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In Finland, a Man of Politics, Without His Cloth -- The New York Times, USA


BY conventional lights, the Rev. Mitro Repo’s candidacy for the European Parliament never should have succeeded. As a Finnish Orthodox priest, he was bucking his superiors, who have strict rules about the mixing of politics and piety. As a Social Democrat, he was bucking the political tides sweeping Europe after the financial crisis.

But last Sunday Father Repo, 50, the son and grandson of priests, was elected as an independent candidate on the Social Democratic ticket as one of Finland’s 13 deputies in the 376-seat Parliament. It was a bittersweet victory in one respect: along the way, the bishops of the church forbade him to conduct religious services or wear the robe or pectoral cross or any other symbols of his priesthood. “They are accusing me of a crime,” he said of the church officials during the campaign. “I think it is an honor to do what I do.”

But while the church may not have liked his politics, the people did, giving Father Repo one of two Social Democratic seats, one fewer than they won last time.

“Honestly, this was a surprise to me,” he told Finnish radio after the vote. His aim as a deputy, he said, would be to “promote a more humane Europe.”

“For years I’ve been addressing problems of public life in Finland,” he said. “I will continue to do so in Europe.”

Elections to the European Parliament are usually about as exciting as watching grass grow. The Parliament is gradually gaining more power, but few Europeans care much about it. But the candidacy of Father Mitro, as everyone calls him here, injected unaccustomed energy.

A jovial and warm man, Father Repo has ruddy, round cheeks, a rust-colored beard and mustache, sparkling eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses and a deep laugh that would make him a great Santa, if only the beard were whiter. For all his spirituality, he lives life to the fullest. On the campaign trail he used a chauffeur-driven Chrysler 300. He enjoys a good meal, and when he sat down recently in a local restaurant to talk with a visitor, he first ordered up two glasses of cabernet sauvignon.

“I think my candidacy was a great honor,” he said. “For me, and for my church.”

Father Repo is not the first religious leader to enter the European Parliament. There were four Protestant ministers in the last one, including Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant evangelist from Northern Ireland who sat in the Parliament from its founding in 1979 until he retired in 2004.

“It’s difficult to perceive him as a priest,” said Juri Mykkanen, a professor of political science at Helsinki University, of Father Repo. “He is relaxed, ordinary, with a sense of irony.” Father Repo was “unusual,” he said, “more open to the world than we’re used to. Not everyone in the church likes that.”

Mr. Mykkanen believes the church’s stance may even have lifted Father Repo’s popularity. “I am not sure that the bishops didn’t do the Social Democrats a favor,” he said.

ALWAYS drawn to art, Father Repo was sent as a teenager to Paris to study icon painting with the reigning master, Leonid A. Ouspensky. After teaching Latin, Greek and the New Testament for a while, he entered the priesthood in his early 30s, “the age of Christ,” he said, speaking fluent English and quoting the church fathers and the New Testament in Greek and Church Slavonic.

From the start, it was obvious that his priesthood would not be ordinary. In addition to serving his church here, he began visiting workers in their factories and financial and business leaders in their offices. His buoyant personality soon got him invited to radio and television talk shows.

For many Finns, it was remarkable for an Orthodox priest, in cassock and with cross, to play such a public role. Orthodoxy’s 62,000 faithful make up only about 1 percent of the population in Finland, where the dominant church is Lutheran.

Tragic family events, like the suicide of an older brother, sensitized Father Repo to issues like mental health, and in 2006 the Finnish Central Association for Mental Health named him its annual ambassador of good will, to help raise awareness.

“He’s not afraid of talking publicly about mental health,” said Ismo Laukkarinen, an official at the association. “And of course, he’s a very cheerful person, he brings joy wherever he goes.”

Father Repo’s popularity soon had Finland’s political parties beating a path to his door. First was the conservative party of the prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, soon followed by the other five parties. In the end, he chose the left-leaning Social Democrats. “I recognized myself in the themes of their program,” he said.

For Father Repo, the hardest part of all this has been the demand that he stop working as a priest. “I heard from my parents that already at 5 I wanted to be a priest,” he said with a laugh. “I imitated my father.” Father Repo was the ninth of 13 children. “At 7 I’d decided I’d become an archbishop,” he said with a deep chuckle.

Recalling Orthodoxy’s Slavic roots, he added: “The Eastern Orthodox world has much to give Western Europe — its sincerity, its emotional way.”

He added: “The soul of Fyodor Dostoyevsky is something we need in Europe.”

The bishops’ decision does not mean Father Repo ceases to be a priest, but only that he cannot function as such or wear the garb of a priest in public. So now he has replaced cassock and cross with a white shirt, suit and tie, though his business card still identifies him as “pastor” and has a picture of Helsinki’s onion-domed Ouspensky Cathedral.

He sees himself as part of an Orthodox tradition that dates from Byzantine times, in which the line between public figure and priest blurred. He cited Archbishop Makarios, who in the 1970s was Archbishop of Cyprus and leader of the Greek Cypriot community there, but also Russian Orthodox priests who in 1919 and again in the early 1990s were active in parliamentary politics.

BUT Jyrki Harkonen, the theological secretary of the church, said different times demanded different policies. “We were very isolated then, the independence of the churches was not respected as it is today in the European Union,” he said.

“The synod encouraged him to participate in public life,” Mr. Harkonen said, “but as a simple person, not as an Orthodox priest.”

But Father Repo objects that “in the Byzantine tradition, from which Orthodoxy went forth, it is not normal spirituality to say, ‘I am a Christian only in my interior life.’ Parliaments are discussing morality and ethics, and I think I can have a spirituality as a representative of Eastern European countries and cultures.”

Yet, Father Repo must for now content himself with an interior spiritual life. In the evenings, when he can, he often retreats to a rustic cottage that he built, with a tiny chapel decorated with icons he himself painted, for a relaxing sauna, a dip in a nearby pond and fervent prayer.

In his secular life, Father Repo says whimsically that he strives to emulate President Obama. “Do you see how natural he is?” he asked. “How authentic?”

The only major difference, he says with a characteristic twinkle, is that his Chrysler 300, unlike Mr. Obama’s steel-blue model, which he sold last year, is metallic silver.


This article was published in The New York Times 12.6.2009

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