By Charlotta Smeds
On a cold winter’s night, about a hundred Catholics gathered in Trondheim, Norway, in Saint John Paul II Square, in front of Saint Olaf Cathedral for Ash Wednesday Mass, celebrated by Bishop Erik Varden, OCSO.
Outside: the only solution
Since last March 12, to control the spread of Coronavirus, Norway adopted measures that allow no more than 10 persons to participate at Mass and other liturgical celebrations in church. As a consequence, to make it possible for the faithful to begin Lent participating in Mass, the local Bishop decided to celebrate outside, even though they are at the height of winter.
“We have been living a type of fast for almost a year,” Bishop Varden explains. He emphasizes that the initiative is not a protest but rather the response to a need:
“Many people find the restrictions painful and frustrating, even if at the same time they are aware they are necessary to halt the pandemic, and so they respect them. When the city gave permission to celebrate the Mass outside in the square in front of the church, I felt a sense of relief, knowing how many of the faithful had raced to grab those ten seats, desiring to begin their Lenten journey to Easter with Mass. And so, on Wednesday, we braved the cold.”
Ashes and snow
The Mass lasted an hour. When it was over, Bishop Varden thanked the people who came and advised everyone to “go home and get something hot to drink”.
The number of people allowed into the square had been set at 100 people. Before Mass began, the Bishop reminded everyone to maintain the prescribed distance. Candles had been placed in the snow to mark off the area. Even they contributed, providing light and warmth to those participating, literally weathering the cold and the wind. When the moment came for the imposition of ashes, as the Bishop moved from one person to another scattering ashes over their heads, snowflakes fell silently from heaven.
God is faithful
Despite and cold and the dark, it was an impressive celebration. In his brief homily, given the circumstances, Bishop Varden spoke about Lent as a pilgrimage. He reminded everyone:
“Together we can return to God… It gives us joy that God does not give up on us. Even though we are unfaithful, He is faithful. He sees the seed of our good will even when it seems like it is frozen in the snow.”
Ordained bishop at the height of the pandemic
The Diocese of Trondheim, in the center of Norway, numbers 16,000 people, representing 120 different nationalities. Before last March, between 1,200 and 1,500 people went to the Cathedral every Sunday for Mass.
After more than ten years, the Diocese of Trondheim recently welcomed a new bishop. At the height of the pandemic, Erik Varden, Norwegian by birth, was ordained the Bishop of Trondheim at the beginning of October, after having served as the Abbot of the Trappist monastery Mount Saint Bernard in England. He has not yet had the opportunity of carrying out his role as Bishop under normal circumstances.
We want to be together
“It has been a year of surprises,” Bishop Varden recounts, “but life for the most part is full of surprises. It can be difficult, but it is also an opportunity. Every crisis brings with it an opportunity. It makes things clearer, removes what is not essential…. We have learned what it means to be a society, we need each other and we want to be together.”
Happy over the outcome of the Ash Wednesday Mass, the Bishop said there are no plans for other Masses like this one. However, he does not exclude the possibility that he will celebrate Mass outdoors when he feels it is necessary.