Iceland's Unique Cathedral of Christ the King

Photos by OC-Travel
My travels and adventures organizing Catholic tours bring me to some truly amazing locations. One of my favorite destinations is Iceland. Thawing out of the windy volcanic landscape like a mythic glacial iceberg stands Iceland’s beautiful Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King, also known as Landakotskirkja (Landakot’s Church).  The cathedral is a home not only to local Catholics, but also for all visiting Catholics who stop in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík.

There is no feeling like visiting a remote island, a new and enchanting land - off the beaten path - to go where no tourist has ever gone. From the moment visitors catch sight of Iceland, looking out of the airplane windows as they come in for a landing, the feeling is one of wonder and enchantment. The delicate landscape appears as a lunar surface and the absence of trees is striking. Tall buildings are rare.  Only about 350,000 people live on the island.

Iceland is located at the border between Arctic and temperate seas, between the cold air masses of the north and the warm air of the lower latitudes. This makes the climate extremely variable. Locals tell you that all four seasons can be experienced in one single day. Thanks to the gulf stream, winters are not as cold as imagined (in the Icelandic language there are fifty words for snow). Winter temps are more mild than Toronto or New York. Sleeping at night is a bit of an adjustment. Daylight lingers all night during the summer months. Winters are dark.

Each year more and more travelers can be found visiting Iceland. Flights are designed with stopover passengers in mind where visitors are encouraged to spend a night while waiting for a connecting flight with Icelandair, an excellent discount airline that I highly recommend.

Visitors on Icelandair arrive at Keflavik Airport, stepping off the planes inhaling the crisp, fresh North Atlantic air. Everyone is encouraged to dress warmly with a windproof jacket (dressing in layers). About an hour drive on a shuttle bus brings visitors to the capital city of Reykjavík, were about two-thirds of the population lives. The cathedral is just a few minutes walk up from the picturesque marina, hotels and downtown shopping. It is located on a hill, just across from the Catholic hospital and the only Catholic school in Iceland.

In Iceland visitors are met by a myriad of possible excursions, which include bird and wale watching, thermal pools, horseback riding, lava fields, deep fjords and window shopping. While the largest church in Iceland is the iconic Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja in downtown Reykjavík, the cathedral is just a brisk walk up the hill and well with a visit. In fact, it is a major tourist attraction. I encourage all tourists, especially Catholics on stopover, to venture off the grid and make time to visit the cathedral.

The church is well placed on a green lawn with foliage. There is a public park on one side and a Catholic school on the other, with picnic tables, a playground and a soccer field. Behind the church is a well kept cemetery where beautiful flowers are carefully plated around tombs of deceased nuns and bishops. The beautiful summer gardens resemble nature awakened from its winter slumber. The beautiful church appears as a gatekeeper to the wild Atlantic.

The cathedral points distinctly upwards, a fissure of faith, like a geyser to the heavens. It is rippled, calling to mind a climbed mountain, admired from afar. Tall yet flat on top, like many mountains, characteristic of the basalt from which are largely formed. Resembling a slate tower, the architectural design of the cathedral was conceptualized by a local architect who sought to develop a distinctly Icelandic style of architecture. This architect, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887 - 1950), was the first Icelander to graduate from architecture school, becoming the most renowned architect of Iceland.  His Neo-Gothic cathedral creation is one of the most prestigious structures on the island.

The cathedral is said to be inspired by the natural geology of the island.  It was completed and consecrated in 1929. Interior art in the church also dates from the 1920's with a warm interior decor, faithful to the original design. Many of the interior appointments came from Europe, the studio of the renowned atelier J.W. Ramakers & Sons who were sculptors from Geleen, Holland. A beautiful statue in the rear of the church depicts St. Thorlak (1133-1193), the patron saint of Iceland who was canonized in 1984.  There is also a very fitting statue of Christ the King standing atop the world, a gift donated by Pius XI.

