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St. Thorlak: The mighty Norse bishop of Iceland


Public Domain

Philip Kosloski - published on 11/03/17

His hammer was his crosier and his voice was like thunder.

Born to Viking farmers in the 12th century, Thorlak (a name derived from Thor, god of thunder) was a promising young man. His parents eagerly sent him to a local priest in hopes that he could make a life for himself as part of the newly established Catholic Church in Iceland.

Thorlak was promising and quickly ordained a deacon at age 15 and a priest at 18. Soon after he was sent to Paris and England for additional studies.

During this time away Thorlak encountered the Canons Regular of St. Augustine and felt drawn to their strict rule of life. Upon returning to Iceland Thorlak established a monastery there and devoted himself to a life of prayer and penance.

At the time the clergy were in disarray in Iceland and were not faithful to their vows of celibacy. Thorlak was even pressured to marry a widow, but he refused, valuing celibacy as an essential part of his vocation to the priesthood.

Local Church leaders recognized his holiness and ordained him a bishop. Reluctant at first, Thorlak knew that something had to be done to reform the clergy. He made great strides in that area and addressed many other abuses in Iceland. Thorlak treated everyone with respect and dignity and was recognized for his humility.

While naturally a gentle soul who sought solitude above all things, Thorlak wasn’t afraid to confront the local leaders of his time. He stood against Jon Loftsson, the most powerful chieftain of Iceland, and would not budge on important moral issues.

He died on December 23, and to this day Thorlak’s feast is an important one in Iceland, seen as part of the many preparations for Christmas.

After his death countless miracles were attributed to his intercession. One such episode relates how some merchants were at sea and a fierce storm threatened their boat. Quickly they turned to St. Thorlak and the raging wind died down to a favorable breeze. One could say that Thorlak conquered Thor that day and defeated the god of thunder with his humble intercession.

Read more:
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