Bishop Anders Arborelius reflects on being first native Swede named cardinal

“I would say the Catholic Church is growing mostly through immigration,” says the Swedish bishop, who will be elevated to the cardinalate on June 28th, “Our main difficulty is to transmit faith to the younger generation. That of course goes for all churches, all religious bodies in a secularized country.”

Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, pictured in a May 21 photo, is one of five new cardinals Pope Francis will create at a June 28 consistory. (CNS photo/Johan Nilsson, TT News Agency via Reuters)

Bishop Anders Arborelius OCD is the first native Swede to be named a cardinal in the two millennia of the Church. King Sigismund Vasa (1566-1632), King of Poland and of Sweden until he was ousted in a Civil War, had two sons who were elevated to the Cardinalate. John II Casimir Wasa (1609-1672), King of Poland and titular King of Sweden, was made a cardinal. It was he who proclaimed the Virgin Mary ‘Queen of Poland’ for defending the Czestochowa monastery against Swedish troops; he later resigned as a cardinal. His brother, John Albert Wasa (1612-1634) was a short-lived cardinal; both brothers were educated by the Jesuits. Lars Skytte, a Swedish ambassador to Portugal who converted and became a Franciscan friar in the mid-17th century, is said to have been offered the Cardinalate but refused it.

Bishop Arborelius, born in 1949, was raised Lutheran; he converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty and then entered the Discalced Carmelites. John Paul II appointed him bishop of Stockholm in 1998, becoming the first ethnic Swede and second Scandinavian Catholic bishop since the Reformation; since the Reformation era, the majority of Catholics in Scandanavia have been immigrants or of immigrant descent.

When I last met with Bishop Arborelius, we were toasting the news of the canonisation of Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad, the Bridgetine nun who brought back the order founded by St Birgitta to Sweden in the 19th century after it had been suppressed following the Reformation. A few months later, Sweden received a visit from His Holiness, Pope Francis, on the occasion of the joint commemoration of the Lutheran reformation.

On this most recent occasion, I met His Excellency to ask him about his elevation to the cardinalate, which will formally take place at the Ordinary Consistory on June 28th. During our visit we reflected on this historic event and the Catholic heritage of Sweden.

CWR: Your Excellency, thank you for the opportunity to ask you a few questions. What does your elevation to the cardinalate mean for the Catholic Church in Sweden, and for the Church in the world?

Bishop Anders Arborelius: For the Catholic Church in Sweden it is something very special, because we are not used to Cardinals in our part of the world, and people think it is very thrilling and somehow it shows that the Holy Father is interested in us. That we belong to the worldwide Church, and somehow he wants to tell us that ‘also you are important in a secular, pluralistic country as a minority.’

I’m also surprised it means so much for ordinary Catholics, and makes them happy. Of course, we don’t know really what it will mean in a concrete way. Somehow it is a sign that we are a part of the Church, and that we can perhaps contribute with some experiences of our situation. I would say it was a good surprise for people, because no one had thought a cardinal should be nominated in our part of the world, because it is so far away.

CWR: In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI set up a personal ordinariate for Anglicans. Do you see any possibility for a Lutheran Ordinariate?

Bishop Arborelius: I think it will be very difficult in Sweden to set up an ordinariate, because there are no entire parishes. There are some people who are interested to convert, and every year there are some. But I don’t think there are enough people to form an ordinariate. I also think it is important that we don’t have a double jurisdiction, and I can’t see any real possibility for an ordinariate. Up to now the Holy See have been very open to receive, for instance the group in ‘Berget’ in Rättvik, and offered them more possibilities, but who are very open to be a part of the ordinary Catholic Church in Sweden. I think for those few Lutherans who convert every year it’s enough, and we know that nowadays many people from other backgrounds convert, for example, from the Free Churches. There are not enough Lutherans who are interested in converting to make an ordinarate possible.

CWR: And how have relations with the Lutheran churches changed or developed in recent years? 

Bishop Arborelius: One could say the Lutheran church is a somewhat diversified body, and some members feel very close to others, some not. That means we have on the official level, no official dialogue in the last years. But, of course, we have a lot of cooperation within the Christian Council of Sweden. Now we have started on various levels working groups, speaking about various issues, and the question is if there will be a new official dialogue. There are voices in favour of that, but up to now we keep it on another level.

