On March 9, 2014, Ulf Ekman, founder and pastor of Word of Life church in Uppsala, Sweden, shocked his congregation with the announcement that he and his wife, Birgitta, were leaving Word of Life to join the Catholic Church. The Ekmans’ decision created a commotion, not only among the Protestant faithful, but even throughout decidedly secular Sweden.
The Ekmans will present their story at the “Defending the Faith Conference” July 24-26 at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
What were your thoughts while walking out of Word of Life church after announcing your decision to join the Catholic Church?
This is hard to describe in a few words. We started, built and developed this ministry; and for over 30 years, I was its pastor. We knew that, taking this step, we naturally would have to leave all of this. The sadness of some of our very, very good friends, staff and members made it difficult. But we trusted that the new leadership would be able to take it further, and we also trusted that this was all in God’s hands. Over and above all these things, there was a deep sense of peace and direction in our hearts.
You said that, with your reception into the Church on May 21, 2014, you and your wife felt that you were “becoming who we really were.” What did you mean?
It was a real experience for us. It was like several missing pieces fell into place, and so much started to make sense. There was a deep sense of “arriving” that came to us.
It has been just over a year since you and your wife were received into the Church. Can you share a little about the highs and lows of the past year?
It has been a wonderful year that we will never forget as long as we live. We feel very much at home in the Church and are grateful to the Lord. It has also been an intense year, due to the ongoing media coverage in Scandinavia. We have gained some wonderful new friends, but, like Blessed John Henry Newman said, it has also been a time of “parting of friends.”
The media coverage has been an ordeal?
Yes, as I mentioned, it has been quite intense. But we anticipated that. Sweden used to be a staunch Protestant nation but is today one of the most secular nations in the world, so you can image the questions and the reactions.
You will be giving two talks at this year’s “Defending the Faith” conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville: “A Journey to the Catholic Faith” and “Changes in the Spiritual Landscape: From the European, Scandinavian Perspective.” I’m supposing that in your second talk you will be speaking about the secularization of Sweden?
Actually, I will be speaking about an interesting development: In the midst of a heavy secularization in Scandinavia, there are strong signs of a new desire for unity among Christians.
The secularization of their country was undoubtedly a source of suffering for Scandinavian Christians. Let’s talk about suffering. Fellow Catholic convert and former Methodist mega-church pastor Allen Hunt says that his own “Protestant experience” could not offer him a satisfactory explanation of suffering. Has your own understanding of suffering changed since you became a Catholic?
Yes, it seems like Hunt and I have thought pretty much along the same lines. For a number of years, my wife and I studied about suffering and experienced it personally in different ways. I must say that St. John Paul II, St. Faustina and St. Padre Pio taught us a great deal, especially about offering up suffering and uniting it with Jesus on the cross. That was new to us.
Many would say that the Church itself is going through a period of suffering.
The Church is, and has always been, a mixture of the divine and human elements. As sinners, we unfortunately have the freedom to say No to God’s love and to Revelation. But there are the strong spiritual structures, the authentic authority and the fullness of Revelation that is sufficient for the Church, as it is “the pillar and foundation of truth.”
In obedience to Christ, the Church has the capacity to overcome in the great struggles for truth, dignity and freedom. And despite the hardships, there are opportunities: an opportunity to engage in evangelization with people who actually do not know anything about the Gospel of Jesus Christ; an opportunity to bring the freshness of the Gospel to Christians who for some reason are not living their faith; an opportunity to stand strong in the truth, with love; and to not be ashamed of Jesus Christ and his Church.
The Holy Father has said, “The charismatic renewal movement does much good for the Church” and “serves the Church and its renewal.” In what way do you feel that the charismatic movement serves the Church?
I do believe that the charismatic renewal has meant a lot to many Christians and is important. It has awakened, through a deepened relationship to the Holy Spirit, a new passion and love for Jesus Christ in many. It has, for many, renewed their personal spiritual life, in prayer and intimacy with the Lord, as well as embolden them to be more courageous witnesses for Jesus. It has brought the supernatural life of the Spirit closer to their everyday life. The Church is hierarchal, sacramental and charismatic, and these three elements should flow together.
The Word of Life church was actively involved in missionary work, establishing 1,000 church communities in the former Soviet Union. In this, you may have shared a vision of ministry with Pope John Paul II, who traveled all over the world to proclaim the Gospel. What were your thoughts about Pope John Paul II during his pontificate?
I regret that it was only in John Paul II’s later years that I really discovered him. As I have tried to repair this, I have read a lot and also traveled to places, particularly in Poland, that meant a lot to him. While I was involved in mission work to Russia, I learned about his huge influence in tearing down the Iron Curtain, and it both excited and humbled me. It’s actually John Paul II whose name I took in confirmation. Today, John Paul II is my patron saint.
You sought the truth for many years before finally discovering it in the Catholic Church. What would you say to cradle Catholics who take the faith for granted?
For us, the great, beautiful and exciting discovery was the historicity, authenticity, authority and sacramental life of the Church. It overwhelmed us! To cradle Catholics, we would say, “Please don’t get used to the Mass; see the great gift the Lord has given us in the Church — our God coming to us on the altar. What amazing love: that he gives himself to us continually!” Father Raniero Cantalamessa [who has served as preacher to the papal household] said: “To love Jesus is to love his Church.”
Your bold conversion to the faith has undoubtedly inspired others to “cross the Tiber.” Are you aware of any conversions that took place because of your witness?
Yes, some have been encouraged to take the step themselves. Others have clearly become more interested in finding out about the Catholic Church.
You are privileged to have been born on the glorious feast of the Immaculate Conception. Do you feel that Our Lady had a maternal hand in your own conversion?
For us, Mary was the first “obstacle” to overcome, though not the last. It was through her that we felt a leading towards the Church.
You’ve said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was “the best book [you] ever read.” Can you name some other books that have enriched your spiritual life?
One of the earliest books that influenced me was Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. More recently, George Weigel’s books about John Paul II impressed me. I have read Blessed John Henry Newman’s Apologia several times and have enjoyed biographies of Sts. Padre Pio, Teresa of Avila and Maximilian Kolbe, among others. Ecclesiology interests me, so I have read a number of books on that topic: Louis Bouyer’s The Church of God, Yves Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Paul Haffner’s Mystery of the Church, etc.
In one interview you said, “Now that all our former duties, obligations and positions are gone, we can, at least for now, live at a pace that allows a more reflective life.” With your speaking schedule and other time-consuming obligations, have you and your wife had the time for reflection that you had anticipated? When you do have time for reflection, is there a favorite prayer you recite or spiritual practice you engage in?
There has definitely been a little more free time in the schedule, but there has also been so much attention on our step [conversion] that it sometimes has been quite time-consuming. This has been necessary to pay attention to because of all the questions that have arisen concerning our decision.
My wife, Birgitta, and I try to pray the Rosary on a daily basis and use a Catholic prayer book for morning devotions. Our daily Bible reading is established since many years, but now we also follow the daily portions for the Mass. Step by step, we also try to take more time for Eucharistic adoration, which we find quite amazing, actually.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
By God’s grace, I would like to be active in a rich Catholic environment, writing, speaking, teaching and preaching this message: that to love Jesus is to love the Church.
Register correspondent Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.