I left for Helsinki, Finland on the 23rd with Matt (Gaylord) and Justin (Charleston, WV). Matt organized the trip and asked me come along so that we could spend Christmas together in the Great Up North. We were a bit disappointed when we got out of the airport though.
There was no snow. One of the reasons that Matt and I really wanted to go up to Finland was to have a white Christmas. The locals told us that it was very unusual not to have snow for
Christmas. We were pretty far north, further north than Anchorage, Alaska. We took a train to Turku, Finland where we had made arrangements to spend Christmas at a retreat center run by Bridgetine sisters. The sisters were so hospitable. They realized that we were far away from home for Christmas so they did everything they could to make us feel at home. They even gave us a few little gifts and put little Christmas trees in our rooms. We were planning on cooking our own food, but mother wouldn't hear of it. She insisted that we eat all our meals with the sisters. Christmas eve dinner was fantastic. As you might guess, the typical food in Finland is fish. The sisters are from various countries, but their common language is Italian. So luckily we were able to use our Italian to get to know some of the sisters and share with them.
Attached to the convent is the parish for Turku. There are only 9,000 Catholic in Finland. So you can imagine just how large this parish is geographically. The pastor of the parish is a
Polish priest named Fr. Peter. He also took such good care of us. He shared his priestly wisdom with us. One of the lessons he taught us was the importance of being a priest for all his parishioners no matter what nationality they are. He warned us against dividing our parishes into language groups and said it is the Holy Mass that brings all people together. What an example to us! Midnight Mass in the parish was so beautiful. The church was absolutely packed. The music was stunning and even though I couldn't understand the Finnish homily I felt at peace, a home away from home. After Mass Father wished Merry Christmas to all of his parishioners in over 70 languages! Even though it was 1:30am everyone stayed after Mass for coffee and various sweets made by the different ethnic groups. I was impressed by a one of the parishioners stories. She was telling me how she and her family had escaped from Iran over 10 years ago so that they could practice their faith in freedom. What a reminder to me just how blessed we are to be able to practice and live our faith in freedom. How often do I take that for granted?
Fr. Peter's parish was really incredible.
We also met two young men in the parish who we noticed serving Mass daily. The one is a recent convert from athiesm who now is planning on entering the seminary. He is a native Finnish. There is only one other native Finnish priest in the world. It really is hard to put into words the experience. Just like that we had met so many incredible people who taught us so much about being Finnish, about being human, and about being Catholic. And just as fast as they had come into our life it was time for us to leave. Thank you to Fr. Peter, to the sisters and to all the other people we met while in Finland.
We left Finland by ferry on the 27th. The ferry took us from Turku, Finland to Stockholm, Sweden. The ferry ride was really spectacular. It followed a string of islands through the Baltic sea. It reminded me of the Great Lakes and the string of islands in the the eastern U.P. We arrived in Stockhom and I bid farewell to Matt and Justin. I took a train to a hostel for the night and Matt and Justin continued on to a Swedish seminary. On the 28th I flew out of Stockholm to Edinburgh, Scotland.