Bishop Arborelius of Stockholm - Photo from Wikimedia Commons

INTERVIEW: Bishop of Stockholm: “In Sweden, the Catholic Community Is Growing Every Year”

Speaking to ZENIT, Bishop Arborelius Tells of Expectations for Pope’s Imminent Visit to Sweden

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In Sweden, where Pope Francis will go on Oct. 31, on the occasion of the commemoration for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the Catholic minority suffered harsh oppression until a few decades ago. The Protestant split divided Sweden from Rome and the King Gustav Vasa took drastic measures against Catholics. Professing Catholicism, in some historical periods, led to losing civil rights.
In recent years, however, before a progressive secularization of Swedish society and obtaining full citizenship for all confessions, the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church are increasing exponentially. This is confirmed by Catholic bishop of Stockholm Anders Arborelius, the first bishop of Swedish ethnicity, since the Lutheran Reformation. Also he is one of the many converted Catholics in Sweden. In the following interview with ZENIT, he speaks of the Pope’s visit and the situation of the Catholic community in his country, which grows despite prejudices which remain.
Your Excellency, Bishop Arborelius, there are great expectations in Sweden for the visit of Pope Francis?
Many people in Sweden, whether they are Catholic or not, are looking forward to this visit. Of course, it is something very important for the Catholics living here, many of whom come from different parts of the world. The Pope is the symbol for our unity in faith, hope and charity. But many other people who are not Catholic look to him as a moral and spiritual authority who works for peace and solidarity on the world level.
In the past, Catholics in Sweden have been discriminated against. This hostility is completely over?
During the centuries of persecution, the situation for Catholics was very difficult. Nowadays, we have equal rights. There is much less hostility now, but it must be noted that there are still some anti-Catholic prejudices among certain people.
What’s the situation of the Swedish Catholic Church today? Is it growing?

Due to immigration, the Catholic Church is growing with a few thousand members every year. Sweden has received many refugees, and many of those coming from Eritrea and Syria are Catholic. There is also a constant immigration from Poland, etc. Still, there are many Catholics who are not registered as such, so it is impossible to know the exact number of the faithful. Some 115,000 are registered in our parishes.
In your community, there are also many converts. In your opinion, what reasons drive many Swedish people to convert from the Church of Sweden to Catholicism?

There are always a few converts from the Church of Sweden every year, and some of them are ministers, male or female. Lately, though, a good number of converts come from the Free Churches. The converts have different reasons for converting. Some are attracted by Catholic spirituality, by the faithfulness to the original tradition, by the social doctrine, by the universal character of the Church. There are only one hundred, more or less, conversions every year.
What’s the “kyrkoavgift”? It’s an obligatory tax for Swedish Catholics?

Up to the year 2000, Catholics paid the so-called Dissenter Tax to the Church of Sweden as did all those who were not members of the Church of Sweden. In the year 2000, equal rights and possibilities were offered to all religious bodies in Sweden. That implied the possibility for the members of the Catholic Church to pay the fee (“kyrkoavgift”) to their own Church, thus 1% of their income through the official tax system. Catholics can apply for dispensation from this fee, if they write an application to the Bishop without giving any reasons. It was meant for those in need, but sometimes we have the feeling that the wealthy are more eager to ask for dispensation, than those in need.
In his documentary “The Swedish Theory of Love”, the Italian-Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini describes a Swedish society as very individualistic. Do you know this movie? Also the secularization makes Sweden to be this way?

I have read about this movie and it was discussed in the media. It is true that individualism is very evident in Sweden. At the same time, there is a deep longing for community and deeper human relationships. Unfortunately, many people do not seem to have the psychological stability for life-long and faithful relationships. Many marriages break down, many old people feel abandoned and lonely, On the other hand, there is also a strong desire for justice and solidarity with those in need, at home or on the worldwide level.
Originally, it was not planned that the Pope would celebrate a Mass during his visit in Sweden. But now we know he will. Is there much joy for this liturgical event?

It is true that the main reason for the visit of the Holy Father was the participation in the commemoration of the Reformation. But quite soon, the Pope told us that he wanted to celebrate Mass with the faithful. This fact, of course, was received with gratitude and joy. As a small minority in a post-Protestant and secularized country, for us Catholics, this Papal Mass is a prophetic sign and a symbol of the unity of all the faithful who have their origin in different parts of the world.

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Federico Cenci

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