STOCKHOLM — Five years ago, Ulf and Birgitta Ekman surprised the world of evangelical Protestantism by leaving the Swedish megachurch they founded to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The Ekmans have now written The Great Discovery: Our Journey to the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), which tells their story of decades of discipleship as Lutherans that began with a deep, personal faith in Jesus and led them to proclaim the Gospel in Sweden and abroad through the Word of Life ministries they founded, until entering the Church in 2014.
In this interview with the Register, the Ekmans both share how they found their discipleship of Christ come fully alive in the Catholic Church, nourished by its teachings and sacraments, and hope their story can invite both Protestants and Catholics to discover the “revolution” that comes from a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith.
In your story, you both have a very personal encounter with Jesus Christ and develop that relationship with him. And in following Jesus, you made the great discovery of the Catholic Church. Can you share how the fullness of communion with the Catholic Church helped you live out discipleship of Jesus Christ that was rich already?
Ulf: I would think that coming from an evangelical charismatic background, where there is an emphasis on the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it brings you into a walk with him to follow him. But I would say that the sole emphasis is much more on the personal walk. And that really the understanding of the body of Christ is not that strong. So the discovery of that — the Church — is actually very important, that it is the Body of Christ and that Christ is very present in his Church. It’s not just an organization that we can put together a little bit pragmatically the way we want it for the season, so to speak, but it’s something that is very provident and has a continuity. And the discovery of that fact, I believe, was very important for us.
How did the encounter with the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist transform your own experience of Christian faith and discipleship?
Birgitta: I could maybe say something here. In my teenage years, I used to go to the Lutheran church here in Sweden. In the youth group, we used to go to holy communion almost every week. And then, as I grew older, I had talked to people in the Lutheran church, and for some of them the holy eucharist meant a lot. I asked the Lord and I prayed, “What is the Eucharist? What is Holy Communion, other than bending your knee, being reverent and thinking of Jesus?” Because that’s how it was for many.
So for years I was wondering, “What is the Eucharist really?” And then when we lived in Israel for a few years and we started going to a monastery for a visit, and I saw the devotion of the sisters there, before the altar and the Blessed Sacrament, I felt I had to read about it. And when I saw what the Church teaches, and I realized this basic belief of the Catholic Church — that this is Jesus; Jesus is there; the bread and the wine becomes truly Jesus — then I understood everything. So, lovingly, he gives himself to us.
How, then, do you connect our discipleship in Jesus with the Eucharist for Pentecostal or evangelical Christians who don’t have this sacramental understanding? How do you connect personal faith in Jesus with the liturgy, our corporate worship and the Eucharist?
Ulf: I believe that ecumenically, of course, we are Christians. We have a common bond in baptism. We believe in the Gospel. We believe in Jesus Christ. But this [Eucharist] is not an added form. This is the center of the faith. But this is where the division really is: that after the Reformation that which used to be the center became somewhat on the outside, or not so important anymore. And this is why we have to grip the ball and bring it back into the forefront again.
We have a lot in common with all our brothers and sisters in different denominations, but when it comes to obedience of what Christ really said, based on what he did for us and the institution of the sacraments, especially of course, the Eucharist, there is a fulfillment and there is his presence that — and he said it himself in John 6, that if we partake of him, if we eat his flesh and drink is blood, we have eternal life.
So there is a participation in the full sense of the word with God through the sacraments that is needed, I believe, for sustaining us as Christians. … It’s very important to, if you can use the word, “upgrade” the [understanding of the] sacraments so that, for Protestants, they understand … that this is really Christ in the fullness coming to us. And this is why we need it.
A lot of Protestant Christians struggle with the role of Mary in the Church’s teaching and the life of faith. What would you say is the role of Mary in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ, in the Catholic Church?
Ulf: Of course, this was something for us that was new and was also the first challenge for us. Many times I’ll speak with former Protestants, and they’ll say the hardest part was Mary. But, for us, we had to conquer this at the first, because if we could not reach an understanding of what Mary really is, then Catholicism was not for us; so this was very important.
But I believe the great connection, of course, with Mary and Christ is the key. That is something that every Protestant would understand: that without Mary, no Christ; and without Christ, no Mary. So Mary is absolutely tied to Christ. Then the biblical roots are much stronger for an understanding of Mary than what a Protestant actually thinks. We find her actually in the Bible much more than would be admitted, I must say.
Birgitta: As Ulf said, it was something we had to just understand. These doctrines are foreign to Protestants: her Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity. These things are unknown and scare people, because they think we “worship” Mary and put her on the same level as God. It turns people off.
But if you are really hungry to know the truth, search and read the Catholic books about it — instead of the anti-Catholic things — you can learn what the Church actually teaches. And so I saw it biblically. I could “buy it,” so to say. I could see, for instance, how actually [Jesus could not] be without sin if he was born of a woman who was a normal sinner. Many Protestants believe that Mary was a pious and good girl, but there was nothing special other than God called her to do this. But why didn’t sin — we believe this doctrine of original sin — pass on? How did that not come to Jesus, if he was born of a normal woman? I wanted to understand the answer to this, and when I saw it in St. John Paul II’s writing and the Catechism. It was a huge revelation to me.
Ulf: When we see how important Mary was, so that we could receive Christ, we see how central she is in the Gospel. She is very close to Jesus, and we want to be close to Jesus. We see that she is his mother, and she is our mother, and she is an intercessor for us. In heaven, that is her role. Then she becomes an asset, not a threat.
She is an amazing gift as an intercessor to us, as a mother to us. Mary and the saints, I think, are the ones who will win the battle for the Church. It is with great thankfulness we see her place and role today.
