STOCKHOLM ― Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, Sweden, is eagerly awaiting Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden Oct. 31 for a much-anticipated apostolic visit to solemnly mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther.
The Diocese of Stockholm ministers to approximately 150,000 Catholics in 44 parishes. And, as the shepherd of the lone diocese in this traditionally Lutheran but increasingly secular Scandinavian country, Bishop Arborelius, a convert, is the first native Swedish bishop in the country since the Reformation.
Bishop Arborelius spoke with Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro about the papal visit.
What was your involvement in this upcoming papal visit? Did you recommend the visit to the Pope?
The initiative to invite the Holy Father came from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. From their side, they asked the local Lutheran and Catholic churches of Sweden if we would support His Holiness’ visit. Once we gathered this information, I sent a personal invitation from our diocese to Pope Francis. He gladly accepted the invitation, and, now, here we are waiting for this incredible, historic event. It would have been otherwise inconceivable to believe a Catholic pontiff [would be] co-sponsoring an ecumenical event marking the Protestant Reformation.
When did the Vatican begin plans for the visit?
After all of the exchanges we had with the Lutherans here regarding this papal visit, and knowing that the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation would soon be upon us, the Vatican began making plans for this visit approximately six months ago. Since then, both communities have been busy making arrangements for His Holiness’ visit.
What is your involvement in ecumenical dialogue in Sweden and other parts of Europe?
I have been active in the Ecumenical Council of Sweden for more than 15 years and have taken part in bilateral dialogues in Sweden with Orthodox churches, Pentecostals, Lutherans and other Protestants throughout that time. On the European level, I’ve only been part of the Catholic-Orthodox Forum in Minsk, in the Republic of Belarus, a few years ago. Both projects have been highly productive. We’re glad things have progressed well enough with the Lutherans that they could sponsor His Holiness’ visit alongside us. It’s a sign of our mutual commitment towards unity.
Is this principally a Lutheran function or are representatives of all Protestant/evangelical denominations invited to all papal functions?
This commemoration of the Protestant Reformation is organized jointly by Lutherans and Catholics in a spirit of reflection and penance. Other Protestant and Orthodox groups are invited as well and will indeed attend. These other groups do not have the clear and intimate historical connection as do the Lutherans and Catholics, but we treasure their participation as well. It’s important that Christ’s Church be united. These papal events are the fruit of a great deal of ecumenical labor. We’re very happy, not only because of the Pope’s visit, but also because of his participation in this historical commemoration in which both communities will pray for ultimate unity.
Are lay Catholics in your diocese involved in ecumenical dialouge?
Some lay Catholics ― mostly Swedish converts from the Protestants communities ― are active in the dialogue between our respective groups. Our immigrant Catholic members aren’t as active in the dialogue, but they also aren’t as well-connected to the Protestant community. The Swedish converts to our Church have been highly active in sponsoring open exchanges between the two communities. With dialogue comes understanding, healing, friendship and, ultimately, unity. This is the goal for which both communities hope and aspire.
What is the Pope’s itinerary while in Sweden? Will you be participating in all of his events?
The Pope will arrive in Malmö Airport on Oct. 31. [Swedish] Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén will welcome His Holiness there when he arrives. Then Pope Francis will meet King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia in Lund and take part in an ecumenical service in the St. Lawrence Cathedral there. Afterward, he will take part in an ecumenical event in Malmö Arena. The next day, the Pope will celebrate Mass at the Swedbank Stadion. There will be a farewell ceremony at the International Airport of Malmö, and, immediately afterward, Pope Francis will then depart for Rome at 12:45. I will be present at all major events.
What are the Protestants’ perceptions of the Pope and his visit? Have any expressed a negative opinion?
Most Protestants in Sweden have a very high opinion of the Pope. It seems he has dominated the Swedish news. In fact, there will be a Catholic commentator at each event to help explain the situation to viewers unfamiliar with the Catholic Church. Actually, most Swedes seem to appreciate Pope Francis for his evangelical humility and simplicity, and also as an important world leader who is vocal in asking for the protection of natural resources and, of course, his concern for the poor.
We’ve seen very few negative reactions to His Holiness in the media or elsewhere. Specifically, some have voiced their surprise that his last event here in Sweden, which promises to be the biggest, will be a Catholic Mass. On the other hand, some Protestants have noted that if the Pope hadn’t planned to come to Sweden, many people would have ignored or otherwise forgotten about the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. In general, most Protestants here are very grateful for his visit.
How many people are projected to be involved in this visit?
Some 600 persons are invited to the ecumenical service at the Cathedral of Lund. In Malmö Arena, some 10,000 can attend. As for the Mass, somewhere around 15,000-17,000 will be attending. As there are 150,000 Catholics here in Sweden, plus tourists and pilgrims, about 10% of all Catholics in the country will be present for one papal event or another.
What is the impression of the papal visit in Sweden’s news media?
The media shows a great deal of interest in Pope Francis’ upcoming visit. There’s really a great deal already in the media, and the Pope’s not even here yet. There’s a palpable level of interest and excitement from all over the country due to his planned visit. There will surely be a great deal more still to come. Swedish television will show the ecumenical service from Lund Cathedral and the Mass from Malmö. As I mentioned, all papal events will have a Catholic commentator to help explain our beliefs and rituals to viewers.
Has the Swedish Catholic community remarked as to how the Protestant Reformation/“Great Tragedy” perhaps shouldn’t be celebrated but, rather, healed instead?
Actually, Catholics and Lutherans have already come to a mutual agreement that the Reformation should not be celebrated. Instead, we have agreed that it should be remembered in a spirit of prayer and reconciliation in order to heal the wounds resulting from it. It’s our mutual, expressed hope that we can move from conflict to communion.
Are you privy to the Pope’s thoughts on this visit?
I wouldn’t say that I am privy to his personal feelings as to the upcoming papal visit, but His Holiness has publicly expressed his positive feelings as to this joint Lutheran-Catholic approach to the anniversary of the Reformation in a spirit of prayer and penance. This is doubtlessly true. Otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the invitation from the Lutherans and our own diocese. He has been only positive about it all.
Do you have any anecdotes about the planning process for the Pope’s visit?
People from small villages throughout Sweden have written to us and asked the Pope to come to them, which is heartening. Of course, His Holiness’ time is very precious, and he, unfortunately, can’t accommodate the requests. The love the Swedish people have for His Holiness is truly overwhelming. I think it has all been a great surprise to all of us, Lutherans and Catholics alike.
Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York.