TribuneAnders Arborelius

Sweden: a diverse Church, but united in faith

Immigration and other factors are giving richness and life to the Catholic Church in Sweden. Cardinal Arborelius stated this in a recent Forum organized by Omnesand summarizes it in this article.

April 7, 2021-Reading time: 3 minutes

Photo: © Clay Banks/ Unsplash

The fact that Catholics in Sweden make up only about 2% of the population has a historical explanation: the Church was destroyed at the time of the Reformation and was banned for several centuries. Now it is recognized as a part of this multicultural and multi-religious society. 

The process of secularization began more than a hundred years ago, when the Lutheran church lost contact with many people. Now most Lutherans only go to church for funerals, and although there are small groups of Protestants with a very strong faith, they are few. When they see a Catholic mass they are amazed: "how many people are here!", "where do they come from? They are surprised to find people from all over the world. In an ordinary Swedish parish there can be between 50 and 100 nationalities. It is not easy to keep such a reality together, but the fact is that such a variety of people can live together, share their problems and feel that as Catholics they have the task in Sweden of proclaiming their faith. 

When a Catholic arrives here, he or she is often faced with a choice: to advance in the faith and deepen his or her personal relationship with the Lord, or risk disappearing. We try to help those who come from countries with a Catholic tradition to discover their vocation to live the faith together with Catholics from all countries. There are differences between people, but they know how to put them aside; what is important is a Church that brings together people from all social classes, nationalities, political options... Precisely in Swedish society, where immigration is sometimes a social problem, this is a testimony. Sweden was a very homogeneous country before the Second World War, but then came refugees fleeing war or conflict situations, people looking for work and also "love immigrants", those who marry here. Immigration is changing the religious geography. In Stockholm we have bought two Lutheran churches, which our Protestant brethren no longer needed: one is used by the Maronites and the other by the Syro-Catholics. There are many Poles and tens of thousands of Middle Eastern Christians: Sweden is the country in Europe with the most Chaldeans from Iraq. 

Relations with other churches and confessions are generally very good, and the ecumenical movement is important. Many appreciate the Catholic tradition and spirituality: Lutheran pastors normally do the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which have also reached the prisons, where prisoners can do them on an ecumenical basis. 

The number of Catholics in Sweden is not very large, about a hundred Swedes become Catholics every year. They are usually university educated: they are professionals, doctors, artists... so there is a certain Catholic influence in the cultural and academic world. The rector of the University of Stockholm is a Swedish, Dominican tertiary. In the political world, on the other hand, there are still few Catholics.

I think the Catholic Church in Sweden shows what the Church in other European countries will be like. Migration changes its face, but we have to appreciate what it has to offer. Often migrants are the most active groups in parishes. They can give life to European religious communities and are a sign of hope. The unifying force of faith, which allows Swedes to live together with such diverse immigrants, brings the unity that is lacking in secularized societies. The Church can build bridges, be a small bridge itself. We are few in number, but we can show that unity is possible on the basis of what we have in common: our faith in Jesus Christ. That is why we want to help the faithful to interiorize their faith, to nurture a personal relationship with the Lord, to have a life of prayer, so that they can live their faith and speak of it.

Today in Sweden people are more open to the faith. In the pandemic many have reflected on what is important and asked questions, and the online Masses have helped many to discover the Catholic Church. Old prejudices are disappearing, especially among young people, who are more open than the previous generation. 

We can address these pagans of good will, who appreciate the voice of the Holy Father when he speaks of fraternity among peoples, of dialogue with believers of other religions, of justice and peace, of spirituality. Spirituality and the social doctrine of the Church: these are two important elements in our work of evangelization. 

We are a small Church, but full of hope, even though we live in a secularized environment. We know that the Lord is with us so that we can live our faith and proclaim it in a humble, simple and sincere way. There will always be someone to listen to us. That there are sometimes critical and even aggressive voices is also a sign of interest: something attracts them in the faith of the believer. 

This is my hope for the future of the Church. Together, as Catholics, we can move forward into the future with hope.

The authorAnders Arborelius

Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden.

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