Thoughts from Europe on Pope Francis’ recent visit to Sweden

Although the commemoration of the Reformation was the reason for the papal visit, for Catholics it was a time of spiritual encouragement and deeper communion.

In 1152-1154 Cardinal Nicholas Breakspear was on a tour of the North, visiting Norway and Sweden by the instigation of Pope Eugene III. During the summer of 1152 he presided over a meeting in Linköping in Sweden, where it was decided that the Church in Sweden would continue to be ruled by the Archbishop of Lund. Breakspear later became Pope Adrian IV. 

Prior to 1989, the closest Sweden had come to a papal visit in the two thousand year history of the Church was that event of nearly a millennia ago. In 1989 Pope John Paul II came to visit Sweden in the first official papal visit to Sweden. Now, a few decades later, another pope has visited Sweden. Although the recent visit was not an official state visit, the increasing number of Catholics in Sweden have been hopeful about it while enthusiastically pointing to what it represents.   

The reason, of course, for Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden was the start of the 500-year joint commemoration of the Reformation, between the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy See. On the 30th of October, an ecumenical service was held in Lund Cathedral, in the south of Sweden. Present were some 300 people, among others His Majesty the King, Carl XVI Gustaf, the Swedish Prime Minister, the Archbishop of the Lutheran Church in Sweden, Antje Jackelén, and the Catholic bishop of Sweden, Anders Arborelius. Bishop Arborelius also pointed out in an interview, that not only is it 500 years since the Reformation, but 400 years ago it was made a crime, punishable by death, to be Catholic in Sweden.

On the Feast of All Saints, the Holy Father celebrated Holy Mass with around 15,000 people. Many had come from Norway, Denmark and other countries to see the Pope. It is, hopefully, a sign of spiritual renewal within a country as secular as Sweden, that people were willing to travel long distances for this historic visit. At 9.30am, Swedish time, the Pope appeared in a small car with Bishop Arborelius, and they went around the football pitch of the stadium where the Mass was held, greeting the assembled people. In addition to the thousands of laymen and women present, around 160 priests were present to concelebrate the Mass. Many of the priests present were also visitors from abroad, as Sweden only has around 170 priests in total. In the grey and cold autumn weather, the several choirs and faithful joined in singing the melodies of the Missa de Angelis.     

The Holy Father’s homily pointed out that what characterizes saints is their happiness and zeal for Christ. He singled out the beatitude ‘Blessed are the Meek’ from the Gospel Reading from the start of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12), and urged everyone to treat each other with loving respect. As examples of this saintly living, the Pope mentioned the two canonized Swedish saints, Saint Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad and Saint Birgitta of Sweden, co-patron of Europe. Central to the Pope’s message was Christian unity, and he ended his homily suggesting that those who work for full Christian unity are fulfilling the beatitudes in our age. The two Swedish saints are two symbols of this unity, St Maria Elisabeth being known for her work to bring her fellow countrymen to the Barque of Peter. 

At the end of the Mass, the Holy Father spoke again at some length, thanking God for being able to visit Sweden. In a recent interview, he said that he had not initially planned to celebrate Mass with Swedish Catholics, having wanted to focus on the ecumenical event. The great expectation of his visit and the wishes expressed for a Mass with him eventually made him change his mind, but to keep the two events separated he decided to have the Mass in a different city than the joint commemoration of the Reformation. He said, that as Catholics ‘we are part of a great family and are sustained in the same communion.’ This family is growing in Sweden, primarily due to immigration. Some stories were reported in Swedish media about the many young people who are converting to the Catholic Church. But it wasn’t until 1953 that the Venerable Pope Pius XII re-founded the Diocese of Stockholm, which had been closed following the Reformation. The conversion of Swedes to the Catholic Church was decriminalized in 1860, while the legislative ban on the founding of Catholic convents wasn’t abolished until as late as 1977. 

One of the big contentions in the run up to the Holy Father’s visit was the issue of intercommunion. Some Protestants suggested that intercommunion would be welcome and would demonstrate the unity of the Christian faith. But the perennial teaching of the Church, rooted in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is that Protestants cannot receive the Eucharist (except in some extraordinary situations; see CIC 844 §§ 3 and 4). Last November, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacrament, reiterated that there is no possibility of intercommunion with any Protestant groups, saying there is “no intercommunion: between Anglicans and Catholics, between Catholics and Protestants.” The underlying point is surely that the quest for unity cannot lead to a compromise of the Truth. 

Another issue raised by some members of the media prior to and following the Pope’s visit was the issue over female priests. The Swedish Church, which has female priests and a female Archbishop, has expressed their disapproval of the Catholic Church’s view of the priesthood. On the flight home, Pope Francis was asked if the Catholic Church is ‘afraid of the competition’ and if there is no chance for a change. To this the Holy Father chuckled, and said the ruling of St John Paul II on this issue is final. The recently canonized Polish pontiff wrote in 1994 that Christ chose twelve men to be his Apostles, and mentioned the long tradition and practice of the Church, emphasizing the imitation of Christ in choosing only men. Moreover, he mentioned the central role of the Virgin Mary, who was not called to the priesthood. Indeed, few – if any – other religions give a woman such a central place as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which have maintained that the priesthood is a vocation for men. St John Paul II ended his Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, with these words:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.  

Finally, let us hope and pray that the canonization of St Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad earlier this year, and the Holy Father’s visit, may be sources of spiritual renewal and the seeds of the conversion of Sweden, among the most secular countries in the world. I am sure that any of those who made the trip to Malmö in a form of pilgrimage have found renewed spiritual energy for the important work that awaits them of bearing witness to their faith in Christ, and trying to live up to the image the Holy Father presented of joyful saints, striving for the union of all followers of Christ. And what better sign for that unity than the Holy Father himself, the Successor of St Peter and Vicar of Christ.   

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About Karl Gustel Wärnberg 2 Articles
b>Karl Gustel Wärnberg sits on the editorial board of The European Conservative, studies in the Master’s Programme in the Humanities, with specialisation in the History of Science and Ideas, at Uppsala University in Sweden, and has studied philosophy and theology at the Newman Institute, a Jesuit College in Sweden.