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INTERVIEW: A Chat With Only Catholic Lay Woman Working as Spiritual Director in Sweden

An Inside Look at Life of American Catholic Living, Offering Spiritual Guidance in Secularized Sweden

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While on the ground in the Swedish cities of Malmö and Lund to follow the Pope’s visit this week, ZENIT had a chance to speak with Michelle Mope Andersson, a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. In this interview, we share with you her beautiful story and her reality as a Catholic woman living in Sweden.
ZENIT: What is it like to be a Catholic in Sweden, one of the most secularized countries in the world?
Andersson: When you live here, you really have to know your Catechism because people will always ask you, not what you believe in, but why you believe. As an Italian American, growing up in California, I took my faith for granted, but here it has grown to be my identity! People say, “Oh, you are Catholic because of your Italian roots.” I have to explain that I am baptised and raised Catholic, but I follow my faith because I believe in the teachings of my Church. My Catholicism has always been a curiosity for people here.
ZENIT: Why Sweden? How did you land here?
Andersson: My husband and I met as graduate students, in political science at Johns Hopkins University in the States. That was over 25 years ago. It was real culture shock when I first arrived in Sweden! The family structure is much weaker here and women are so very equal in every way. The expectation that everyone works and must be “in” the social system was quite a challenge. Then Sweden was a very homogenous society and I come from a culture where everyone is “outstanding”. Blending in is still difficult. My heart goes out to the many immigrants and refugees who have come more recently; I empathize deeply with their impressions. The Church became my home away from home, and for the first time I realized that God’s house was my house. I hope that people who come here today feel the same.
ZENIT: Tell me about spiritual direction in Sweden.
Andersson: Although I am Catholic, most of my work is in the Swedish Church and free churches. About 10 years ago, after going back to graduate studies in theology, the Jesuits in Stockholm thought I might do well leading retreats and working as a spiritual director. They sent me back to California for the 30 Day Ignatian Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and training in Spiritual Direction. At the same time, Ignatian Spirituality was starting to gain real interest here in Sweden, especially around Uppsala, the University town where the Jesuits have a Newman Institute. Soon I was getting calls and referrals from Lutheran pastors, deacons and people in the free-churches. Today, most who come to me are in these denominations.
ZENIT: What attracts Lutherans here in Sweden to this Catholic tradition?
Andersson: There is a real hunger for Ignatian spirituality here, I think because it offers such a creative encounter with Christ through engagement of the senses, a new – yet old – way of coming to God. People find this very freeing and exciting to discover the many ways the Lord speaks to us. Swedes are real nature lovers! It is no wonder, with such majestic landscapes and dramatic seasons of dark and light. This is often the first place they feel the closeness of God, in Creation.
Luther taught salvation by grace, but that message gets lost when we start to measure human value according to production and consumption, what we do and what we have. It is ironic that people who created a social system based on the collective good have created one of the most individualistic societies in the world. But, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, highlight our giftedness. Discerning how the Lord might be inviting us to use those gifts in some new way is exciting and beneficial for all of us, Catholics and Lutherans alike! In some ways, Ignatian spirituality begins where Luther left off, and this invites us to walk together in spiritual direction.
ZENIT: How do Lutheran priests relate to you, as a Catholic lay woman, giving spiritual direction?
Andersson: First, we find common ground. We establish together that our work is serving God in the other, and finding God in all things. Our perspectives grow very similar when we try to look at the world with the eyes of God. In this way, we come to reveal our hearts to one another because we share the heart of God.
On a more personal level, of course they are curious about my background and interests, though we keep this to a minimum. To my knowledge, I am the only Catholic lay woman working as a spiritual director in Sweden, and this is a great privilege. They know that I am working on a doctorate now within the Institute for Pastoral Studies at Seattle University, in the U.S. which is a Jesuit institution; in several sessions confidants have said, “Michelle, for us, you are a pastor!”
That is not my goal, nor is it my goal to convert anyone to any other denomination. It is all about bringing each other closer to God.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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