This is the Catholic Students’ Club (CSC) of Helsinki at St. Henry’s Cathedral, and it has been providing for the spiritual needs of young Catholics in the capital of Finland for over 20 years.
After celebrating Mass in the Cathedral, the group usually moves to the rectory to enjoy some snacks and tea or coffee, but the last November meeting was a bit special. Some members had organized an American Thanksgiving celebration in the rectory, and everyone was invited, with the only requisite being that they brought food from their home country.
According to the Diocese of Helsinki website, Finland is home to 12,500 Catholics, one per cent of its population. Half of this number are native Finns, but the other half come from all over the world.
Similarly, many of the clergy serving the one and only diocese in Finland are also foreigners.
The CSC is small, but strong. Whether they are visiting exchange students or native to Helsinki home, their reasons for coming to the CSC are very similar.
Americans Emily Ferguson and Allison Schepers, fourth-year undergraduates from Kentucky, had a choice of European cities to go to through their school’s exchange agreement, but they knew that they needed to find a spiritual community for support like the one they had at home.
“We have a really tight-knit community at home and we were searching for something like that here,” said Ferguson.
“It’s also nice working on your spiritual life with other people to support you,” said Schepers. “It’s easier to fall away from your faith whenever you don’t have that community around you.”
Rosa Diaz, a student from Madrid, Spain, came to Finland to learn more about the highly-praised Finnish education system. Finding herself overwhelmed with all the activities she would engage in at home, she thought her exchange would be a chance to drop everything and see what was truly essential in her spiritual life.
“As time passed, I started realizing that even though I want to understand what the faith is to me, I can’t do it alone,” she said. “You need other people, a community, bonds so you know where your home is.”
While there are a good number of exchange students in the club, there are also several individuals who are in Finland long-term and call the CSC home.
Viktor Torres Airava is a history student who was born and raised in Finland. Meeting other young adults at the CSC over the last five years has helped him get rid of loneliness and open up to others about things close to the heart.
“I had never met someone about my age that was a believing Catholic (before meeting the CSC),” he said. “It’s easier to live out the faith with others.”
Fr. Manuel Prado, a priest from Spain and one of the leaders of the group since its inception in 1995, says that each Tuesday meeting brings a new surprise.
“A new student comes all the time,” he said. “From Canada, Spain, Poland, Madagascar, Italy, and so on. Finnish Catholics need to see, to speak, to know Catholics from all over the world. We learn a lot when we are together after Mass in the parish hall and we listen to others.”
(Chan, 24, is a second-year PhD student currently studying at the University of Helsinki in Finland.)