Irja Askola: "We talk a great deal about foreign people but not enough with them"

Alumna and Bishop Emerita Irja Askola has always been a proponent of dialogue, even though during her ecclesiastical career, Askola has faced a great deal of hate speech and zealotry.

Irja Askola spent her early childhood years in Lappeenranta and then in the small but lively town of Lauritsala. There, three institutions came to be the centre of the shy girl’s life: the library, church and school.

“I was an avid reader and fondly remember the fantastic ladies in the library, who would even let me stamp return cards. It made me feel almost grown up,” says Askola.

She continues to appreciate the equalising effect of the school system.

“When I was growing up in Lappeenranta, the wounds of the Finnish Civil War had not yet healed. Everyone knew exactly who was a kid of the Reds and who of the Whites.

“Yet at school, children from different backgrounds sat next to each other and, at least in our school, the teachers treated everyone the same.

“The Finnish school system has brought more equality to our country than we may realise.”

Path to serving the Church

Askola gravitated towards the Church and parish activities in Lauritsala.

“My family wasn’t particularly religious. In parish functions, it first occurred to me that since the adults in the Church are so nice, maybe God might also be nice.”

In parish clubs, Askola unconsciously internalised a female perspective on leadership.

“People have sometimes wondered that surely there were hardly any female leaders in the Church at the time, but we children hardly ever saw anyone besides women! The leadership of priests dressed in black robes popping over for services was less apparent to us. Instead the leadership of playgroup instructors, Sunday school teachers and women volunteers was an everyday fact.”

When Askola was a child, it never occurred to her that she might one day become a bishop, but she believes that she has retained a conviction from those times that there is nothing strange about female leaders.

Revelation in Chicago

Askola became the first girl from her family to embark on university studies and after her pleasant experiences at the parish, she chose to study at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Helsinki.

There, for the first time, the young girl came face to face with sometimes bitter rivalries between various beliefs. However, the real revelation that transformed Askola’s worldview took place in Chicago during her six-month student exchange in Chicago in 1980.

There Askola met, for the first time, different, African-American people who not only were great teachers but also passionate human rights activists. Even the libraries offered shelves full of feminist theology. Equality and the protection of minorities became a matter of the heart for Askola.

“All of my sojourns abroad have been enlightening experiences in my life. It is fantastic that the University offers opportunities to acquaint yourself with new places, ideas and people.”

Science is good for you

Askola has always been a proponent of dialogue. People should try to listen to others.

“You should also try to understand the other side. You don’t have to agree but you should treat everyone with respect.

 “It comes so easily to us to speak about other people and groups of people while not talking to them. Only through contact can we see the people behind the labels.”

During her ecclesiastical career, Askola has faced a great deal of hate speech and zealotry. After all, she was one of the first female priests, the first female bishop, she has blessed gay couples and most recently stood up for asylum seekers. Despite all this, she has retained an admirable amount of unflappable calmness and courage to express her views.

For some, science and religion appear as irreconcilable worldviews. To Askola this kind of opposition is “complete rubbish”.

“There may be some fear involved in some religious circles' avoidance of science. The encounter of faith and science will make you examine your own beliefs, for example, when you read about new information that medicine has revealed about sexual minorities.

“To me as a Christian, science provides a means to navigate towards justice and mercy. Science is good for you. It increases understanding.”