At the time of his birth, the Catholic Church had firmly established a foothold in Iceland.

Two centuries prior, German and Norwegian missionaries had begun their evangelization there. In Thorlak’s day the church had fallen into some disarray, particularly due to local clergy disregarding the rule of clerical celibacy, selling church positions for personal gain, and engaging in other breaches of discipline.

Thorlak had been fortunate to receive a religious education from a local priest. His aptitude was recognized early and by the time he was 15, he had been ordained a deacon and at 18, became a priest. He left the island for a period to study in France and, perhaps, England.

His studies led him to adopt the monastic rule of St. Augustine, which demanded a life of celibacy and the observance of community, rather than personal property. He held to the rule even after returning to Iceland and being pressured to marry a wealthy widow.

He founded a monastery according to the Augustinian rule, which became renowned as a place of prayer and study. Ten years after the founding of the monastery, the Norwegian archbishop called on Thorlak to become bishop of the Icelandic diocese of Skalholt. Although he was deeply attached to his monastic way of life, Thorlak recognized the pressing need for reform and guidance among the clergy.

As a bishop, he was deeply dedicated to implementing the reforms of the western church that Pope Gregory VII had begun during the past century, which envisioned not only a strict discipline of clerical celibacy, but also the independence of the church against intrusion by secular authorities.

Thorlak also sought to improve public morality and dared to confront even the most popular and powerful chieftain in Iceland, who was said to have had an extramarital affair with the bishop’s own sister. Understandably, he often longed to put aside these kinds of burdens and return to the monastic life.

Before he could do so, he died on Dec. 23, 1193. More than 50 churches were dedicated to his memory before Iceland became officially Lutheran during the 16th century.

Adapted by A. J. Valentini from: St. Thorlak of Iceland. (n.d.). Catholic News Agency. Retrieved Dec. 14, 2020, from