What do you see are some of the problems faced by Christians in the Protestant world, who sincerely love Jesus and try to follow him, that you believe the Catholic Church can answer?
Ulf: I think there are a number of things. I was recently with a number of Lutheran ministers, very good people, and they were all complaining about certain things in their church. I was astonished actually: What they all were missing, what they all were talking about, the Church had a proper answer for each and every thing. So I think there are a lot of misunderstandings, and also some pride in the way.
What the Church can offer is the sacraments, and the Church can help the big need of leadership that’s there in the Protestant world, much more than we maybe understand. What the Catholic Church can give is the authenticity of the faith, the continuity of this, the proper understanding of authority, and how the Church has developed through history, that you don’t have to rebuild everything in every generation.
There’s so many different things. I believe the Church has the solution to the individualistic, very self-centered attitude that will come when everything is about me, myself, my Bible and my experiences. The understanding of proper authority and catholicity is an amazing gift to the Body of Christ.
Do you see any possibility for a corporate reunion of Lutheran churches with the Catholic Church similar to what took place almost 10 years ago with Anglicanorum Coetibus, when Benedict XVI established the ordinariates at the request of Anglican congregations?
Ulf: I know that there is a desire; especially I would say more among Lutherans than among the free churches. The free churches have a problem [in that they have] a more strict sort of sola Scriptura and are very much opposed to apostolic succession. But … whether in Scandinavia and in Europe, where the Lutheran Church is much more prevalent, I know groups that would very much like to join the Church this way.
So I would say that there is not one way — I mean there will be much more personal conversions, I think, but there also is this longing for groups to come in together, and I think that would be a wonderful idea.
In your experience, are there pitfalls that Catholics should avoid in how they share their faith with Protestants and other approaches that should take their place?
Ulf: I think that any form of triumphalism doesn’t work. I mean the approach that “we are right and you are wrong.” I mean if that comes out to too strongly, it doesn’t work. It becomes just action and reaction. I don’t think you should be relativistic, but we are servants of truth. I mean the popes, laypeople.
The popes have all said that they are servants of the truth; they want just to serve the body of Christ. The question “How can we serve you Protestants?” is a very good question. And also to dismantle prejudices in a very loving way.
Many Protestants have this idea that Catholics don’t know the Bible, and, to be honest, sometimes Catholics don't know the Bible. So I think it’s very fulfilling to Protestants to meet Catholics that are knowledgeable in the Bible, but that don’t use the Bible dogmatically, in the sense of just using Scripture to defend my position, but use the Bible in a living way, living in the Scriptures and living by it. That is something that really attracts Protestants.
In the U.S., we view Sweden and the other Scandinavian nations as exceptionally secularized societies. What are the particular challenges for sharing the Gospel in this particular secular context?
Ulf: Yes, Sweden is, of course, a secular nation, and in certain ways, maybe more secular than many other nations. But it’s a little deceptive, because under the surface, people are more religious than you think. It’s not like the U.S., where you have a culture of Christianity that is very evident. You have a lot of churches everywhere, people go and so on, it’s a part of their life — or used to be. I don’t know how it is today.
But in Sweden, of course, very few people actually go to church. So in this way, it’s a secular nation; but in the last 20 years, I would say, both as a Protestant and now as a Catholic, I have amazing opportunities to give witness to the Gospel.
Since you came into full communion, have you seen others from your former congregation also make this great discovery of the Catholic Church?
Birgitta: Yes, some have. We’ve seen a little trickle of people who have started to engage these questions, go to the Catholic church, and check it out. There are a number of people who have now been received by the Catholic Church: people we know and people from our former congregation.
Many Catholics are very conscious of the clerical abuse scandals. How do we as Catholics share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it at a time when a lot of the world can point to the many leaders in the Church that have clearly rejected Christ’s Gospel by their abuse or by enabling these moral crimes?
Ulf: This is a very difficult situation. And it’s a tragedy; and it is a crisis in the Church. But the Gospel is still the Gospel, and Jesus Christ is still the Savior of all mankind. This only emphasizes that we need him. We all need him very much. I believe it helps us also not be triumphalistic, but to come in a humble way. The Church has always overcome, not by its own strength, but by the help of God. And so I don’t think this should stop us from evangelizing.
You’ve written this book about your journey to the Catholic Church, The Great Discovery. What do you want people most of all to take away from reading the story about your journey into full communion?
Ulf: Today we live as Catholic laymen and actually divide our time between writing, the local parish at the cathedral in Stockholm where we live, and traveling to many different places speaking. And what we speak about is why we became Catholics. This is the reason for this book.
The people that we meet are both our Protestant brothers and sisters and our Catholic brothers and sisters. Among Protestants, we try to make them understand that the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith is not exactly what you think it is. It’s better. It’s deeper. It’s stronger. So we are reaching out to our Protestant friends, but at the same time, we’re reaching out to a Catholic audience.
What we hear every day is that Catholics come up and say, “You speak about things that I’ve heard all my life, but you speak it in a very simple way, but you just speak about it in a way that makes us understand that it took everything in you to discover this — the effort to reach out and grasp this — and it makes you come alive in a much deeper [way]. And it makes us as Catholics understand we need to go deeper. We need to understand this more. We need to bring this … in a more loving and bold way to our brothers and sisters around us.
So I would say the book means to encourage and challenge Protestants to really get to know the Catholic faith and work through some prejudices; and to Catholics, to get to know their faith better and to inspire them to reach out to [Protestants]. Because if it’s true what the Catholic Church says about what the Catholic Church has, it’s a revolution. It was for us. It's a revolution for every person that comes into contact with it and dares to open up for it.
This interview is edited for length.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.