Lund’s Catholic Pastor: Swedish Church ‘Speaks Loud and Clear to Everyone’

Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden, Father Johan Linden shares his expectations and provides the Register with an inside look at the small yet vibrant local Church.

Father Johan Linden is pastor of St. Thomas Church in Lund, Sweden.
Father Johan Linden is pastor of St. Thomas Church in Lund, Sweden. (photo: Deborah Castellano Lubov)

“The voice of the Catholic Church is a lonely voice, but it speaks loud and clear to everyone, whether Catholic or not.”

In an interview with the Register in his parish of St. Thomas in Lund on Saturday, Dominican Father Johan Linden, one of the few — less than 5 — Swedish priests to be ordained since the Reformation, offered this observation,  while discussing the Pope's imminent Oct. 31-Nov. 1 visit to Sweden.

The visit to the Scandinavian nation, where Catholics make up a mere 1% of the population, marks Pope Francis' 17th apostolic visit abroad and his 26th nation visited. He is traveling here for the joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the Reformation, and while present, will partake in an ecumenical gathering and celebrate a Mass for the nation's Catholics.

Father Linden noted that the Catholic Church in Sweden is growing, explaining that there are some 3,200 are registered Catholics in his parish, and if those who may not be registered but are active are also included, the total reaches 5,000 people.

The Dominican priest also noted how a pervasive climate of secularization touches Catholics in Sweden, and whether a climate of hostility toward Catholics persists in the historically Lutheran Scandinavian nation. He also addressed whether it is appropriate for a pope to commemorate the Reformation, and discussed the reality of having a small Catholic community predominantly composed of immigrants.


What are your hopes and expectations for the Pope’s visit to Sweden? Is it important?

The Successor of Peter, the Pope, a beloved person for Catholics, is coming. Yes, the Catholic community is small, but the fact that the Pope is coming and celebrating Mass with us on Tuesday, is, for us Catholics, a sign of recognition and hope. The Catholic Church is already vital, but I believe this will make people even more fervent as Catholics. I hope all those in our country who are not Catholic, who don’t have any clue about Catholicism, who are completely ignorant about Christianity, will discover Christianity, on the one hand. On the other hand, I hope they’ll discover that for many people in the world, religion is an important factor. But, to many Swedes — it’s a secularized country — people are puzzled by the fact that some people go to a mosque on Fridays and Christians go to churches on Sundays.


This climate of secularization in Sweden also touches the Catholic Church?

Well, of course. Yes. Within a society, there is osmosis between people. It’s difficult, it would be very weird, if we tried to build a wall against dangerous tendencies and so on. The solution, I think, for us as priests, is to explain to active practicing Catholics, really why the Church says what it does that seems to be in opposition to the message that is being spread by secular society. We need to explain that. That is one of the reasons why people actually respect the Catholic Church.

Yes, it is a very, very secularized country. I would say many Swedish people are unaware of the role Christianity has played in the history of Europe. But I can tell you that even if Catholics are a minority, they are faithful. This parish is very active. Masses are full on Sundays, and even at Masses during the week, there is great attendance and participation.


The decision of the Pope to commemorate the Reformation has caused a bit of a debate. According to you, do you believe that this commemoration — not celebration — is appropriate?

Yes, he is coming not to celebrate, but to commemorate the Reformation, what happened and the suffering the Reformation created. I do think it is appropriate. Someone needs to take the first step. And God is using human beings as tools — you know, “in his toolbox” — to make things happen. So we can’t just lean back and say OK, “God will fix it.” He will, but he’ll do it through us. And the role of the Successor of Peter is obviously to show us how to get back to unity and back to the Gospel. It offers an a opportunity for Catholics to learn more about Lutherans and their faith, which is helpful, especially because, occasionally, we see that Catholics may not be incredibly well informed about other religions, Christian denominations or professions.


How would you describe the everyday relationship between Catholics and Lutherans in Lund. Are there activities that you perform together, at a charitable level?

