FinnAgora organised on the 27th of February 2023 together with the Hungarian Lutheran Church a seminar for the Finnish-Hungarian friendship congregations in Hungary. The theme for this year's seminar was volunteer work in congregations in Finland and in Hungary.

Pastor Anna-Maija Viljanen-Pihkala from Helsinki Cathedral Parish discussed in her seminar presentation the current questions and challenges in Finnish congregations. She also answered questions regarding her own connections to Hungary.

In our seminar for friendship congregations on February the 27th the main theme is volunteer work in Finland and in Hungary. Why is volunteer work important in congregations and why is it also good to discuss the matter? 

I am a bit allergic to the word ‘volunteer’ regarding congregations, because the volunteers are members of the congregation who want to act in matters important to them with the gifts they have. On the other hand, talking about volunteers helps us to understand the matter we are discussing.

The lutheran churches in Finland and in Hungary are quite different. In Finland the churches have many employees whereas in Hungary volunteers have a more central part. However, having volunteers is never self-evident. That is why it is good to share views and experiences on the matter.

You have a long connection to Hungary. Where does this connection and interest come from? When did you first visit Hungary? 

My grandfather was an exchange student in Hungary in the beginning of the 1930s. Since then my family has had connections to Hungary. I first visited the country when I was in elementary school in 1988. 

You speak excellent Hungarian, what has been your motivation to learn and maintain the language? 

I have always said that I have never actually studied Hungarian, it just stuck on to me because I have spent so much time in Hungary. I am sure the situation would have been different if in 1988, instead of my non-existent Hungarian skills, I would have used my slightly better English skills. Back then in Hungary very few spoke English, which was lucky for my Hungarian learning. To maintain the language has been a bit so and so for the past years, but I message my friends on social media and speak it always when it is possible. 

You received your PhD in Theology in 2019 with the subject “The effects of Hungarian societal and church political situation on the Finnish-Hungarian Lutheran connection from 1956-1958”. Where did you get the idea for this research subject and would you like to tell us some of the results of the study?

I never thought that I would be a researcher of Hungarian church history. Back in the day when I registered for my master’s thesis seminar, I wrote in the registration form Hungarian as an language skill. And then professor Aila Lauha offered me a subject related to Hungary. I stayed on that path. 

One of the main results of my study can be read in the title: the effect of the Hungarian societal and church political situation. The situation and the events in Hungary took over and the Hungarians, perhaps without even wanting to, dictated the pace and the role the Finnish part had was to react to that. These reactions were often emotional. At the same time the Finns tried balancing their own political situation. Everything couldn’t be said out in the public. For example during the revolution in church press they didn’t speak of the Soviet Union but used other expressions.

Did you ever face any challenges writing your thesis? Or were there any surprises in your research work? 

Almost during the whole time of making the study I worked full time, so time or the lack of time was a constant challenge. And having children didn’t speed up an already stretched out process. 

The amount of primary sources was huge, I visited an endless amount of archives and took thousands of pictures of letters, records, newspapers etc. There was a lot of material. The connections were held on many levels. How could all of that be spun in a logical and chronological whole, and also in a way that someone can actually read through the study? 

I can not recall any big surprises, but I loved the archives and that there was always something new that was found that was also interesting in my opinion. I told about these finds with excitement to my spouse, who didn’t always understand what I was so happy to go on about. Often these things were small and were found between the lines, but brought depth to the story.

How important do you find today the connection between Hungarian and Finnish congregations? Has its role changed during the years?

The activities by the friendship congregations always certainly look like the friendship congregations, everyone has their own style to keep the connection. In my opinion in the best scenario friendship congregations can remind each other of the multifaceted church of Christ and the church family of the lutheran church, to learn from each other, to pray for each other, to understand that things can be done in many different ways and to put challenges into perspectives. Everytime there is a change in employees there are challenges because the friendship congregation connections is more than a signed piece of paper. Maybe we should pay more attention to equality in friendship congregation connections, and not always seem to be so good and the best but to bravely bring up challenges and difficulties. 

You have a lot of friends in Hungary. Do you have time to keep contact with them?

Not enough. There was a time when I visited Hungary once a year but now it has been six years since my last visit. This time period included the agonizing dissertation, recovering from that and the Covid-19 pandemic. Global warming has also lessened my willingness to fly. Here’s hoping for a quick train connection through the Baltics! Now I have planned my trip so that it has as many meetings with friends as possible. And still I feel bad because I don't have time to meet all of them. 

Social media is a big opportunity. On the other hand connecting through it is so easy that it is not always done. I sometimes reminisce to the 1990s when I used to write real letters. 

I work in central Helsinki which makes it easy to arrange meetings if one of my Hungarian friends is visiting Finland. And for everyone, even people I know less, I am happy to show them my workplace at Helsinki cathedral. Everyone is warmly welcome! 


Thank you for the interview Anna-Maija! 

Interview: Anneli Temmes