Something Wholesome in Denmark

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I have always been fascinated by Denmark. The small Scandinavian Kingdom that was once so much larger (it even owned the U.S. Virgin Islands before 1917) first impressed itself on me as a child, when I watched Danny Kaye sing about “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.” The tales of Hans Christian Andersen made an early entrance into my brain, followed in swift succession by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the weird yarns of Isak Dinesen, and, at last, the gloomy musings of Kierkegaard.

I knew that, as with Britain and her sister Scandinavian realms, Denmark lost the Faith after the Reformation—and in the 60s became known alongside Sweden as a mecca for sexual license. I was well aware that, along with Britain, Scandinavia, and to some extent the Protestant parts of Germany, the country retained a State Church that few actually participated in but whose Monarch was required to be a member. Moreover, I gained a healthy respect for the Danish Queen’s intellectual interests. But much as I had always wanted to see the country, Denmark was not on the top of my travel list.

This changed dramatically for several reasons. One was that I came to know the Danish-born Dr. Dagny Kjaergaard. A world-renowned Catholic scholar, she had basically co-written the Catechism of the Catholic Church with Cardinal Schönborn. Having lived through the German occupation and converted to Catholicism in the 1950s (when that was definitely NOT a popular move in her native land), she was as immovable in her Faith as she was affable in her manner—and she was a staunch Latin Mass devotee. 

A regular viewer of my podcast from Denmark sent me a book in Danish recounting the stories of twenty recent converts called Hjem (“Home”). Unable to read it myself, I lent it to Dr. Kjaergaard—and she was overjoyed. She told me that she had given up hope for her beloved land but that the book had rekindled it. This was fortunate, as she died not long after.

But I was now in touch with a growing number of Latin Mass enthusiasts in the northern Kingdom. When I was invited to a Latin Mass Men’s Retreat, I jumped at the chance. I would finally be able to see Denmark, and to get a glimpse of what is surely one of the least known but growing phenomena in the contemporary Catholic Church—the growing number of conversions in Scandinavia.

So it was that I was picked up in late September by a young Danish gentleman at Copenhagen Airport. As it was my first time in Denmark, he offered to show me a few of the sights in Copenhagen before driving off to the retreat centre. He remarked that he had only found out about Dr. Kjaergaard’s existence when he read her obituary in the National Catholic Register and that he wished he had known her. But it then transpired that his was one of the conversion accounts in Hjem; I assured him that while he had not known about her, she had known about him—and was much happier as a result! 

In any case, he took me by the famed Little Mermaid statue—and mentioned that most Americans are very disappointed by it, expecting something of the size of the Statue of Liberty. We saw the Catholic Cathedral of St. Ansgar, which despite having its high altar destroyed in the wake of Vatican II still has a lovely interior—and a double-eagle fresco in the sanctuary as a sign of its having been financed by the Austrian Emperor. We also saw the Lutheran cathedral, which has a very cold interior despite—or perhaps because of—the monumental and world-famous statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles by Thorvaldsen. We then went to the beautifully preserved Church of the Sacred Heart to pick up two more retreatants. Then we drove off to the woods of Northern Sjaelland, the island upon which Copenhagen sits.

Klitborg, as the retreat centre is named, is a Catholic but privately-owned facility with a beautiful and rustic chapel. There were two priests for the retreat: one an older American who has been on the Danish Mission for over 50 years, the other a younger-middle-aged German. There were about 25 attendees—of whom I was by far the oldest. Only a couple were cradle Catholics; none of the others had been Catholic for more than ten years, and several have not yet been received. About half were married with young families, the others were single. They came from all over Denmark, and most had not actually met before. We were there two nights, and when my party arrived it transpired that everyone had been divided into cooking and cleaning crews—I was in the first! Dinner duly consumed and everything put away, we adjourned to the chapel for Compline. It was in the Old Rite, and the lads chanted the Latin beautifully. We then went to our respective rooms.

Saturday featured a traditional Low Mass, very devoutly followed, and a conference in Danish. I could not follow these of course, but from the summaries I was given, they were all very solid and practical summaries of how to apply the Faith to life. 

