The spread of Christianity throughout Europe in the first millennium was a complex process.
The "conversion of the barbarians" was gradual as Christianity became inculturated among whole populations, and wove an unprecedented fabric of unity among hitherto perpetually warring pagan clans.
We must remember this historical context when considering the conversion stories of pagan political rulers (who sometimes even went on to become the patron saints of various European nations). They can't all be written off as opportunists. The grace of conversion was working in their hearts. These rulers' perspective on reality was changed by their encounter with Christ, even if it took some time for them to learn how to rule their peoples with justice.
The far north of Scandinavia long remained unevangelized. Its Vikings were sea-nomads who raided Western Europe with their astute strategies, effective weapons, and a culture that glorified plunder. Over the course of several centuries, however, they began to settle in these warmer lands, build institutions, and embrace Christianity. The Gospel even began to make slow progress in Scandinavia itself.
Still, the Nordic land where Olaf Haraldsson was born in 995 remained largely proud, pagan, and warlike. As a young chieftain, Olaf learned the "trade" of his people and became an accomplished pirate. By this time Vikings were not only raiding, but also hiring themselves out as mercenaries in the local wars of other European countries. Olaf and his Vikings fought as mercenaries first in England. Then they crossed the channel to a realm recently established by their Norse kin, who had settled and become "Normans" in a land they called "Normandy." In 1013, Olaf enlisted in the service of Duke Richard II, a third-generation Norman known as "Richard the Good." Through Richard, Christ first touched Olaf's rude, narrow heart.
Normandy was very far from perfect, but under Richard's rule it had begun to become something of a place where social life was being shaped by the light of the Gospel. There was a kind of social peace unimaginable in the Viking world, with churches and monasteries, cities and towns, farms, families, and a basic sense of cooperation for the common good. Evil and violence also abounded, but what surprised Olaf, the brash young pirate, was the goodness and beauty (rudimentary, but unmistakable) that he saw in Richard's domains.
During his two years in Normandy, Olaf gained a new way of thinking about himself and his purpose as a human being and as a leader of his own people. At that time his Norwegian clans were dominated by the Danish king. Olaf wanted to fight the Danes, but his motive became something more than just winning a conflict. He began to realize that his people were called to live together in peace and unity, as a people who belonged to Christ.
In 1015, Olaf was baptized in Rouen, in the cathedral built by Richard, and when he returned to Norway he brought missionaries with him for the whole land. We don't need to overestimate Olaf's vision for the future of Norway or his understanding of how to bring it about. He was not yet "Saint Olaf." (Time and failure would help make him a saint.) But he was no longer a pirate or a mercenary. He was a convert to Christ and a son of the Church.
John Janaro "Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway." Magnificat (March, 2019).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2019 Magnificat
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