Sweden’s First Cardinal Speaks With the Register

Newly minted Cardinal Anders Arborelius is not only the country’s first cardinal, but also the first ethnic Swede to be made bishop since the Reformation.

Newly created Cardinal Anders Arborelius at the cardinals’ consistory on June 28.
Newly created Cardinal Anders Arborelius at the cardinals’ consistory on June 28. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA photos)

Newly minted Cardinal Anders Arborelius is not only the country’s first cardinal, but also the first ethnic Swede to be made bishop since the Reformation.

In this June 28 interview with the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, at the convent of Santa Brigida in Rome, Cardinal Arborelius, a Discalced Carmelite, discusses his path to receiving the red hat, why he thinks Pope Francis chose him, and why he believes it comes at a providential time for the Scandinavian country, where the faith is growing in the face of rampant secularism.

He also discusses the limits of ecumenical dialogue, recalls the Pope’s visit to Lund last year to mark 500 years since the Reformation, and shares his views on Amoris Laetitia, particularly the diverse interpretations of contentious passages in Francis’ apostolic exhortation.   


Your Eminence, you’re the first Swedish bishop to have been made a cardinal. You also have a very interesting background, being the first ethnic Swede to be made bishop since the Reformation. Could you briefly tell us your story, perhaps beginning with your conversion?

It has a lot to do with the house where we are [the convent of Santa Brigida] because my first Catholic contact was with the Sisters of St. Bridget in Switzerland.

I was born in Switzerland, to Swedish parents, to a Protestant, nonpracticing family, but already during my childhood and youth, I had contact with Catholics, especially those sisters.

Then, gradually during my youth, I entered more and more into my Catholic faith. So when I finished high school, I started a course for converts, and at the age of 20 I was received into the Catholic Church. Then after another year, I wanted to be a priest. The bishop told me I had to wait, as it was too short a time.

During that time, I discovered the Carmelite Order, thanks to reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux. So in 1971, I entered the Carmelite Order, in a little community in southern Sweden, and then I did my studies in Belgium and Rome. Then in 1979, I was ordained a priest and thought I would remain in that monastery, but in 1988 the Pope [St. John Paul II] asked me to become bishop in Stockholm, so that was really kind of a spiritual revolution — everything changed. I had to get more used to public life.

Then, of course, a few weeks ago, the Pope decided to make me a cardinal, but he didn’t tell me before and [it] came as a complete surprise.

I’ve tried to adapt to that new task and new responsibility; and, of course, it’s an historic thing in Sweden. We’ve never had cardinals, and I don’t know so much what it will entail or mean in a concrete way, but in Sweden it has aroused a lot of interest and sympathy from people all over society.


Could you tell us what drew you to the Catholic Church in your youth?

Well, the first thing was personal witness.

I met persons who lived the Gospel, who could show Christ’s love, who really showed us what it means to be a Christian. Then, gradually, I had to study the doctrine, and everything somehow spoke to my heart. It was nothing special, but I felt this is all what God means for us. It is the truth: It is nothing to discuss, just to accept and be happy that God has given us his Son and his Church.

So it was a very simple growth into the Church — no big experience of conversion, just step-by-step to discover the truth of Christ, transmitted by the Church.


A lot has been said about why the Holy Father chose you to become a cardinal. What do you think are the reasons?

Well, it’s not a question many people have put to me. I cannot read his thoughts and heart, but if we look at Pope Francis, we see he goes to the poor, to those far away, to those forgotten in the margins.

Sweden is really a peripheral reality in the Catholic Church, and yet at the same time, it’s also a growing Church in secular Europe today, and that’s really something astonishing. So I think there are various reasons, but as to his real thoughts, only he and God know. But we feel he has really looked to forgotten parts of the world, such as Mali, Laos and Sweden, because in various ways we’re very marginalized in the Catholic world.


A long-standing challenge the Church has faced in Sweden is secularism and secularist ideology, which is prevalent in the country. The country has the highest abortion rate in Europe, and recently it was reported that midwives who don’t want to perform abortions can’t get jobs. Sex education is compulsory and graphic. What, to you, are the most disturbing developments you’ve seen lately, and what is the Church doing to address them?

