Sweden's Catholic minority shows how the church can thrive in secular society

Pope Francis greets people as he arrives at the international airport in Malmo, Sweden, Oct. 31. The pope made a two-day visit to Sweden to attend events marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ROME (CNS) -- Even though it is one of the most secularized nations in the world, Sweden is one of the few countries in Europe where the Catholic Church is growing, said the country's first cardinal.

This kind of revival shows "it is possible to live a good life as a church even if we are few," Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm told Catholic News Service Dec. 6. 


"Maybe that sign of hope is something we could offer to those countries that are experiencing a very severe process of secularization," he said.

Elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis in June, the cardinal was in Rome in early December to take possession of his "titular" church -- Michelangelo's Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs.

"We are very overwhelmed by this fantastic church," he said, as his eyes swept up toward the wide vaulted ceilings and high walls decorated with lush frescoes. The Catholic Church has "nothing like this in Sweden; we're a very, very small community."

The cardinal had met with the basilica's parishioners for the first time Dec. 5, and they showed him some of the church-run projects aimed at serving the disadvantaged and those who live on the streets around Rome's nearby central train station.

The 68-year-old cardinal said he could see a connection between this urban parish in Rome and his cathedral in Stockholm as members of both communities dedicate much time to working with the poor and marginalized, and with immigrants from Catholic and Christian communities. 

While the Catholic Church in Sweden is just a small minority in a once predominately Lutheran country, all the Christian communities there "have a common voice on migration and refugees," he said. "And now we are more critical against the official policy" because the government is making it difficult for family members to be reunited in Sweden and young people are being expelled. 

The Swedish government is making it difficult for family members to be reunited in Sweden and young people are being expelled. 

Sweden used to have a "very open policy" on receiving refugees, which explains why the country had seen such a large uptick in the number of practicing Christians and Muslims in the country, he said.

"Now it is a bit more severe, more strict, so many people are sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance." He said, those with a greater chance of getting permission to stay are refugees from Syria and Eritrea, and workers from Ukraine, which has led to a growing number of Eastern-rite Catholics in the country.

Many of the immigrants and refugees are settled in parts of Sweden where there is available housing, but few or no Catholic parishes, he said. That means "our main concern is to find them and show them that the Catholic Church is present in Sweden." 

The rapid growth of the Catholic Church has presented the problem of building enough churches and parish structures, he said. 

But now, "we are able to buy Protestant churches that are not used anymore" because of changing demographics and the fact that fewer people are practicing their faith, Cardinal Arborelius said. "Sweden is a very segregated place; where the immigrants live, the Swedes move out."

The Protestant owners, he said, offer the Catholic Church the properties "at a good price" making it "a very good ecumenical strategy." 

The rapid growth of the Catholic Church has presented the problem of building enough churches and parish structures.

More than 60 percent of Swedes are baptized members of the Lutheran Church of Sweden and just over 1 percent are registered members of the Catholic Church. However, the number of Catholics probably is nearly double the official 116,000, the cardinal said, mostly because of the large number of Catholic immigrants and refugees in the country as well as a significant number of people joining the Catholic Church. 

In a country of 9.9 million people, between 3,000 and 4,000 people register each year as already being a member of the Catholic Church, making it one of "the few countries in Europe where the Catholic Church is growing," he said. Another 100 people on average are baptized and join the church each year, he said; they come from very different backgrounds, and many of them are "very well-educated people." 

It used to be that those who pursued a vocation in Sweden were men and women who converted to Catholicism, like Cardinal Arborelius, who converted at the age of 19.

But the country's seven seminarians and a handful of religious vocations now come from Catholic families who immigrated to Sweden. "It is a sign that they have found their place in Sweden and they feel a part of the church."

While it is not easy to evangelize with limited resources in a highly secular country, he said, people, especially the young, "are very open, interested and curious" about the Catholic faith.

"Sweden has been secularized for so long that people are curious and they don't know nearly anything about Christianity, especially the younger generations," he said.

Swedes are showing a renewed interest in Catholic spirituality and the social doctrine of the church, he said, "and even in our country, there is a kind of respect for the Holy Father and his message."

As a result of Pope Francis' visit in 2016, the "media are interested and open to our church more than before," he said.

Then Pope Francis made the bishop of Stockholm the first cardinal in the nation's history. "I was surprised that all the media and ordinary people said, 'Now Sweden has a cardinal.' Somehow they saw it as an honor for the country," Cardinal Arborelius said.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, is passing by a 2-1 margin with most of the votes counted.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.