A decade’s wait over – Trondheim to get a new bishop

After a vacancy that lasted just over a decade, the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim will finally have a bishop-prelate again. Since 2009, when Bishop Georg Müller was forced to retire (more about that here), the pastoral responsibility for the central Norwegian circumscription was in the hands of the bishop of Oslo, Bernt Eidsvig, who served as apostolic administrator.

89cc0ebd-d2a4-488a-87b7-6e5911d937dbThe new bishop of Trondheim is a Norwegian, but coming home by way of England, where he has been the abbot of the Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Leicestershire. Bishop-elect Erik Varden is, despite his role as abbot, young for a bishop. At 45, he is the fifteenth-youngest bishop in the world, and certainly the youngest in Scandinavia and Europe (if we exclude Ukraine, a country which can boast seven bishops aged 43 and younger). Additionaly, Fr. Varden has also not been a priest or a religious for very long. He entered the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 2002, made his first profession in 2004, his solemn vows in 2007 and was ordained a priest in 2011. He has been the abbot of Mount St. Bernard since April of 2015.

Fr. Varden was informed of his appointment by Archbishop Edward Adams, the Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain. The fact that it was that nuncio, and not Archbishop James Green, the papal representative to Norway, who made this call, does beg the question if the appointment was made with or without the latter’s involvement. In a letter to the faithful of Trondheim, who number some 14.000 in 5 parishes, Bishop-elect Varden reflects on the significance of the date on which he received the news, writing:

“On the feast of St Theodore of Tarsus, 19 September, I was told that the Pope had named me bishop of Trondheim. The Nuncio in London communicated the news. He could not have been kinder. He reminded me that Theodore, like me, had been a monk; that he, too, in the name of obedience had been asked to leave a life and brethren he loved dearly. A compatriot of St Paul, he was appointed to Canterbury in 669. And there, said the Nuncio, he became a blessing — a sign of the Church’s unity, which transcends national and cultural boundaries. Theodore ‘set the Church on a firm foundation’, says the Collect for the day, which continues: ‘[may we too] remain steadfast on the rock which is Christ and be obedient to the calling we have received’.”

In the same letter, the new bishop also outlines something of a mission statement. Sharing a conversation he had in Ireland with an elderly monk on his death bed, who said that it grieved him to see Christ disappearing from Ireland. Fr. Varden says this has been an inspiration for him ever since, and writes:

“The situation my brother referred to is the same in much of Europe. In a world, a time, ever more marked by indifference and cynicism, hopelessness and division, it is our task to stand for something else: to point toward the Light that no darkness can overcome, to nurture good will, to let ourselves be reconciled, to enable a communion founded on trust, in peace, to bear witness that death has lost its sting, that life is meaningful and beautiful, of inviolable dignity. This is a great responsibility, but also a privilege — a source of transformative joy.”

abbederik_janerikkofoed8.jpeg^Bishop-elect Erik Varden, left, with Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo, during the former’s previous visit to Trondheim in 2018, when he gave the annual Olsok lecture.

The modern Territorial Prelature of Trondheim, a designation which places it just beneath a full diocese, can trace its history back to 1931, when it was established as the Mission sui iuris of Central Norway. In 1935 it was elevated to an Apostolic Prefecture and in 1953 to an Apostolic Vicariate. It took its current form in 1979, taking the name of Trondheim instead of Central Norway. The territory has had bishops since 1953, and Bishop Varden will be the fourth in that line. The long vacancy of the seat of Trondheim is not unique, by the way. Between Bishop Gerhard Schwenzer (1979-1983) and Georg Müller (1997-2009), the vacancy lasted no less than fourteen years.

The time and place of Bishop Varden’s consecration and installation, as well as the prelates involved, are yet to be announced.

For Scandinavia, a nuncio used to great distances

Pope Francis today appointed a new apostolic nuncio to Sweden and Iceland. These two non-adjacent countries will undoubtedly soon be joined by Finland, Norway and Denmark as the new nuncio’s area of operations. The Nordic countries, although they each have their own nunciature in name*, have always shared one nuncio among them.

Monseñor_James_GreenAn expansive territory to cover, made even more expansive by the Scandinavian bishops regularly meeting in Germany, it is now under the diplomatic responsibility of no stranger to large distances. Archbishop James Patrick Green, 66, comes to Scandinavia from his previous posting in Peru, where he has been the nuncio since 2012. His other postings include the southern tip of Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) from 2006 to 2012, and China, where he was Chargé d’affaires, from 2002 to 2006. Earlier in his diplomatic career, he also served at the nunciature in the Netherlands.

Archbishop Green was born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1950, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by its then-archbishop Cardinal John Krol. In 2006, upon his appointment as nuncio to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (Lesotho and Swaziland would follow later), he was consecrated and named as titular archbishop of Altinum.

Archbishop Green is characterised as “accessible, friendly, gracious and impressively capable”, and is credited with creating a stable episcopate in southern Africa. In Scandinavia, with only six serving bishops, he will have rather less chances to do so. The most senior Nordic bishop, Helsinki’s Teemu Sippo, is 69, followed by Stockholm’s Anders Arborelius at 67, and Copenhagen’s Czeslaw Kozon, who is 65. Although a bishop can retire before the age of 75 for health reasons, the expectation is that it will be another six years before Archbishop Green needs to get to work to collect information for a new bishop. The nuncio himself is still nine years away from retirement, so it is possible that he will be reassigned before that, especiallty considering that he never spent more than five years at his earlier assignments.

The Catholic Church in Scandinavia is growing, mostly due to immigration from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines. It is still numerically small, though, and exists in highly secular societies: many people nominally belong to the Lutheran church which, until fairly recently, was the state church in most Nordic countries, but most will consider themselves atheist or agnostic. The immigrant population differs in that respect from the native Scandinavians, and this will undoubtedly affect how the Church acts and is perceived.

The appointment of a new nuncio was no surprise. Archbishop Green’s predecessor, Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, nuncio since 2012, had already announced his early retirement. At 70, he retires for health reasons.

*Finland was the first in 1966 to get a full diplomatic representation in the form of a nuncio, followed by Iceland in 1976. Denmark and Norway followed in 1982, leaving Sweden to change the old offices of the Apostolic Delegation of Scandinavia into the Nunciature of Sweden. The nuncio still resides in Stockholm, in the northern subburb of Djursholm, although the general secretariat of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference is located in Copenhagen.

Phot credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru