In spite of some obstacles that make it seem unlikely unity among Christians is on the horizon, Bishop Anders Arborelius says Christians in Sweden speak with one voice.
In this interview just a day ahead of the Pope’s visit to Sweden, he discussed Francis’ choice to commemorate the Protestant Reformation, and responded to how Christians who have differing views on important moral questions can move toward unity and pursue ecumenical dialogue.
The Pope’s visit to the Scandinavian nation, where Catholics make up a mere 2% of the population, marks Pope Francis’ 17th apostolic visit abroad and his 26th nation visited. He traveled there for the joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the Reformation, and while present, partook in an ecumenical gathering, signed an joint declaration, and celebrated a Mass for the nation’s Catholics.
In addition to speaking of the nation’s Catholic community, and whether it still faces great prejudice, Bishop Arborelius spoke about the nation’s secularization and great influx of immigrants. He also shared what the Holy Father’s visit to meet this small minority of Catholic faithful means to him personally.
CWR: The journey of Francis in Sweden is for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What is the importance of this gesture?
Bishop Arborelius: Pope Francis is not in Sweden to “celebrate” the Reformation, as many instead have understood; The Pope comes to Sweden to advance the path of dialogue with Lutherans, moving on from the past, make an act of contrition for the difficulties of the period of reform and then move forward, to offer to everyone the message of the Gospel and a common response as Christians, to the problems of our times.
CWR: Today there are considerable differences between Lutherans and Catholics, on very sensitive issues, for example, the various teachings on marriage and family. How can you move toward unity without first overcoming these differences?
Bishop Arborelius: It’s true that Catholics and Lutherans have different positions on these moral questions. But even within the Lutheran Church coexist opposite positions, and many have a vision of these issues, that is our vision. The biggest problem is that within the Lutheran Church, there are various opinions, and for us, it is difficult to know with whom we should speak. It’s true, however, that the road toward unity is a difficult road, and it is also true that on this point, we do not know how to move forward.
CWR: How would you describe the situation of ecumenical dialogue in Sweden?
Bishop Arborelius: We have a World Council representing 26 churches, including Protestant, Orthodox and Catholics. We can say that at the level of human relations, the council works very well. There is an atmosphere of friendship, dialogue, you can work together on many things in society, for example, helping refugees, and in the spiritual life and prayer life … Then there are obstacles on dogmatic and ethical grounds, which are admittedly a difficulty.
CWR: Pope Francis often puts emphasis on the fact that there is already so much we can do together…
Bishop Arborelius: I could say that last year, with the arrival in Sweden of a large number of refugees, there was a lot of collaboration between the Churches and confessions. Then in dialogue with society, promoting the status of immigrants, the sick … Already we cooperate in many cases in works of mercy. We speak with one voice, and that’s important in Swedish society, namely that Christians speak with one voice for the poor and those living on the margins of society.
CWR: Sweden is a country that is very secularized. This secularization is likely to spread to the Catholic communities?
Bishop Arborelius: Of course, for many Catholics who settle here, it is difficult to live their Catholic faith, because they feel isolated. In many places, there is not a Catholic church, and also the influence of the materialistic, secular mentality, can be a burden for those who come from a country of Catholic tradition. But it can also be an inspiration to deepen one’s personal faith. We observe that one of the two generally happens: some disappear from the churches, others become more involved in the life of the Church Catholic.
CWR: Is there still a prejudice against Catholics in Sweden?
Bishop Arborelius: Not as much as before, but still there is. And right now, with the Pope’s arrival, we heard again rumors—[untruths]—that the figure of the Pope is contrary to authentic Christianity, that there cannot be a representative figure of the Church, that Catholics “worship” Mary, all of which for centuries, not just recently, are difficult to understand for some.
CWR: The Swedish Catholic church is made up largely of immigrant communities, from different countries of the world. How do you keep them all together?
Bishop Arborelius: It is the Holy Spirit Who creates unity. Sometimes there are crises, conflicts, but we can say that there is an atmosphere of fraternity, of solidarity between different groups. In parishes, it becomes a daily task to try to facilitate unity among all. And the Mass of the Pope in Malmö is an important event in this sense, as an occasion of unity for all Swedish Catholics around the Successor of Peter.
CWR: The Pope’s trip to Sweden, also to meet this little flock of believers, what does it represent for you?
Bishop Arborelius: A prophetic sign of unity for Catholics; a special joy for all of us, but also for all Christians; a sign that Christians have much in common and want to walk together for the future. Finally, a sign for society, that God is there and the Pope is to speak of him, to give hope even to those who have no faith.