500 Years after the reformation, Swedes greet the first Jesuit pope.

Pope Francis greets people before celebrating Mass at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmo, Sweden, Nov. 1 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

On Monday, as the pope prepared to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation together with the Lutheran World Federation, crowds had gathered outside the Cathedral in Lund, Sweden despite cold temperatures and a steady drizzle. A couple blocks away at the town’s central square, a few hundred people watched on a large screen.

But the majority of them were not there for the ecumenical gathering. They were there to see the pope. “I love Påven!” said an old Swedish Lutheran who had booked train tickets three month in advance to catch a glimpse of Francis.

“This might be my only chance ever to see something this important,” one student told me as he queued to get past security.

“It’s like we are coming out to see the American president,” said another.

When I asked them why Sweden, consistently ranked one of the most secular countries in the world, was taken with Pope Francis, they seemed to suggest that he was one of their own. “The pope seems very modest, and in Sweden, everyone likes modesty. So, Swedes think that he’s a good guy,” one student told me.

If the commemoration at the cathedral, closed to all but select dignitaries, felt like a spectator sport, the celebration at Malmö later that day was far more participatory. Thousands of people lined up for the event, which featured several music performances on a large cross stage that jutted out into the audience. Eventually, the pope and the Lutheran Federation arrived from Lund, 14 miles away.

Audience members heard testimonies related to refugees, climate policy and peace from people around the world. It felt like a global festival, both in the speaker lineup and the vaguely Euro-vision-like staging and music. Lutherans and Catholics seemed genuinely glad to be there, singing and praying together.

In the lobby, I met Christina Jonk, a woman originally from North Dakota who had lived in Sweden for 20 years. “It hasn’t been as easy to practice my faith as it was in the United States. Because the Swedes are very personal in their faith and don’t talk about it daily, it’s been hard for me to raise my children in the faith in the same way.”

But she was delighted to be in Malmö at the ecumenical service. “It warms my heart to be here with Catholics from my church and other Swedes who share my Christian faith,” she said.

An Impromptu Interview

When the dignitaries arrived at the cathedral in Lund, I was interviewing the Catholic altar servers. As the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden walked by, one of the boys stole my mic and started interviewing her. “I think we need to move forward together doing it by celebrating as Christians what unites us—the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Antje Jackelén said when the altar server asked her hopes for the event. It was a deeply stirring—and ecumenical—moment: an Eritrean Swedish Catholic altar server talking to a German Swedish Lutheran archbishop about the Gospel.

Shortly after, in the cathedral, Pope Francis urged unity between Lutherans and Catholics. “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” he stated.  

But what does moving beyond entail, and is it even possible?

Swedes are not a terribly optimistic bunch; no surprise, then, their expectations for the aftermath ranged from dour to vaguely optimistic, particularly among theologians and priests.

Gösta Hallonsten, emeritus Professor of Theology at Lund University told me he “would like to get more focus on what we can do together to evangelize” rather than focusing on the current impossibility of intercommunion between Lutherans and Catholics. “I hope this manifestation in the cathedral and the pope’s personality and charism could help us to come to something like that.”

Jakob Wirén, the theological secretary for the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, was hopeful. “I hope that it will lead to future collaborations and actions. I think that we cannot but have a united Christianity in dealing with the situation we face.”  

Others were less optimistic. “We human beings in this ecumenical movement are unable to establish some sort of collaboration or greater visible unity ourselves,” said Frederik Heiding, a Jesuit Priest and editor of the theological journal Signum. “There are still tensions and quite significant ones. So the very idea that we are moving from ‘Conflict to Communion,’ we are not there yet. I would suggest that what we need is some sort of divine aid.”

Another Swedish Catholic priest told me he expected things to get a lot worse between the two churches on the national level as the Church of Sweden attempted to redefine itself now that it is no longer a state church.  

Most of the crowd gathered outside the Cathedral in Lund was skeptical when I asked if there would be any lasting effects for Sweden. “I don’t know man,” one person said. “Sweden is not religious at all. But many people in Sweden are proud that [the pope] is here.”  

As the event in Malmö drew to a close on Monday evening, I went out into the arena’s lobby. Thinking I’d do one more interview before I headed home, I started talking to a young woman and her grandmother, what one might describe as typical Swedes. “Why did you come?” I asked the woman.

“Eh, my mom asked me to come with my grandmother,” she said sheepishly. When I asked if there would be more lasting ecumenical might coming out of this ecumenical event, both women seemed skeptical, but then the young woman said something that I first thought naive and then thought wise: “We give it a chance—and give ourselves a chance to try, to do better.”

The old woman suddenly sprang to life. “I talked with a priest today, and it’s very interesting, but it probably takes 50 years—then we’ll know.”

Compared to 500 years, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Charles Etheridge
3 years 11 months ago
It's wonderful news that even in a protestant country like Sweden our Pope is appreciated. I really believe he's a person who's able to bring people from different backgrounds together and bring peace to this world.Charles
Tim O'Leary
3 years 11 months ago
Some sobering stats from Wiki. Lutheran (Church of Sewden) has 6M members (66% of Swedes), of which 2% are regular participants (~120,000) Catholics 200,000 (most are active and most are not ethnic Swedes, although new converts are) Muslims 110,000 registered members (about 1/3rd of ethnic muslims - growing with refugee immigrants) A poll of Swedes found only 15% believe Jesus is the Son of God and the number of Lutherans are declining every year, losing 1M each decade. So, it seems to me there are very few Lutherans available for ecumenism. Furthermore, why do they still go by the name of Luther, who would not recognize their doctrines? Outright evangelization and conversion is likely to be much more productive.

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