Catholics Gain Toehold in Sweden — 500 Years After Luther

Immigrants have bolstered the faithful in this onetime Lutheran, now increasingly secular, stronghold.

Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm
Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm (photo: Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockholm)

G.K. Chesterton believed that the medieval era (800-1400 AD) was the height of human civilization. The implication, of course, is that society has so degraded over the intervening centuries by abandoning the lofty goals and aspirational values taught when Christianity was an integrated part of Western society.

However, it should be remembered that, during the Medieval Ages, according to Justo González’s 1984 book The Story of Christianity, only 50% of Europeans were Christians. Great swathes of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe hadn’t yet experienced the light of Christ and, of course, a Muslim army occupied Spain and Portugal, stifling the Church there.

In Scandinavia, the Ultima Thule, there lies a great harvest. Prior to the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), the majority of Scandinavians were Catholic. Subsequently, anti-Catholic laws decimated the population, but things are changing.

By September 2012, the Nordic Bishops’ Conference noted that the Catholic Church is growing in Scandinavia and is showing signs of vitality in several ways, one of which is the growing number of vocations both to the diocesan priesthood and to religious orders. Currently, approximately 3% of Scandinavians are Catholic.

Bishop Anders Arborelius is the bishop of Stockholm, the lone Catholic diocese in Sweden. A convert from Lutheranism at the age of 20, he is the first ethnically Swedish Catholic bishop in the country since the Reformation. He spoke to the Register about the increasingly Catholic toehold in Sweden.

“Last year, there were some 1,200 baptisms and 76 conversions to the Church,” explained the bishop. “In addition, our [numbers] have increased [because] of 3,000-4,000 immigrants who are registered after [having lived] several years in Sweden.”


200,000 Catholics in 44 Parishes

Altogether, the Diocese of Stockholm ministers to 200,000 Catholics in 44 parishes ― not negligible figures. It’s slightly more than the Diocese of Portland, Maine, and slightly less than the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb. The diocese is served by 100 priests and 162 nuns and religious sisters. There are three Benedictine monasteries in Sweden, one for monks and two for nuns. Two priests were ordained on June 11 of this year.

“The Catholic Church is growing mostly because of immigration,” explained Bishop Arborelius. “The recent wave of refugees has brought many new Catholics to Sweden, especially from Eritrea and Syria. There’s also a constant immigration from Poland and other countries in Europe. Not all of them are registered, [as] it can take years before they [do so.] There are also some conversions, 100 a year, more or less, of various backgrounds. Some Protestant ministers, including women ministers, Lutherans or from the Free Churches come over every year.”

Included in that number is Ulf Ekman, the onetime pastor of the Word of Life megachurch in Uppsala. He and his wife, Birgitta, were received into the Catholic Church in March 2014. 

Thus, even though the overall numbers are low, the percentage increase in the Church is eye-catching. In fact, it’s the largest and fastest increase of any Christian denomination in Europe.

If any resistance to the Church exists, its main source isn’t state Lutheranism. Bishop Arborelius suggest that it’s the rampant secularism that has engulfed Scandinavia, along with the rest of Europe.

“Though it’s true that the Protestant Reformation has had an immense impact on Sweden, in fact, it can be said that the modern state of Sweden, as a unified country, was born as a modern reaction against the Catholic Church,” explained Bishop Arborelius.

“However, in our more post-Protestant reality of today, the impact is not as easily discernable any longer. Of course, a great deal of Swedish culture and mentality has its roots in the Reformation, even though modern Lutherans would prefer to see the Church of Sweden as a continuation of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages rather than a church born of the Reformation. Catholics living there must be graciously open to both realities.”


Ninth-Century Origin

St. Ansgar established the first Catholic presence in Sweden in Birka in 829. King Olof Skötkonung (ca. 970-1021) was Sweden’s first Christian king.

The Swedish Reformation began in the 16th century (June 16-18, 1527), when King Gustav Vasa and his Riksdag of Västerås, also known as “Reformation Parliament,” officially broke ties with Rome and installed the Lutheran church as the official state church.