The Church can offer an alternative, and that’s become more and more evident — that people feel emptiness; that something is missing. That’s what we see, that even if people do not accept everything we say, they look upon it [the Church] as a kind of alternative. And more and more people, also in the media, have become Catholic.

So it’s very interesting to see that even if we are a small, humble minority, and we don’t have the possibility to proclaim the faith all over society, at the same time, there is a growing interest in Catholic doctrine and Catholic spirituality, as well as a Catholic ethical outlook.

Of course, a big mass of people are not interested, but, more and more, people who are conscious see that we have something to offer as an alternative to a very secular, individualist and hedonistic lifestyle that cannot fill the heart of people.


Do you think that’s part of the reason for this rapid growth in Sweden of the faithful? Is it perhaps because we’ve reached a nadir of secularism that we’re now coming out of?

It could be one of the reasons, of course, but the Catholic growth is mostly through immigrants. There are conversions, but the growth is really more due to immigration. But for those who chose the Catholic Church, they have discovered there is an alternative: that the Catholic Church can help them to live the Gospel in a pluralistic society. They are also very impressed that we come from all over the world. Catholics in an ordinary parish come from 50, 60, 70 nationalities, and still we can live together. So for many people, it’s a sign that it’s a universal message to all the world.


Immigration is a major issue in Sweden, and recently there’s been growing criticism of the large numbers of migrants. Some are concerned about the friction this causes. How much is this a concern of the Church in Sweden, and what are you saying about this tension?

Well, of course, Sweden has been a very monolithic society, and many people in Sweden haven’t realized and accepted that it’s a country of immigrants.

Of course, there’s a growing Swedish nationalism, and that means the policy has also changed, but still most Swedes are open to some kind of generous policy. That doesn’t mean anyone can come, but I think the majority is open to a multicultural society. And, of course, it’s thanks to that that the Catholic Church has been able to establish itself. In the beginning, Catholics were regarded as something strange, foreign, and it remains today our main challenge to help the young generation to grow up, become Swedish and remain Catholic, because many regard it as opposition: You’re either Swedish or either Catholic.

I often get the question: “Are you a real Swede?” — because for many people it’s impossible for a Catholic to be a real Swede. Of course young people want to be integrated, and when they are aware of their Catholic heritage, it can be a kind of conflict.

Many young people live in two worlds: In church and with family, they are Catholic, but among their friends they try to adapt. So that’s our main concern: to show we are a part of the society, not a foreign body, but have something different to offer to Swedes today.


And, of course, that tension is perhaps hard to comment on because immigration is so important to the Church in Sweden.

It is, yes. And it’s true that there are some Catholics who think we’re not Swedish enough.

Most priests are from Poland and other countries so, of course, there are some tensions within the Catholic community, and many Catholics prefer to have Mass in their own language — Polish, Arabic and so forth. So we have to promote this inner Catholic unity, and I think that’s a very important thing to show to Sweden of today: that it is possible to live together today with various backgrounds if you have something in common — a value, a gift, a faith to bring you together. But it’s become a bit harder.

I’ve also been attacked by some Catholics who think I’ve been too open to immigration because they wanted to be more solidly Swedish.


Moving on to Lund, that was a major event the Holy Father came to, but also a much-discussed one. Some criticized it for being a celebration of Luther; the Church’s preparatory document, “From Conflict to Communion,” was criticized for painting Luther as a religious hero who led way to a more true form of Catholicism. In spite of this, have there been any positive fruits?

I’ve seen it’s been easier for Catholics and Lutherans to meet, for instance young people. In Lund they regularly have vespers, or in the Lutheran cathedral and Catholic parish, there are also working groups. So I would say it has had an impact, also on society, because in the media we Christians are always described as quarreling, discussing conflicts internally, and we have tried to show that we have the main thing in common: the Gospel. We try work from that standpoint. Of course, we don’t try to hide that we’re all different. We have to be conscious there are difficult doctrinal, ethical questions that are not solved. But if we have as a foundation human, personal relationships, friendship and acceptance, it’s easier to cope with the differences.

