Iceland and the Catholic Church: Background information when reading The Sacrament

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The Sacrament

A Novel

by Olaf Olafsson

The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson X
The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2019, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2020, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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Iceland and the Catholic Church

This article relates to The Sacrament

Print Review

Map showing Iceland's position southeast of Greenland and northwest of United KingdomOne of the main characters in The Sacrament is truly its setting: Iceland. Serving as the emotional nexus for multiple characters in the novel, it stamps the narrative with an authoritative and unyielding presence.

Iceland is a Nordic country located in the North Atlantic, an island that is the 18th largest in the world and Europe's second-largest after Great Britain. With roughly 332,000 residents, Iceland has the lowest population density in Europe. The country is about 40,000 square miles, and most settlements are located along the coastline with its magnificent fjords and harbors. The island's interior, also known as the Highlands, consists of sand, mountains and lava fields—the terrain and the cold make it largely uninhabitable. The Central Highlands are the coldest, while the north side of the island sees more snow than the warmer, wetter and windier southern coast.

In spiritual matters, Icelanders have religious freedom guaranteed under the Constitution, although the Church of Iceland (a Lutheran body) is the official state church. Iceland remains very secular, though; as with many other Nordic countries, church attendance is relatively low. The number of Icelanders registered in the state church is declining at a rate of more than one percent per year.

Christ the King CathedralDespite being the third-largest denomination in Iceland (a predominantly Protestant country), Catholics remain a minority. Their population is growing, however, largely due to immigration. Catholics made up just one percent of the population in 1994, but that number has increased to four percent (roughly 13,990 people) as of October 2019. The Diocese of Reykjavik serves the entire island, and Christ the King Cathedral, with its iconic flat-topped tower, serves as the official cathedral of the Catholic Church in Iceland.

The Reformation of the 16th century outlawed Catholicism in Iceland, but the faith returned in 1857 when two French priests undertook a mission there to minister to French fishermen along the coastline. A few years later, they settled in Landakot, a settlement in Reykjavik (Iceland's capital), where the cathedral was eventually built. When Iceland ratified its Constitution in 1874, the freedom of religion was one of its precepts. This gave the Catholic Church a fresh opportunity for missions to the isolated, beautiful and forbidding island. The patron saint of Iceland is Saint Thorlack Thorhallsson, a medieval bishop of Skálhot (a city 55 miles east of Reykjavik) from 1178-1193 who sought to reform the morality of pastors and laymen. Considered a holy man during his lifetime, he was canonized in Iceland in 1198, but was officially recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on January 14, 1984, when he was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

World map showing Iceland, courtesy of OnTheWorldMap

Christ the King Cathedral photograph by Jon Gretarsson

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Sacrament. It originally ran in January 2020 and has been updated for the September 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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