Hope for the Church in Secularized Sweden

Bishop Arborelius on the Points of Light in His Country

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden, JAN. 26, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic bishop of Stockholm thinks the Church in Sweden has weathered the most intense period of secularization and is on the way to something new.

Bishop Anders Arborelius, leader of what he calls “a very hopeful little group of Catholics in Sweden,” shared with ZENIT the reasons for his hope: an increasing interest among young people in vocations, a society that is more open to spiritual life, and a growing acknowledgment of the Church in ecumenical and secular settings.

Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the Church in Sweden?

Bishop Arborelius: The general secular atmosphere in Sweden is the main challenge for all religious — the materialistic, hedonistic and individualistic way of life makes it difficult for all believers.

For us Catholics there is a special challenge: Most of us come from different countries and cultures and we have to grow into one family.

There are also, still today, some prejudices against Catholics, who are regarded as something foreign, non-Swedish. I often get the question: “Are you a real Swede?” Many children of immigrants want to be as Swedish as possible, so their Catholic faith seems to be a hindrance to them.

At the same time, there is a growing openness to spiritual life in Sweden. People are getting tired of secularization. This is a very hopeful challenge to us — we have to be more open to evangelization in an adequate way.

Q: Are those challenges exacerbated by the growing secularization in Europe, as demonstrated by the opposition to mentioning Christianity in the draft of the continent’s Constitution?

Bishop Arborelius: No, I do not think so. Even if Sweden is a member of EU, most people tend to think about Sweden as an entity of its own. There has been very little interest in the discussion that took place about the draft of the Constitution.

Sweden is also more secularized than most other countries in the EU, so I think we have already passed through the most intense phase of this process and are on one way to something new.

Q: What do you consider hopeful developments for the Church in Sweden?

Bishop Arborelius: The growing interest in spiritual life and values in society is very hopeful. It is possible to speak about Jesus again, as was proved when we had a discussion about him in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the mayor daily papers of Stockholm, in the beginning of 2003. Catholics are becoming more active in the intellectual and spiritual discussions in the public arena.

Our church is still growing. In many places, the faithful long for a church building of their own. Even though our economical situation has improved — since 2000 we have been allowed to get the fees from our members through the tax system — we have no possibilities to build churches where they are needed.

Q: Have the Swedish youth responded to Pope John Paul II’s outreach to young people through World Youth Days and the like?

Bishop Arborelius: Yes, a good number of our young Catholics have attended the World Youth Days, and we see that they are under the impact of the person and message of the Holy Father — it is obvious that some of our young Catholics are very much influenced by him.

We also have organized Youth Days for the diocese in the years in between the World Youth Days.

Q: How are your relations with the Lutheran faith community in Sweden?

Bishop Arborelius: On the personal level the relations are excellent; for example, we make use of more than 50 Lutheran churches regularly, because we do not have enough churches.

Unfortunately, the internal divisions in the Lutheran church make it difficult to establish deeper ecumenical relationships. Lately, there are many dogmatic and ethical issues that have been more difficult to cope with. Still, there are also hopeful signs thanks to the ecumenism of spirituality.

Q: What can be done to evangelize the people of good will in your country? In the rest of the EU nations?

Bishop Arborelius: I think that the most important way of evangelizing in the Sweden of today is through contacts in everyday life, such as at work.

The witness of a really committed Catholic can work wonders. Also the voice of the Church on contemporary issues — peace, ethics and the dignity of life — is very important.

Above all, spiritual guidance is very much needed. Our contemplative communities are forces of evangelization.

As to the other countries of the EU, they are very different and I cannot see any common strategy of evangelization.

Q: What are your hopes for the Church in Sweden in the future?

Bishop Arborelius: We are a very hopeful little group of Catholics in Sweden. There even seems to be a growing interest among young people for vocations, especially religious life. We see that our Church is becoming more accepted as a part of society and even more so as part of the ecumenical scene.

There are always conversions, including those of male and female Protestant pastors, and baptism of adults. During this year of Jubilee — St. Bridget’s 700th year, our diocese’s 50th year — we have grown in unity. Hopefully we also will grow in our desire to be a more evangelizing community.

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