So I’d say this meeting has shown that the Holy Father is willing to take a step toward the Lutheran Church, as he did toward the Russian Orthodox in Havana, toward the Coptic Church in Cairo — that he’s really serious about ecumenism, not hiding some very crucial differences that are not solved.


But what’s the limit — how far should the Church go with Lutherans before one says: That’s close enough, our differences are still too great?

Well, it’s very difficult to say. I would say it the other way around: When we come close, it becomes more painful that there are divisions; for instance, on the question of the Eucharist. Many Lutherans say: “Why can’t we have intercommunion now?” And we have to say, “No, there are still very different things we have to discuss about the Eucharist, about the ministry and so forth.” So it’s very important to work on a positive beginning, that we have something in common, that we share many values, and that, gradually, we have to see where the main difficulties are.

For instance, I said the Lutherans always wanted to invite the Pope. That was a sign of a certain acceptance of the Petrine ministry. You want to celebrate Luther, but you’re also willing to invite the Pope who, at the time of the Reformation, was also the source of conflict. So it’s a sign that you, in some way, accept the Holy Father as a symbol or as a prophetic figure on the way to unity.

Some said: “Well, we do, in a way, but we cannot hide difficulties,” and it’s very important not to do that, to say “we have reached complete unity.” And then, of course, it will be a very difficult period when we study these issue more closely in the ecumenical dialogue.


In Lund, after the ecumenical gathering with the Pope, I asked some of those present if the event made them want to become a Catholic, and they all said, “No.” Are you concerned there doesn’t seem to be that forward momentum toward conversions? What’s the end game in this? Does it lead to conversion to the Catholic Church, in your view?

Of course, the answer would be very different [depending on who you ask]. There are people in the Lutheran Church who say: “We are the Catholic Church, the real heirs of the medieval Church; we have kept the heritage alive; we have apostolic succession.” Of course, we cannot accept that totally, but there are those who really mean that, that they have kept so much of the heritage that they can call themselves Catholic. That can be a very great difficulty, because when immigrants come to Sweden they hear: “We are the Catholic Church here in Sweden; you are the Roman Catholics.”

So there are these points of discussion that are very tricky. That is true.


Also making it difficult is when, for example, Antje Jackelen, the archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran church, thinks the Virgin Birth is a mythological term and supports same-sex “marriage” in church. This is very difficult, isn’t it, for providing a common witness?

It’s true — there are questions that are very tricky, and we cannot hide that. That’s our daily problem, but we need to say there are some old divisions not solved, and we have these new divisions because within the Lutheran Church there are also many who do not accept same-sex “marriage.”

Some 800 pastors have said they’re not willing to do these “marriages.” So I’d say within the Lutheran Church there are different points of view.


There have also been certain frictions that became apparent in the lead-up to Lund, scars of the past. Do you think, though, that the Catholic Church will have a greater say in the country in the future?

I think so, because Sweden is opening up to the larger world; it’s not so isolated anymore. And the Pope has become very popular in the media. Of course, they take some prophetic gestures, they don’t analyze his total doctrine, but there is more openness to the Catholic Church. And, of course, I experienced that very much when I became a cardinal — from the media, not from the higher part of society, because we didn’t have any congratulations from the prime minister or the king. Of course not, we’re not at that point. But from ordinary people, from various backgrounds, there is a kind of respect. They know what the Catholic Church teaches; they don’t accept it, but they somehow have an admiration that we stick to what we believe, and that gives us a certain respect, even if they don’t accept it.

That is our strength in our society in Sweden where everything is changing: that there is the Church which tries to be faithful to what has already been taught, the doctrine that Christ has always transmitted. So I would say there is a reluctant admiration of the Catholic Church, also a critical voice. Still one can also hear people compare from outside: Whatever we say about the Catholics we know they believe what they say.


Especially, I suppose, in contrast to the Lutheran Church, which is so fractured.

Sometimes it’s a bit of an unjust criticism of the Lutheran Church, because it was the established church. It was part of the leading echelons of society. But somehow, I think, the Catholic Church, especially among some intellectual parts of society, it’s regarded as a partner of dialogue, because we don’t say everything they say. Some of them like that because then they have to give reasons for what they proclaim.


