Since the Reformation, Iceland has been officially Lutheran. Today only 2500 of its 200,000 population are Catholic, and these are of recent vintage. Nevertheless, a century after the Faith had been introduced there, (around A.D. 1000), this strange island of glaciers and hot springs was divided into two dioceses: Holar and Skalholt. One of the early bishops of the latter see was Thorlak Thorhallursson, born in 1133 to Viking farmer Thorhallur.
Thorlak’s mother, especially aware of the promise of this serious and devout boy, saw to it that he was instructed in religion by a learned priest. As a result he leaned to the priesthood. His learning and ability must have been outstanding, for he was ordained a deacon when only 15, and a priest when only 20.
After a few years of parish work, Father Thorlak was sent to Paris, and then to Lincoln, England, for further studies. He remained away from Iceland six years.
Thorlak grew up in a period when the Church in the West was in decline. Laymen were encroaching on church property, and Christian morals and the rule of clerical celibacy were widely disregarded. Toward the end of the eleventh century, however, a vast reform movement was launched by Pope St. Gregory VII. Among his decrees were those forbidding lay control of church property, and those emphasizing the obligation of priests to cultivate the virtues of poverty, celibacy and obedience. When Thorlak returned to Iceland, he was zealous in his determination to enforce these reforming laws.
Oddly enough, soon after his arrival he was tempted by his uncles to disobey the reform laws. Celibacy of the clergy had long been taken with a grain of salt in Iceland. Custom had made it “acceptable” for a priest to marry a widow, so his relatives urged Father Thorlak to take as a bride a certain wealthy widow. Thorlak finally said that he would. But then he had a dream in which a man appeared who told him that he would be wedded to a far nobler spouse and none other. The sense of that directive would appear only later, when Thorlak was “wedded”, as bishop, to the see of Skalholt. At any rate, he obeyed the dream.
For six years, Father Thorlak served as a pastor. Then in 1168 he founded, at the request of a rich man, a “canon house” or monastery at Thikkvibaer. Subsequently becoming its abbot, he turned this religious house into a center of devotion and intellectual pursuits.
In 1174, the aging bishop of Skalholt resigned, and Thorlak was chosen in his place. The reason for this choice was not only Thorlak’s education and personal qualities, but because he was a gifted fund raiser. (Bishops had financial problems even in those days!)
The Diocese of Skalholt was in the province of the Archdiocese of Trondheim, Norway. When Thorlak was installed, the reformist Archbishop Eysteinn Erlendsson of Trondheim urged him to defend the property rights of the Church and enforce its reform laws. Bishop Thorlak did the best he could to persuade lay holders of church property to hand over those holdings to the bishop, as church law required. His greatest problem, however, was in countering immorality. He had to take to task even Jon Loftsson, a chieftain who had had an affair with the Bishop’s own sister. Even the threat of excommunication did not budge Jon at first. Afterwards, however, he did repent.
Thorlak’s principal weapon against immorality was a “penitential” – a booklet listing the strict penances that would be imposed for specified sins and crimes, backed by the threat of excommunication. If he was not completely successful in his efforts, Thorlak at least started the trend towards reform.
Bishop Thorlak was officially declared “blessed” by his successor Bishop Pall in 1237. Beatification and canonization up to that century had been proclaimed by local bishops. This had been the original method of beatification and canonization. In 1234, however, the popes reserved such procedures to themselves.
“St. Thorlak”, therefore, has never received papal canonization. But he has long been venerated in Scandinavian countries, in England, and even in Constantinople. His shrine at Skalholt, built “at the cost of 480 cows”, remained a pilgrimage site until destroyed during the Reformation; and 56 churches were dedicated to him in Iceland alone. Pope John Paul II himself has referred to him as the “patron saint of the Icelandic people before God.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara