Out of the Catacombs

The Catholic Church in Sweden

October 30, 2001

In 2000, for the first time in modern history, Catholicism gained legal status as a church in Sweden. It might surprise you that Sweden, a haven of liberties, had waited so long to give equal rights to a religious minority. Only the Lutheran Church was a state church, until last year when Sweden decided to separate church and state. As a result, minority churches like Catholicism, which has grown very fast since World War II, received equal rights in our country.

After the war, many refugees came to Sweden, especially from Catholic countries. Before the war someone said, “In Sweden the only Catholics were the gypsies and some countesses.” Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but still the gypsies were nearly the only Swedes who had remained Catholic during the ages. That may be the reason they remained on the margin of society. In contrast, since the 16thcentury Sweden had become almost completely Protestant and Lutheran. And what about the countesses, you would ask? In the 19th century an Irish nurse married an old Swedish count of the family of Hamiltons, and through her some of the old, noble families of Sweden became Catholics. The Bielkes, Sparres, Hamiltons and so forth.

The situation before the war was a very peculiar one. You had the nobility, the gypsies, and some people in between, but there were only about 5,000 Catholics in the entire kingdom of Sweden. But after the war, they started to arrive. The first were the Polish refugees coming directly from concentration camps. Of course, many Jews came as well, but a considerable amount of Poles arrived directly from the concentration camps to Sweden. So when I visit our parishes, I’m usually presented to some old Polish women or men who can show the telephone number of Hitler on their arm. They are very proud because they built many of our parishes out of nothing when they came. The Hungarians came in ’56, and Croatians, Latin Americans, Africans and Vietnamese have also have arrived in Sweden. So today when you look at the Catholic Church in Sweden, you will find people from all over the world.

Somehow, that also is typical of the United States. You are a country of immigrants. And since the war, Sweden has become the same. Yet, it really hasn’t dawned upon Swedes that the situation has changed. For instance, today many Swedes think that to be Catholic is just to be a foreigner. Nearly 80 percent of Catholics are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. So one of the questions I always get when I go to the ordinary Swedish public is, “Are you a real Swede?” It is difficult for people to fathom that a Swede can also be a Catholic – they think that I must have a Polish grandmother or something. But in the next generation, Catholics in Sweden will be more or less as the Catholics are in the United States today.

Until recently, to be a Swede was to be a Lutheran. Today, it is still the most common religion in Sweden. Sweden is one of the most secularized countries in the world, which is a real challenge, not only for the Catholic Church but also for the Lutheran Church. To be a Christian believer today is something very rare, and people will look upon you with big eyes if you tell them that you believe in God. It is something very strange in Sweden to say at dinner or at a meeting, “Well, I believe in God.” People will look upon you and think, “Where does he come from? What kind of person is he?”

"We have to find ways to grow together, to become a part of Swedish society while still retaining our Catholic character, and to try to proclaim the gospel to all those Swedes who do not know Christ."

During the last decade, we also can claim that the number of native vocations have risen quite considerably. In a following of approximately 160,000 Catholics, we have 22 young men preparing for the priesthood. And they, somehow, reflect the diversity of our diocese because they are Latin Americans, Vietnamese, Polish, and even something that is typical of today, Lutheran ministers who have turned Catholic and now are preparing to be ordained.

As I said, most Swedish Catholics are converts. Every year about 100 Swedish men and women turn to the Catholic Church. Many of them are totally secularized, and have no background in any church. But some of them have a background in the Lutheran Church. And I would say in recent years, we have had a good number of Lutheran ministers turning Catholic. In fact, last year two female pastors of the Lutheran Church of Stockholm came to the Catholic Church. That, of course, reflects the situation within the Lutheran Church, that some of their ministers turn to the Catholic Church. But on the other side there also are Catholics becoming Lutherans, so there is a kind of two-way traffic. I would say, for the time being, the uncertain situation within the Lutheran Church will influence many ministers and others to look for guidance in the Catholic Church, because it is obvious that not every Lutheran who is interested in Catholic spirituality, in Catholic theology, will turn Catholic. But I would say that there also is a wonderful and beautiful ecumenical dialogue taking place on the level of personal relationships.

On the level of personal contacts between the two churches there are many connections. For instance, in more than 50 towns of Sweden, the Catholic Church can use Lutheran churches for their services – up to now we have not been able to build churches in all the places we need. It is a very beautiful experience when we are invited to a little place, for instance, up in northern Sweden where there are very few Catholics, and the Lutheran community offers us their church to celebrate Mass once a month. When I go around the country, I try to visit places where there are very few Catholics, and where mostly the Lutheran pastor turns up to be present at the Mass. So in that way many ecumenical contacts have developed.

In the Catholic community of Sweden we now have four major immigrant groups. As I said we have many Poles (about one third of the priests come from Poland). We also have a large following of Croatians and Bosnians, and even a vicar-general who comes from the Archdiocese of Sarajevo. Just as you do here in the United States, we have a strong Latin American group. Unfortunately, we have not been able to integrate them in a satisfactory manner. Many have turned to Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups. But lately a group of Franciscans have arrived from Mexico to work with the Latin Americans. And finally the fourth group, which might surprise you, is the Arabic-speaking Catholics.

Now the question is how can this vast, different community of Catholics become one people of God? We look upon your example of how you have succeeded in becoming a unified Catholic Church in the United States. We have to find ways to grow together, to become a part of Swedish society while still retaining our Catholic character, and to try to proclaim the Gospel to all those Swedes who do not know Christ. That is our task today – to form one Catholic community in Sweden – and that is why we have come here.

Maybe you have heard about the Neumann Institute. It is a Catholic studies program the Jesuits are forming in Sweden to find ways to create a more apostolic way of spreading the Gospel. The Jesuits, along with the Dominicans and other lay people, are attempting to start this program on an academic level, because up to now most converts in Sweden come from the universities. With me today are fathers from the university cities of Lund and Uppsala. We have had many converts, professors from the universities, students and so forth, from these cities. It is remarkable to see the many Catholics found throughout different layers of the population.

A very striking fact is that in the Royal Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, four of the 18 members are Catholic. And so are famous authors such as Birgitta Trotzig, Torgny Lindgren, Gunnel Vallquist and Östen Sjöstrand. My predecessor used to joke, “There are two places in Swedish society where the Catholics are represented in a privileged way. The Swedish Academy and the prisons.” Because we also, unfortunately, have many good Catholics in our prisons. As you can imagine, many of the immigrants come into a very different and a very difficult situation when they come to Sweden, especially second-generation immigrants. They face a difficult choice: they want to integrate into Swede society, but it is difficult if you have a foreign face and name. So, many of the immigrants tend to enter into difficulties on a social level, and that is why we now have so many Catholic prisoners. Unfortunately, segregation is becoming a very evident fact. For instance, in Stockholm if you live in a certain place you are an immigrant and not a Swede. And that is really one of our major tasks, to try to unite Catholics of the more intellectual level with Catholics of the least privileged levels of society.

In Sweden today, there are opportunities to approach people and show them the way to God, to the Church and to Christ. We have to show that Catholic faith is not something foreign or strange, but that it has something to offer. Sometimes I’m surprised that there is such openness in people who never attend church themselves, who never even claim to be Christians. Even if they do not consider themselves, as they say in Swedish “religious people” because the word “religious” in Swedish is something very, very strange. If you say of a person that he is religious, it is like saying he is half mad.

Still people long for God, for an encounter with God’s mystery. I would say we have three ways of proclaiming the Gospel to this secularized society.

The first would be on an intellectual level. That is where the Neumann Institute can work to show how it is possible to live in a Catholic culture even if you live as a minority. The Catholic Church has something to say about philosophy, art, literature and so forth. It is very important to Swedes that religion is more than just an emotional experience. When Swedes think about religion, it is a kind of feeling, an emotion. It is not really a faith that has something to say about all aspects of life.

The second level would be the level of spiritual life. Swedes are really spiritual people, but when they look for spiritual life they don’t come to church. Instead, they go into nature. They go down to the sea, out into the forest, and there they feel the divine. It is important for many Swedes to combine nature and God. That is why it is so important to show them that we believe in a personal God, that God has become man in Christ. People really are interested in spirituality, in prayer life, but we have to help them to realize it is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Spirituality is more than a vague feeling, it is something very specific.

The third level is on ethical values. That is why we brought Father Axel with us because he is an expert in bioethics. There is something tragic happening in Sweden today. Many people have lost the belief that the human being is something special. Many people really believe that animals and human beings are more or less the same. The typical value that human life is something very precious is forgotten in our country. Still there is interest in discovering who is man? what is man? what is human dignity? and so forth. As you can imagine, this also is an area where the Catholic Church will be attacked because we are against abortion and euthanasia. Most Swedes are very pragmatic on these issues. No single political party in Sweden would say, “We are against abortion.” Not even the Christian Democrats. So you would realize what it means when there is a church that openly states, “We are against abortion.” Still, this point of view is respected. It is attacked, but respected. And maybe that is typical of our situation as the Catholic Church in Sweden. We are attacked, but we are respected. In response, we recently founded a movement called “Respect” to promote the value of human life from the moment of conception up to natural death.

In the future we have to work especially on these three levels to make the Catholic faith known and accepted. Internally, we must work to unite these different cultures and people. But in many ways the situation for the Catholic Church in Sweden is hopeful. There is openness, even if we have to stand up against a society that is so secularized. There are signs of hope. Nowadays people tend to become tired and sick of materialism, hedonism and secularism. Religion is something new. They become curious. They stand back, outside the church and try to listen a bit. They open a book, they listen to a conference on the radio and so forth. There are many little signs that somehow the Catholic Church has found its place in Swedish society. Also, on the ecumenical level, it is very consoling that we often hear from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, “We need you. We are happy that you can help us to grow in spiritual life, that you can help us to find an intellectual foundation for our faith, that you can help us to be true to the values of the Gospel.”

So I would say that the Catholic Church in Sweden has a unique position in Western Europe. In most countries of Western Europe the process of secularization really has been a very hard thing for the Church to cope with. In Sweden, the Catholic Church still is growing through immigration and also through conversions. I would say there is a hidden, humble hope living in the hearts of Swedish Catholics. Our situation has improved on the sociological level, but now we have this great challenge to unite all these groups of people. We have to find something that keeps them together – the members of the Royal Swedish Academy and the prisoners, the Arab-speaking Catholics and the converts from the university – to create a kind of family atmosphere that makes them feel as one people of God.

It is a demanding task, but I am happy to say that we have many devoted lay people, priests and sisters that are eager to promote this view. Also, as I have said, we find that our fellow Christians in other churches are very eager to have us amongst them. So I suppose within 10 or 20 years I will never hear that question anymore, “Are you a real Swede?” because then they will realize that being a Catholic can mean you also are a Swede. You have something to say and to do in this society. Together we can really try to promote the reign of God in this, a most secularized country of Western Europe.