After a delicious lunch, there was a mixture of hike and procession: crucifix at our head, the rosary being recited, hymns sung, and confessions heard on the way. For about two miles we walked through the beautiful Danish forest—the rowan trees all sprouting their bright red berries—until we reached Rørvig Church. Built about 1200, it was of course a Catholic Church originally; we all had the strange feeling of bringing it back to its natural home. The doors, alas, were locked, but we sang the Salve Regina in the little churchyard—perhaps the first time that had happened since the 16th century.

We returned for another conference, dinner, and Compline. Afterward, there was chatting, drinking, and smoking in a truly warm atmosphere of good cheer. I learned some of my fellow retreatants’ conversion stories and was much impressed by them. A few came from Lutheran or other Christian backgrounds—but most came from nothing; the sort of particularly post-Protestant nothing that emerges in countries where the Reformation triumphed—to include our own. They had sought the truth in what might appear to be the most unlikely ground and found it. 

Their honest, open, love of the Faith was palpable—and to an old veteran of various intra-Catholic struggles such as myself, refreshing. There is a love of Catholic tradition as complete and authentic as it is untrammelled by the bitterness of the past decades. Beyond that, they were typical young men, enjoying one another’s company, savoring the past, and hopeful for the future.

Sunday morning was a Sung Latin Mass, truly reverent and truly lovely—with the chants again beautifully sung. A solid brunch was followed by another conference, and then a few of us drove to the formerly-Catholic-now-Lutheran Odense Cathedral to venerate the relics of St. Canute IV, patron saint of Denmark. Apart from enjoying the Medieval beauties of the building and its environs, we were able to pray before the exposed relics for St. Canute’s intercession for the return of his country and people to the Catholic Church. I then took the train to Copenhagen.

The next two days I spent seeing sights I had read about my whole life: Roskilde Cathedral, gothic burial place of Danish Kings; Frederiksborg Castle, with its chapel—the country’s equivalent of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor; Kronborg Castle, of Hamlet fame; Christiansborg Palace, with Royal apartments and chapel; and Rosenborg Castle, the Danish version of the Tower of London—down to keeping custody of the nation’s beautiful Crown Jewels.

In all of my travels, it struck me that just as—in a real sense—the descendants of the Recusants and the members of the Ordinariate in Britain are truly the most English of the English, the most Welsh of the Welsh, and the most Scot of the Scots because they are the direct inheritors of what founded their countries and made them great, my new friends are truly the most Danish of the Danes. Despite the national superstitions that conflate national identities with their Protestant State Churches, the same is true of all Northern Europe. Despite the centuries of apostasy, the old churches and castles and manor house, the woods and fields—all of the landscape—cry out that these were Catholic countries. It is wonderful to see, in Denmark at least, that more and more are heeding the call.

It is not merely a question of safeguarding a glorious past, however, anymore than it is among the surviving devout in post-Catholic countries, from Ireland to Italy to Austria. It is about building a truly Catholic and so humane future. My young friends plan to make this event a recurring one—and to invite similar groups from around Scandinavia: Swedes, Norwegians, perhaps even Finns and Icelanders. All of us Catholics around the world must support these developments, with our prayers if nothing else.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that this movement is organic; it is not an initiative of the hierarchy, but rather a spontaneous outburst, a natural result of goodwill seeking Infallible Truth—and finding it in Catholic Tradition. Just as the initiative for the Ordinariates came from the Anglican side, so too here. But this renewed search for reality is not confined to the lands of the Reformation: my last two (adult) godsons have been respectively a Brahmin Hindu from Calcutta and a Jew from Israel—both of whom found the Faith on their own. In the latter’s convert class here in Austria, over half of the thirty or so others were Iranians or Afghans.

Eras which see mass fallings away from the Faith often see compensations elsewhere. The loss of the Near East to Islam preceded wholesale national conversions in Northern and Eastern Europe; even as millions followed Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII out of the Church, millions more followed Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Francis Xavier in. It may well be that a period which has witnessed majorities fall away from the practice of the Faith in what were the Catholic heartlands in Ireland, Southwestern Europe, and Latin America may precede one that shall see them made up or excelled in lands traditionally hostile toward the Church. Nothing could be more fitting than a return to Catholicity of those Scandinavian lands who first brought the Faith to North America. But regardless of the macrocosm, every soul is infinitely precious to God—sufficiently so for Him to die for each of them. Any individual on his way to the Truth should be nurtured every way we know how—for our own soul’s sake as well as his.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

By

Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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