So, I would say in some parts of Sweden, the local ecumenism functions very well. For instance, in Lund, where they have common Vespers, once in the Lutheran Cathedral, once in the Catholic Church. On the local level there are many initiatives, but otherwise, the last years our main contacts have been within the Christian Council of Sweden. Sometimes this broader ecumenism can be more fruitful than the bilateral. I wouldn’t be against starting a new dialogue on dogmatic or ethical questions. As you know, there are so many different points of view in the Lutheran church, so that makes dialogue a bit difficult at times. Still, I would say the ordinary relationships on the human level are very good and fruitful. We are very grateful that we may use Lutheran churches in more than 100 places.

Also, what we call ‘spiritual ecumenism’—people coming together for prayer, retreats, issues of spirituality is functioning very well. And, of course, those social issues, where all the Christian churches have a common voice, for instance questions about migration and refugees. You could say, on many levels there is a good ecumenical relationship, even very deep friendship, but in other fields it is a very low-key policy.

CWR: What is needed in order for the Catholic Church to grow and thrive in Sweden?

Bishop Arborelius: Well that’s a very good question! I would like to know the answer to it, but it depends on the Holy Spirit.

I would say the Catholic Church is growing mostly through immigration. Our main difficulty is to transmit faith to the younger generation. That of course goes for all churches, all religious bodies in a secularized country. That would be our main concern, to be able to reach out to a young generation, and help them to grow deeper into the Church. Maybe many of them remain members, but they are not active in the Catholic Church. You can see the tendency that many Catholics in the second generation have the same relationship to their church as Protestants. They belong to it, they receive baptism, sometimes they are married and buried, but they have missed the deeper sacramental spirituality with the Catholic Church. That would be one of the main concerns.

Then of course to form a unified body with all these, groups and that is very different in some parishes. In some there is a very deep unity between people of different cultures, and all social backgrounds. In others, it has to be more developed. I would say we certainly need all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to make the Church grow. But, we should not complain when we compare with different religious bodies, because we always have people at Mass on Sunday, even if it is 10-20% of registered Catholics. Compared to other religious bodies it is quite good. We have to work for even more spiritual conversion among our Catholics in Sweden, and integrate them into the real sacramental life of the Church.

CWR: What sort of relations exist between the Catholic Church in Sweden and Islam? 

Bishop Arborelius: Well, we don’t have any bilateral relations, only in some local fields. Most connections are through the Interreligious Council of Sweden, where all religions come together. Sometimes they say something about cooperation between religions. I would say that as a whole there is a harmonious way of cooperating between the various religions, but there is no deeper religious dialogue with Islam. It is more on social issues, against terrorism, and issues like that. The interreligious dialogue is functioning on that human, social level, but it is not so easy to come to this deeper religious dialogue. It is common experience that we can speak about various issues that are common in society, but to speak about our belief in God and what that means on the spiritual level is not always so easy. If it is possible, it is mostly with the Jewish community.

CWR: Do you already know if you will be, or do you expect to be, appointed to a Pontifical Congregation or Council?

Bishop Arborelius: I don’t know! I don’t know anything really what it will really be about. I will be in Rome, and then I am supposed to attend some meetings. But if I will be asked to be a consultor or any other task I have to wait and see. I often get asked what it will mean for the future, but I don’t really know. So, I have to wait and see.

CWR: Thank you, Your Excellency.

Bishop Arborelius: Thank you!

Pope Francis talks with Swedish Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, before the pope led the canonization Mass of Sts. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad of Sweden and Stanislaus Papczynski of Poland in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican June 5, 2016. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

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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.


  1. We can never tell where Catholic Christianity might suddenly burgeon. Often converts make wonderful witnesses to Christ. To convert to Catholicism in highly dominant Lutheran Sweden took courage and real conviction. What is lacking today. A Lutheran theologian lectured at our seminary on the theology of St Thomas Aquinas on End Times and the renewal of the physical universe. He stated Aquinas believed [and there is scripture to support it] that God would not destroy what is a created good, particularly since the physical universe has reference to Man. Man who is eternally a duality of body and spirit. Thus we believe in the resurrection of the body. It all made sense. St Peter speaks of new Heavens and a new earth. The Apostle Paul says all creation is in labor awaiting the glorification of man in Christ. The lecturer was a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, St Peter, MN. Just an anecdote. I recall a news story of Lutheran parishioners who would kneel at a blank whitewashed wall as they entered their chapel in a small Swedish village. Apparently the new pastor was intrigued and had the whitewash removed. Underneath was a fresco of the Madonna and Child. He had it restored.

  2. Yawn. Unfortunately, Sweden is dead.
    No children and no backbone to expel the invaders who seek their destruction.
    Dhminitude awaits this bishop. Bet on it.

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