A ‘Catholic Awakening’ in Nordic Countries Shines Through Seminarians’ Stories
Men in seminary formation in Rome from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are an exception to their largely irreligious peers — and they’re eager to be ‘witnesses of hope’ back home.
Often associated with social liberalism and growing secularization, the Nordic countries rank among the least religious nations in the world. International peer-reviewed polls asking about the importance of religion in people’s lives, their belief in God, and life after death consistently present the same dreary landscape.
For the Catholic Church, which lost its once-strong foothold with the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century, the numbers of Catholics in the Nordic countries may look especially disheartening. As of today, Catholics in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland represent 3.5%, 1.2%, 0.8% and 0.3% of the population, respectively.
But despite this seemingly gloomy reality, beacons of hope for the Catholic Church in the Nordic countries can be found at the Venerable English College at the very heart of the Church in Rome. There, in a seminary founded in 1579 for the training of Catholic priests to serve the mission in England and Wales, Nordic seminarians constitute almost a third of the college — six men out of 20 seminarians in total.
Four of these are Mathias Ledum, 27, a seminarian for the Norwegian Diocese of Oslo; Antonio Bajlovic, 28, who is in formation for the Swedish Diocese of Stockholm; the Finnish Diocese of Helsinki’s Viktor Torres Airava, 28; and Lukas Stanislaw Macko, 22, a seminarian for the Danish Diocese of Copenhagen — all sent to Rome to study, the norm for Nordic seminarians nowadays, since their own seminaries are inactive due to the lack of Catholic priests and Catholic institutions able to provide priestly formation.
Bajlovic, Ledum, and Torres Airava arrived at the Venerable English College in 2019. Having completed their philosophical studies, Ledum and Torres Airava are currently finishing their second year of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, while Bajlovic is finishing his third and last year of theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. God willing, he will be ordained a deacon in the fall. Macko, who arrived in Rome a year ago, is finishing his first year of philosophy at the Angelicum.
‘Different’ and ‘Lonely’
When describing growing up as Catholics in their respective countries, the four seminarians answer with the same words: It meant being different, lonely; and it was at times even terrifying — not just because they belonged to a religious community that was different from the Protestant norm, but because they even practiced a faith at all.
“Growing up as a Catholic in Sweden meant that I was a bit different than my friends,” Bajlovic explained to the Register. “I was the only Catholic in my class, and I had to keep on explaining why I was going to church on Sundays and what I did there.”
“It was quite lonely,” Ledum added. “Apart from my sister, my cousin and myself, the only other Catholic in elementary school was a Filipino family friend. None of my friends had a religious upbringing, so trying to explain to them that I believed in God, prayed regularly, went to Mass every Sunday and why accidentally eating a salami sandwich on a Friday in Lent made me sad was nearly impossible. Also, I was terrified that someone would find out that I was an altar server. ”
Because they were the only Catholics in their classes and often the entire school, the young boys were quickly challenged to defend the teachings of the Church when difficult and controversial questions were raised in class, despite being too young and ill-prepared to meet the naive and many times defiant questions of friends and even teachers. .
Unlike Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, where schools have compulsory non-denominational religion education, Finnish students receive religious education in their respective religion. As Torres Airava was the only Catholic, his experience was a bit different.
“Although alone, I was lucky,” Torres Airava explained. “Our cathedral organist would come to my school and teach me about the Catholic faith. Private religion class really strengthened my faith and Catholic identity, and I am eternally grateful for that.”
Different Paths to the Same Call
No man’s journey to the priesthood is the same. Every call is unique, and while it might be sudden, unexpected and unanticipated for some, for others, the call might seem to have been there all along.
“Growing up, I always had a deep and increasing desire to live with God,” Macko shared. “However, being a very shy kid, I did not share this desire with anyone for a long time. This inner desire slowly grew into an awareness of my vocation to the priesthood, and I eventually found the courage to talk to a priest about my thoughts.”
“It was also a gradual process for me,” Torres Airavar added. “I think my thoughts about the priesthood started unconsciously as a child when my mother told me at Mass that the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ when the bell rang — my little mind was fascinated. My awareness of a calling then grew, and my sense of vocation became more conscious around my confirmation at the age of 13 .”
Unlike Macko and Torres Airava’s steadily growing interest in the priesthood, Ledum’s calling was more unexpected. Dreaming of becoming a drummer in a metal band or a professional skateboarder, it wasn’t until he met certain priests in his parish and at youth ministry events that Ledum discovered a new object of fascination.
“There was something heroic about the way they were present for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations,” he told the Register. “They were virtuous models of how to imitate Christ, while being honest about the fact that they too were as fragile and imperfect as everyone else.”
But the Norwegian seminarian says that what really sparked his curiosity about the priesthood was the priests’ “infectious joy that radiated from them.”
“After all, pop culture's recipe for a happy life is usually loads of money, career and sex, and then you have these priests, who have freely given all that up and still seemed to have such a deep, genuine joy and peace. I also wanted to be as joyful as them!”
