Priest Irja Askola
Irja Askola is Finland’s first female bishop. She was elected in 2010 and she was retired earlier this year. Askola is a well-known advocate for tolerance and equality. She is also a poet who has published several works.
Irja Askola, you were retired as Bishop of Helsinki in November. What have the past seven years as the Bishop of Helsinki been like for you?
Helsinki is an interesting place, also for a bishop. Here, in many ways, you can feel the pulse of Finland. The capital hosts the mainstream media, Parliament and the different ministries, which all offer interesting platforms for discussion. The numerous non-governmental organizations and human rights activists in the city keep us in tune with the times. The international atmosphere in Helsinki can be seen on the streets and in the cultural events it offers. These past seven years have been wonderful, incredibly busy and fascinating.
What are your plans for the future?
My plan right now is not to plan for anything. I’m taking a six-month sabbatical to reflect and then I’ll see what new ideas start to grow.
What is your experience of spiritual life in Helsinki?
I find that many hide their spirituality here. God is not present in public discussion, but while taking a run, staying up in the small hours of the night or during times of great sorrow many remember the prayers of their childhood or the songs they sang at confirmation camp. Church music concerts and recitals fill the churches and cathedrals in Helsinki during Christmas and Easter time. It is through music that many people can connect with their own spirituality.
In addition to churches, where in your opinion can one experience the presence of the divine in Helsinki?
Divinity may surprise you in the most unexpected of places. It is not confined within church walls. You can find divinity at the sea shore, looking at the innocence of a small child or marvelling at the wondrous beauty of a piece of art. The divine is a feeling that there is more to life than the self. Divinity does not even need to be put into words, it can simply be experienced.
What is the meaning of Christmas for you personally and how do you celebrate Christmas?
I’ve had all sorts of Christmases. Many times, nothing has gone as planned. Gradually, I’ve learned that there are many ways to celebrate Christmas. The true meaning of Christmas can be found in hearing the peaceful promise from God, not in preparing everything perfectly. As bishop, my calendar in December was filled with Christmas services in hospitals, ministries and public events. Christmas Eve began with a Christmas celebration at a large hospital. From there, I went to a prison and my day ended with a Christmas sermon at Helsinki Cathedral. I need to find an entirely new concept for my first Christmas as a pensioner.
Many seek words of wisdom and advice on how to live right in this increasingly hectic world that is filled with unrest. What would be your message to these people?
Give yourself a moment to take a breath. Even a small one will do. Trust in your dreams because they are whispers from God.