Catholics keen on more churches

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Oslo’s rapidly expanding population of immigrants who are Catholics has created a huge demand for more Catholic church space. Oslo’s three Catholic churches can’t offer enough masses, so now local Catholic officials want to buy at least one of Norway’s state churches that all but stand empty on Sundays.

It’s long been a fact that while a majority of Norwegians are officially members of the state Lutheran church, only a few turn up for church services. With attendance so low, state church officials have closed many churches and consolidate services at one regional church to cut costs.

Meanwhile, it’s standing-room-only at the Catholic St Olav’s, St Joseph’s and St Hallvard’s churches in Oslo, and some worshippers either have to stand outside the churches on Sundays or give up going to mass.

That’s because Oslo’s Catholic population has exploded in recent years, mostly because of immigrants from Poland and Lithuania. The number of Catholics nationwide has grown from an estimated 30,000 in the 1990s to 220,000 now, and the Catholic Church in Norway was caught unprepared. Now there’s demand for masses in Polish and Lithuanian as well as for those catering to the longer-established congregations made up of immigrants from countries like Spain, France, Italy, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Norwegian converts.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that with many of the new Catholic immigrants living in Oslo’s Groruddalen district, the Catholic diocese wants to buy a Norwegian state church in Grorud that is underused. There are 13 state churches in the area, and several are shuttered on Sundays for lack of churchgoers.

“We want to offer Catholics in Groruddalen a place to go, a place to celebrate mass and talk to a priest,” Bernt Eidsvig, a bishop in the Oslo diocese, told Aftenposten .

Norwegian church officials say they want to help, but it’s difficult to sell off a church where Norwegians have been christened, confirmed, married or buried in the Lutheran faith. Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, the former politician from the Christian Democrats who’s now a top state church administrator, notes there are lots of emotions involved, along with the sense of belonging, even though that’s not reflected in the low church attendance.

“If we sell, we wouldn’t be able to take the church back if demand returns,” she told Aftenposten . Renting them out may be an option, she conceded to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

Eidsvig, the Catholic bishop, also says the Catholics don’t want to do anything that might upset state churchgoers. “We of course wish that the Norwegian state church also enjoyed full churches every Sunday,” he said. “But there are many churches and it’s sad if they become superfluous.”

Talks with Oslo Bishop Ole Christian Kvarme and the local church district are expected to continue.