Despite the islet’s geographic isolation, some of the earliest inhabitants of Iceland were anchorite monks from Ireland known as the "Papar."  Meanwhile, the Catholic Faith was formally adopted in Iceland in 999 - 1,000 AD.  Brave missionaries who were seafaring men continued to arrive through the centuries.  The first diocese in Iceland was Skálholt, under the jurisdiction of the first Bishop of Iceland, Bishop Isleifr Gizurarson, who became bishop in 1056.  This historical see was sadly dismantled during the Protestant deformation.  Since 1968 it has been revived as a titular see.  The second diocese was Hólar, created in 1106 with Bishop Jón Ögmundsson as the local bishop.  Tragically, the Protestants outlawed the Catholic Faith in Iceland for political reasons, due to the unfortunate meddling of King Christian III of Denmark and Norway, who chose to dissolve Christian unity for personal gain.  In Iceland Catholics were exiled and Catholic Church property was appropriated.  Bishop Ögmundur Pálsson (1475 - 1541) was banished and died on his way to Denmark.  Meanwhile, Bishop Jón Arason (1484 - 1550) was martyred for the Faith, beheaded in Skálholt by the Protestants after having received a letter from Pope Paul III urging Christian unity and loyalty to the one, true Faith.  After a sad interval of centuries, freedom of religion was finally enacted by the government in 1874 and Catholic missionary efforts were resumed.  The first Catholic missionaries to arrive after the Reformation were from France. These intrepid men of God purchased the current site of the cathedral, the Landakot farmstead in Reykjavík and settled there in the early nineteenth century. They built a small chapel on the site in 1864.

When Pope John Paul II came to the island on an apostolic visit June 3-4, 1989, he arrived at the cathedral, a magnificent backdrop, with a message of hope. The visit included the coronation and enthronement of the precious statue of Our Lady from Reykhólar, kept inside. Amid cloud-capped mountains the Holy Father arrived for a 2-day visit, celebrating an open-air Mass on the lawn in front of the cathedral, motioning to the 1,000 years of Christian heritage on the island. The sainted pope said: “It is essential to recover an awareness of the primacy of moral values, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of life and its transcendent destiny. In this important matter there is so much that all Christians can do together.” He added, “My dear friends: priests, sisters and lay people, I appeal to all Catholics in Iceland and to all Christian believers to cooperate in making the Gospel message of Jesus Christ the soul of your nation: its inspiration and strength, its light and its measure.”

Meanwhile, the oldest churches in Iceland are the humble “turf” churches, of which only five remain (a sixth has been constructed using timber from an older church). In fact, churches have been built in Iceland since the adoption of Christianity in AD 1,000. These hobbit-like structures made innovative use of Iceland’s limited resources. Godafoss is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. When Christianity was claimed as the official religion in the year 1,000, as a symbolic act, the king threw his heathen icons into the waterfall. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, churches were constructed from stronger materials such as stone, wood, and much later corrugated iron.

The beautiful throne seen above is original, created in 1929 for the cathedral.  It bears the hand-carved arms of Bishop Martin Meulenberg (1872 - 1941), the Vicar Apostolic of Iceland from 1929 - 1941.  He was a native of the Netherlands and was the Titular Bishop of Hólar.

Let us pray for the Catholic population in Iceland. Due to a catastrophic shift in values and typical Catholic identity crisis seen in the priesthood and among the lay faithful, a number of the country’s newly urabanized youth have abandoned the faith and their Christian heritage, a global phenomena. This brings to mind in some ways the December winter solstice which offers a mere four hours of daylight each day. Then there is the springtime battle to vanquish the winter darkness when the sun emerges victorious and the price is near-endless bright skies. In the lives of Nordic nations, the summer solstice is a time of bounty. Today the Catholic Faith is the only link with the past. Let us pray for a renewal of faith, brick by brick. Meanwhile, I encourage readers to join me here sometime for a layover stop on pilgrimage!

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