In 1540, at the height of Protestant political power, Catholicism was banned in Sweden. As in other countries, monasteries and cathedrals were confiscated and turned over to the crown. Bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople were martyred. In 1850, Catholicism was re-introduced to the country. In 1953, Pope Pius XII re-established the Diocese of Stockholm.

The struggle for religious freedom for Catholics in Sweden was a long, hard-fought one. Catholicism was punishable in Sweden either by deportations or the death penalty between 1599 and 1781. In 1654, Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated her throne to convert to Catholicism. She is one of the few women buried in the Vatican’s grotto.

Limited visits of individual foreign Catholics to Sweden were finally made legal via the 1781 Tolerance Act spearheaded by King Gustav III. The conversion of Swedes to Catholicism was decriminalized in 1860. In 1951, Swedes were allowed to permanently exit the state Lutheran Church, but it wasn’t until 1977 when the last legislative ban on Catholic convents and monasteries in Sweden was abolished.

Since the 1980s, the Catholic Church has grown considerably, mostly due to immigration of Christian Arabs and Armenians coming from diverse Catholic rites, including: Melkite, Latin, Maronite, Chaldean, Armenian and Syrian.

Many Swedish priests are from these ethnic groups. A large number of Catholics in Sweden are war refugees from Lebanon, Iraq or Syria, along with their subsequent children. In addition, as Sweden is a part of the European Union, it hosts many Catholic migrants from other EU member states, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Italy and Ireland.


Light Amidst Darkness

Despite, or perhaps because of, the apathy, modernism, hedonism, immorality, liberalism, secularism and atheism in Swedish society, the Church in Sweden is growing.

To an increasing number of Swedes, Catholicism is a great light amidst a chaotic, modernist darkness.

“Catholic spirituality has had a great impact, [including] on many Protestants. In addition, we stick to Tradition and don’t change our dogmas and ethical principles. The testimony of ordinary faithful can be the first step towards discovering the Catholic faith,” said Bishop Arborelius. “Still, in a secularized society as ours, the common Christian heritage can help us to work together in many ways.”

Charlie Weimers, chief of staff for Lars Adaktusson, a prominent member of European Parliament (Swedish Christian Democrats), is a recent convert to the Church. Prior to his current position, he served as the chairman of the Young Christian Democrats from 2008-2011.

“From many evangelicals, I get a lot of respect for my conversion,” explained Weimers, who cited the increasing permissiveness of the Protestant churches and the willingness of the Catholic Church to stand by its teachings as the main reasons for his conversion.

Catholicism has always been countercultural, Weimers told the Register in an interview at the U.N. in New York. And while political climates and intellectual currents have changed, it has retained its belief in objective truth.

“The reasons are twofold, I think,” he said of his conversion: “No. 1: I left the Swedish Church, which is a sorry socialist/liberal excuse for a Christian church; No. 2:  Some of the evangelical churches have become increasingly liberal, and the Catholic Church is viewed by not so few as an authentic defender of Christian dogmas.”

Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York.


A Partial List of Swedish Saints

Jan. 19: St. Henry (d. 1156)

Feb. 3: St. Ansgar (801-865)

Feb. 10: St. Ingegerd Olofsdotter (1001-1050)

Feb. 15: St. Siegfried (d. 1045)

Feb. 25: St. Walpurga (710-ca. 777)

March 5: St. Helena of Skövde (1101-1160)

March 24: St. Catherine of Vadstena (c. 1332-1381)

May 18: St. Eric IX (c. 1125-1160)

June 4: St. Elisabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957)

June 12: St. Eskil (d. 1069)

June 25: St. David of Munktorp (d. 1082)

July 23: St. Bridget, a patron saint of Europe (1303-1373)

July 28: St. Botvid (d. 1120)

July 29: St. Olaf II (995-1030)

Sept. 2: St. Ingrid of Skänninge (d. 1282)