02 October 2019, The Tablet

English-based Cistercian Abbot to return to Norway as Bishop-Prelate

English-based Cistercian Abbot to return to Norway as Bishop-Prelate

Cistercian Father Erik Varden, abbot of Mount St. Bernard Abbey, poses in the abbey brewery
CNS photo/Simon Caldwell

Pope Francis has made the surprise choice of naming a Trappist monk and spiritual writer based in Britain to be the next Bishop-Prelate of Trondheim, in Norway.

He is Erik Varden, the Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in rural Leicestershire, and the only Trappist house in England.

Abbot Erik, 46, is the son of a country vet in Norway was not born a Catholic but was received into the Church as a young adult. He went to Atlantic College in Wales and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Cambridge, where he received a doctorate. He joined the Abbey of Mount Saint Bernard aged 26. The new Bishop has a licence – a church qualification – from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

During his time in Rome, the future church leader taught at the Benedictines’ Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo and worked in the Scandinavian section of Vatican Radio. Recently, the Bishop-elect has moved into spiritual writing, and last year published the critically-acclaimed “The Shattering of Loneliness”, which examines his search for God.

“I think that monastic tradition sits on, as steward, such a tremendous wealth of insight and wisdom – practical wisdom – that the Church and the world has not just forgotten but has probably never known about,” he told The Tablet in an interview last year.

The Pope’s choice of the young abbot to become a bishop in Norway reflects the his concern for the Church to go out to the existential peripheries in highly secularised countries. In 2017, Francis chose the Bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, a Carmelite monk who, like Abbot Varden, had become a Catholic in his youth, to be Sweden’s first cardinal. 

Abbot Erik will lead the territorial prelature in Trondheim, a geographical area which, due to a shortage of numbers and lack of developed church infrastructure, is not a diocese. The prelature in Trondheim was established in 1979. Territorial prelatures usually are usually used in countries which are mission territories, including some Latin American, Asian and Nordic regions. The number of Catholics in Norway is in the tens of thousands, although the precise figure has been the subject of a legal dispute.

Talking to The Tablet last year, Dom Erik said he expected to live in his monastery in Leicestershire until his death. His appointment has echoes of St Hugh of Lincoln being plucked from his role as prior of the Carthusian monastery in Witham in Somerset to become Bishop of Lincoln.

Abbot Erik has also reflected on the importance of not getting “stuck”, adding that “stalling”, or “lingering”, is “a professional hazard for monks”. This is in keeping with the Pope's desire for a missionary church that is constantly on the move. “The fearful possibility of stalling should motivate us until our last breath,” Dom Erik said.

In a statement released following the news of his appointment, the Abbey at Mount Saint Bernard said: “The community is very sad at losing its Abbot but wishes him well in his new position.”

The bishop-elect will take up his role on 1 November 2019. 

Read The Tablet interview with Bishop-elect Varden

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