On the subject of unity around doctrine, there’s been debate and controversy over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family and differing interpretations of that document. Is that a concern of yours? Because some say we have, for the first time, different sets of morality, depending on where you live, when it comes to this question of Communion for the divorced and remarried. What is your view on this?

I’m surprised that in Sweden we have had very little of this debate, and the Scandinavian bishops’ conference hasn’t given any commentary on this side of the question. I’m a bit surprised we’ve not had a lot of discussion about that, but I always add that the Scandinavian bishops’ conference, in their dialogue on ad limina visits, points to the fact that most people who marry in Sweden, either in a Protestant church or in a civil marriage, don’t have the same vision of marriage as we have. We would somehow prefer to look on them as valid and invalid. Many people want to become Catholic, but it’s hardly possible because they’ve been married several times, and it can be very hard in the process of annulment to show that they had not the intention that the Church has. So we have to point to that reality: that most people who marry in our countries have a totally different vision of marriage; and on same-sex “marriage,” it’s even more evident, of course. So I think we have to be more conscious of that when we help people to become Catholic. Maybe in the future it’ll be different because now there is more cohabitation than marriage, one marriage after the other.


But is it a concern of yours, this situation that is developing around the world?

Well, of course, it’s always difficult when there are different points of view on these issues, and I would say that the main concern is that marriage has become so weak, also in Catholic countries. I know some bishops say that unfortunately many young Catholics who marry don’t understand what they are doing. I think that’s the main concern of Amoris Laetitia: to have a better preparation, because we live in a world where the media is totally different, the Catholic vision of marriage is totally different, so young people have no idea what they’re doing when they marry.


And many years of poor catechesis.

Yes, and we see that when people come to Sweden as Catholics. They have to make a constant, or conscious, choice, either to be more profoundly convinced of their faith; otherwise, they will just go away. It has to do with the vision of marriage, secularity and all these issues, because society offers a totally different vision.


Would you nevertheless like clarification on this issue, as the four dubia cardinals have asked for?

Well, I think it’s an issue for the entire Church to deepen, and, of course, that will take time because the situation is very different in the Western world. We know that the Catholic vision of marriage is rarely accepted, even by many Catholics, if we are honest, and that means we have to start, really, a new kind of evangelization on that issue, because otherwise it will be very hard to cope with that situation.


The argument is that the best way to counteract that is to simply preach the truth with clarity.

Of course, it is because we have a wonderful doctrine on marriage and sexuality, but very few know about it. They have a very superficial view of marriage and what it really means, and so that’s really a question for a New Evangelization.


Lastly, what are your plans and hopes for the future as cardinal? Do you have any programs to work on?

Well, I always say I don’t know what it will imply. I don’t know if I will have to have some kind of task in some kind of congregation in Rome or something. I will have to see what the Holy Father asks of me. But what I see, for instance, in Sweden, is that it will be more of an official situation for me, because, as a cardinal, people are interested to hear about our faith and Church. So I will see. I’m sure I will have much more to do in Sweden, so I’m a bit afraid, if they want me more in Rome, I won’t have time for them. I think this is a providential moment for the Church in Sweden. Last year, we had a canonization, we had the visit of the Pope, and now a cardinal, so it’s a unique moment in our Catholic history in Sweden.


Which reflects the growth of the Church in Sweden, as you say?

Yes, it is truly a very important moment for us, and we have to make the most of it. You never know about the future, but for the moment, people are interested in us. They seem to have more sympathy for, and more openness to, the faith; and then we have to better evangelize Sweden. We are not a little group in a “ghetto” outside society, but we have a voice in the public life of Sweden.


Pope Francis attends the awarding of the Ratzinger Prize at the Vatican on Dec. 6.

The Latest in Vatican News (Dec. 10)

As pilgrims make their way to Rome for Advent and the Christmas season, important Vatican news continues, including the crisis of the German Synodal Path, the Synod on Synodality and the on-going trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu. This week on Register Radio, we are joined by the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, with the latest on these stories and more.