Although he thought that he didn’t need to become a priest to experience a similar joy, Ledum still became more and more involved in Church activities and slowly started loving the idea of a life in service to God and his people in the Church. An exchange project in Honduras after high school became a turning point in his life: There, in a country that at the time had the world’s highest homicide rate, he encountered priests and nuns who had given up creature comforts to help young people cultivate a resilient faith and a radical hope.
“I recognized the same exuberant joy and peace I had seen in priests in Norway,” he shared. “I became convinced that there had to be more to life than just the pursuit of material wealth, prestige and superficial pleasures. I began to ask God if he wasn’ t also calling me to this vocation.”
Countering a Trend of Irreligiosity
The vocational journeys of these four seminarians are even more extraordinary when one considers the turbulent history of Christianity in the Nordic countries.
The beginning of religiosity in the Nordic countries can be traced back to pre-Christian Norse paganism, which lasted until the 12th century. Thanks to the missionary efforts of St. Ansgar and English missionaries, and even the Vikings, who were converted to Catholicism during their travels, Denmark was first Christianized in A.D. 965 followed by Norway in the 11th century and Sweden in the 12th century. Finally, thanks to the Swedish Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Catholic Church became established in Finland.
Until the reformation in the 16th century, Catholicism blossomed in the Nordic countries. The heroic lives and martyrdoms of the Nordic saints — King Olaf of Norway, King Erik of Sweden, King Knut of Denmark and Bishop Henrik of Finland — all bear witness to this.
In 1527, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden broke away from the Catholic Church and violently established Lutheranism as the state religion, and the other Nordic countries soon followed. Catholic practices were suppressed, and, in conjunction with the establishment of Evangelical Lutheran state churches, new laws arose excluding non-conformists.
To this day, society is dominated by Lutheran Christianity — 60%-75% of the population are members of the Evangelical Lutheran state churches. However, according to international polls, less than 20% of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Finns consider themselves to be religious — an indication that, for many, church membership is more about cultural heritage than worshiping God.
“The trend for a long time has been a strong secularization and a growing irreligiosity,” Ledum explained. “However, I see more and more people feeling hollow and empty after having tried the postmodern atheistic, relativistic and materialistic project, leaving them unsatisfied and hungry for meaning and purpose, for something greater and deeper. Neither money, career, fame nor hedonism have been able to give them the happiness and peace they all seek.”
Witnesses of Hope
Despite its high degree of secularization, the Church in the Nordic countries continues to grow, slowly but steadily. Together, the influx of immigrants, along with conversions and the flourishing of Catholic communities result in an annual 2% growth. While record numbers of Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns are reportedly leaving their state churches over the last decades, each year, more people, particularly the young and intellectually formed, ask to take part in the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“The Church’s great philosophical and theological intellectual tradition might also be a place of refuge for people living in a world where subjective truths are idolized and people are canceled for not having the right subjective truths,” Ledum suggested. “In the Catholic Church, they find not only that there is such a thing as objective truth, but also that Truth itself has a name and a face.”
While many restless and longing hearts find their way to the Church, there are still many that do not — something Ledum, Bajlovic, Torres Airava, and Macko hope to address.
As these four seminarians explain, they must help their people rediscover their forgotten Catholic roots and heritage, as well as the beauty, goodness and truth that was once so wholeheartedly received and lived out in their countries — but in order to do so, they must first nurture their own faith.
“As Catholics,” Sweden’s Bajlovic reflected, “it is important for us to grow in our own faith and to read how other Christians have wrestled and found answers to the challenges raised in today's society. This will be both helpful for us in our own conviction, as well as for others who ask us about the reasons for our faith.”
Torres Airava agreed, but added something else: “We need to make the Church better known.”
“For instance, I think many Finns never consider Catholicism because they do not even know we exist in their home country,” he explained. “The Church needs to make her presence felt in society. ”
Reflecting upon how they are walking in the same corridors as the young men who studied there before them in order to go back and give their lives to the re-evangelization of England and Wales, Ledum from Norway commented: “It helps us to grow in that same missionary zeal to offer our lives, despite fear, opposition and persecution, to rekindle the faith in the hearts of our countrymen in the North.” He suggested a few ways in which this mission can unfold: by engaging in conversation with people, listening to their longings, and building relationships of trust with them.
Macko of Denmark says that a source of confidence in this evangelizing mission is the conviction that “all human hearts and minds are created in order to love God ” and that, as St. Augustine taught, “our hearts will not rest until they rest in God.”
“The very mission of the Catholic Church, as ordained by God, is to worship God in spirit and truth and preach the truth of Christ to all nations. This is what we ought to do.”
Bénédicte Cedergren is a Swedish-French freelance journalist. After graduating from the University of Stockholm with a degree in journalism, Bénédicte moved to Rome where she earned a degree in Philosophy at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas. She also sings sacred music and works as a photographer. Passionate about spreading the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith, Bénédicte enjoys sharing the testimonies of others and writing stories that captivate and inspire.