I will serve.”

It is not letting myself be served by the Church, but serving. Serving the Church, serving my sisters, my brothers, they are the Church! 

The Church is not a theory, we are people here on earth and above all the Church is the body of Christ.

In the diocese of Helsinki, there is a very striking Eucharistic piety: for us Jesus is the center. 

The Eucharistic piety is such that many families who live far from a church, among the forests, ask me: “Please, can’t we have a tabernacle at home?”

That seems like a very beautiful question to me. 

If the center of life is Jesus, there are no problems. There will be challenges, there will be adventures, but we will not see insurmountable difficulties. 

I see this deep Eucharistic piety in the Catholics in Finland and that is where I see the present and the future.

We are a small number of Catholics in Finland. 

But to me, the parable of salt and light helps me a lot: too much light blinds you, it doesn’t let you see. 

If we are enough light for others to see, then that’s enough. 

And if a dish has too much salt, you can’t eat anything. 

So I see our Church as a small family — that salt and that light — and God will do his part and send us more Catholics, if He wants.

As long as Jesus is the protagonist, things are fine. Wherever we are, if Jesus is the center of our life – especially in the Eucharist – there is the present and the future.

Subscribe now


  Read More