Interview with Fr Haavar Simon Nilsen OP in Oslo

Interview with Fr Haavar Simon Nilsen OP in Oslo

Br Haavar’s graduation in Oxford
Fr Haavar Simon Nilsen OP is a Norwegian Dominican who was ordained priest in Oslo fifteen months ago, having begun his formation in France and completed a Master’s in Theology at Oxford University. So, for two years, Fr Haavar was a student brother at Blackfriars, Oxford, and a member of the Godzdogz Team; in his second year, he also served in the role of deacon. Godzdogz caught up with him to find out how he has found the first year of his priestly ministry, in a country that offers many opportunities for Christian witness and evangelisation. 
You were ordained priest at St Dominikus church, Oslo, on 20 October 2012, having finished your Master’s in Theology at Blackfriars, Oxford. Could you describe the community at the Oslo priory: how many brothers, what your mission involves, the physical environment? 

We are seven brothers in the community in Oslo, including one Finnish student brother doing his Master’s in Oslo this year. The average age is somewhat elevated, but this does not prevent the priory from having a very stable prayer- and liturgical life celebrated with dignity and supported by the faithful. When the French Dominicans re-established the Order in Norway in 1920, after 400 years of absence after the Reformation, they were thinking in the long-term. They bought a house at the west side of Oslo, and built a church in neo-classical Roman style, with about 200 seats. Forty years later, work began on new buildings, and today it is a proper priory with ten cells, a small lecture hall and a nice garden.

The brothers at St Dominikus Kloster today
There have been many brothers living in our priory who became well known for their writing, their dialogue with the political and cultural sides of our society, their charism and outreach. I really do believe that there is a synergy between the place and the people drawn to St Dominikus Kloster, giving a feeling of being a place to live and work. But then again, before entering the Order, I wrote my Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture on the priory garden, named “Genius Loci”, the spirit of the place…

What are your own roles in the community? We understand you are the House Cantor, for instance.

Shortly after arriving in Oslo, I got the role of Cantor, that’s true. As we have started to use the new breviary with new melodies, it is sometimes quite demanding, making me regret not having paid more attention to learning notes as a child.
As I am a landscape architect, it is a natural thing to do some garden planning (followed by the work itself). The garden might look modest, but when working with the spade, it becomes quite demanding! And then, as I am a carpenter, there are certain technical, practical jobs that I try to fulfill, always running out of time of course…

Could you describe some of the joys, and the difficulties, of your first few months of priestly ministry?

Fr Haavar’s first Mass in Oxford
It is still very difficult to try to describe my first year or so as priest. When I returned to Norway after seven years abroad, I did not know what I was returning to. On the one hand, Norway has moved on during these years, but so have I. It has been an intense period of trying to get to know myself, my society and my priestly role at the same time. Another big change was going from being a student to having so many roles and tasks. I can only describe it as a roller coaster, and it still moves on. What may have changed is that it seems that I’m getting more and more used to it.

What have been the most unexpected aspects of your new ministry? 

I did not expect to get so many contacts and to be so visible in such a short time. A brother from Oxford, a good friend of mine, warned me of this, saying “You’re a big fish in a small bowl!” It seems far more true than I expected, in all levels… The fraternal bonds outside of Norway have become more important in a way; they help to see myself in a larger context.

You spoke on national TV to comment on the election of Pope Francis in March. What, if any, would you say has been the impact of his election on Norwegian Catholics and wider society? 

Pub outreach
The pope’s election was a very positive experience for the Catholic Church, giving a new fresh wind both within and outside the Church that has continued ever since. Personally I felt proud to represent the Church for such a broad public, but at the same time quite terrified. Sticking my head out after just a few months back home was a bit surrealistic. I didn’t feel like a big fish at that point, more like a tiny herring trying to survive. Then an editor for a national weekly newspaper asked me to write a second-page comment, resulting in becoming a writer on a monthly basis. At the same time, I started to work part-time as chaplain in a pioneer project opening a new parish in the suburbs of Oslo. This was a huge challenge as well. I remember the day before the opening of the new parish, we realised that we didn’t even have an altar for celebrating Mass. One becomes most creative in such situations… Now I’ve worked here at a so-called 50% position for seven months, and there’s still much to learn and to establish. It has been a true blessing though, an outstanding opportunity to learn the pastoral basics and at the same time develop the parish from scratch. At the same time, I have been appointed as Catholic Student chaplain in Oslo, working closely with the Catholic Student society. I’m happy to be able to work with them, and we’ve had many lovely trips and evenings together already.

What are the principal prospects for growth in the Dominican mission in your area? What would you like to see happen over the next 10 or more years? 

Catholic Student trip to Rome
We are only a handful of Dominicans in Norway, fewer than fifteen in the whole of the Nordic countries, thus not even qualified for being a Vicariate. The advantage of being small is that there are so many possibilities for entering into pioneer projects where one may define the work according to one’s own field of interest; for example, teaching in the the theological faculty, which offers Catholic studies, working with developing the diocese in various ways, and so on. When one has, as in our priory, a clear priority for the regular life, with a commitment to the common prayer life, it creates a synergy between the apostolic life and the prayer life. I find this is deeply rooted in the charism (and the Constitutions) of our Order, and a most meaningful Dominican life. However, we are in need of recruitment. We are at this moment turning outwards toward other provinces (including the English province!) to see if there are any brothers who might would like to discern whether Oslo might be a meaningful option for prayer- and apostolic life.

Would you like to share any amusing or unusual anecdote from the last few months? 

Oh, what should I say… I pretty much feel like an amusing or unusual anecdote, a bit like a Viking being placed in a totally different context, very, very far from the conditions in which I grew up. But it is exactly this, my background from a small village in the mountains (with people there whom I still love very much!), my early formation as carpenter, technician and landscape architect, and I have to add, the passion I feel for all that lives and aches in the human heart, all these become points to which people may relate. I’m a friar, I always wear my habit, but when entering into dialogue, we have so much in common. I love this crossover which keep surprising both me and those I meet. The only thing that might be hard to get used to is my sideburns, always in danger of getting totally out of control. The most surprising one-liner I got during the last year came from a young female student after having celebrated Mass on campus at Oslo University: “Getting a hug from Father Haavar is like embracing a (sweet) beast!” I choose to take that as a compliment.

Thank you, Fr Haavar! We are keeping the brethren in Oslo in our prayers, we wish you well in your ongoing apostolates, and hope to see you again (in Oxford or Oslo!) before too long.

fr Haavar Simon Nilsen is a son of the French Province, resident in his native Norway. He studied for a masters degree in Applied Theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.