I would say it is good. Yes, we have a good relationship and work together. In particular, there was an initiative to help refugees — to learn Swedish and integrate them into society — including to those who had not been granted asylum yet. We have done charitable projects together and thinking of having an ecumenical Vespers together weekly, a week here, a week in the cathedral. We won’t be discussing Mass and the sacraments, but we are going to do what we can and pray together. And we can in unity through that.

On the grassroots level, I’d say the ecumenical situation, I’d say, is good. Of course, it can get much better. It gets more difficult on the national level. One reason I think for this is that the Swedish Lutheran Church, even if no longer a state Church, is still heavily politically influenced. The people who actually have power in the parish council or in the diocese are elected, in general elections. They are not necessarily practicing Christians.

So it’s problematic. It’s very problematic, not just for us, but I also see a lot of Lutherans complaining about this fact. With the whole agenda of nationalism in Europe right now … right wing parties growing and so on, we see tendencies …The far right party we have in Sweden right now tries to use the Church as a sort of platform for its message. It’s a great problem.


Do you think this visit of the Supreme Pontiff represents an important step in ecumenical dialogue?

Yes. It should help. I think. In the long term, it is great ecumenical work we are doing. … The presence of the Pope coming cannot help but be a positive step and bring us closer together. But, if you have already made up your mind on who the Pope is and “these Catholics,” then that is likely to stay the same. But I think Pope Francis’ voice could have an impact. He is a good communicator and a highly respected man, whose personal ministry is respected, especially in a world where so many are accustomed to hearing from corrupt politicians.


In the past, in Sweden, there was a climate of hostility toward Catholics in Sweden. Would you still say there is this climate?

Yes, absolutely. The secular mentality here has great skepticism against all religions, any religion, but, against Catholicism in particular, there are great prejudices. The facts in the schoolbooks, at times tell the history of Catholics, or describe the Catholic faith, incorrectly. [They] say, for example, that we adore the saints — when we don’t — and we pray to them to pray for us. They think we have odd symbols …  belittling the Crucifix, sacraments, etc.

They still ask about the tunnels between monasteries and convents. This came about through an old lie, probably a very old lie, that was spread against celibacy, that there are tunnels from one to the other, so religious could go back and forth. They tried to say these people aren’t really living out their vows of chastity because there are tunnels between them.

Sometimes when journalists ask this question, I say, ‘Well you know, we have our Dominican community's home here in Lund, and about 12 kilometers is the sister community, so the tunnel would be a big project’…I say, joking.

There is no hatred. I would say there are difficulties, but there is more respect.


The Catholic community in Sweden is made up of many communities of immigrants. What are the positive and negative aspects of this situation?

We have a significant community of Polish people. Actually, this parish was built, created by, the people who fled, or were rescued from, the concentration camps. So they came here and though many died shortly after their arrival, many survived as well. That was the embryo for this parish in 1945.

Though it’s obvious there are challenges as we have parishioners from so many nations, overall, it is very enriching. Last time I counted, I think we had 88 countries registered. This affects our everyday life, given that we need to function in various languages, such as English, French, Spanish, Italian, etc. Another beautiful fruit of having all these faithful of different backgrounds is seen at our Christmas markets here ... All the food from all over is really something spectacular. It’s great.


The Lutheran and Catholic Churches have a very different approach on moral, family, and sexual issues, to which public opinion and the press are very sensitive. How do you confront this reality?

The fact that the Swedish Lutheran Church, even if no longer a state Church, still is greatly influenced by politics, causes more challenges. This is a great reason why the Catholic Church and Lutheran Church have such great differences on moral teachings. We as the Catholic Church in Sweden, we encourage our people to follow precisely the teaching of the Catholic Church.


We say that the voice of the Catholic Church is a lonely voice, but it speaks loud and clear to everyone, whether Catholic or not.

In the Catholic faith, we have our firm positions, but we believe in the possibility of any person to grow during their lifetime, closer to sainthood. We should not give up the faith that we can always grow in holiness and convert ourselves. That we are working toward being saints, even if we are not there yet.

I think it’s not true that the Catholic Church is an angry headmistress that wants to punish people. No, it’s like a loving mother, who is bringing up her children. And her children make mistakes, and that’s normal. But for this we have Reconciliation.

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican correspondent in Rome. She filed this interview from Sweden.