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Photo taken in Lund, by Zenit Vatican Correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov, on the ground in Sweden

FEATURE: Who Are the Catholics of Sweden?

ZENIT Chats With Sweden’s Minority Catholic Community

Would you like to know more about Sweden’s Catholics….Well, ZENIT has spent time in Malmö and Lund, trying to take a closer look.

Angelo Tajani, a senior from the southern Italian city of Amalfi, is a retired journalist, a correspondent from Scandinavia, for several newspapers. He now lives in Landskrona, a small town not far from Malmö, Sweden. His wife is Italian too, being the daughter of a family transplanted here to southern Sweden for several generations.

“My mother-in-law used to tell me that when her husband, my father-in-law, as a young man attended university, he was called a ‘papist,'” he noted, stressing how he was often mocked for being Catholic.

“Times change, thank God. Today, several decades later, also in Sweden,” says Angelo, “Francesco enjoys great popularity, equal to those of John XXIII and John Paul II.”

Ivan, 21, born in Sweden, is a son of war refugees, Croatian Catholics who fled in 1995 from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Landskrona, unlike the former Yugoslavia of 20 years ago, it’s not a problem to belong to a religious minority: “not really,” he says.

“Among my peers friends we do not think of someone’s religion, we think rather who he is as person. I have many friends Lutherans, even Muslims.”

In the Croatian community of Sweden, many are refugees of war, as are the parents of Ivan. He has just come out from the small parish church of the village. Among Catholic immigrants countrymen in a distant country, and different for language, mentality and even religion, Sunday Mass is a welcome opportunity to meet. The Mass of 9 a.m., the first of the day, is celebrated right in the Croatian language. But Sunday, Oct. 30 is a day of celebration in particular for four boys, two boys and two girls, Croatian and Polish. From Stockholm, Bishop Anders Arborelius arrived, to give them in the 11am Mass, the sacrament of confirmation.

His diocese covers the whole territory of Sweden, 450,000 square kilometers in which are scattered about 113,000 Catholics: small numbers and large distances, so the bishop and the priests must travel continuously while not leaving anyone, neither the smallest parish or community, without the Gospel and the sacraments. “Of course, for many Catholic immigrants who arrive here it’s hard to live the faith,” says Bishop Arborelius.

“They feel isolated, in many places there is not a Catholic church, and also the influence of the materialistic mentality and secularized mentality, widespread in Sweden, can be a difficult burden to bear. But all this can become an inspirational tool, to deepen personal faith. Therefore there are are two situations that we see occurring in general: some disappear from the church, others become more involved in the Catholic Church’s life.”

At 2:30 yet another Mass is scheduled, celebrated in Arabic for the Catholics of the Middle East: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt … They are Catholics of different rites, so the chaplain Antoine Arab, Syrian from Aleppo, missionary in Sweden for the past 13 years, always celebrates according to the Latin rite. “There are families who live here a long time,” he says, “and have developed an even stronger faith than before, which makes them feel missionaries in a society in need to being evangelized again”.

The Arabic-speaking Swedes Catholics have fled from their countries as a result of wars and above all anti-Christian persecution: Lebanon in the 80s, Iraq in 2003, now Syria. Syrian children have just prepared a book of drawings with the hope of being able to present to the Pope. Michel, 8 years old, has just lost in the war his mother and sister. In his design, there is him, his father and grandfather, plus the cross above a tomb.

The list of nationalities represented in the Swedish Catholic Church is not finished. There are several Chileans (arrived as exiles at the time of the Pinochet dictatorship), Poles, Ukrainians, Vietnamese, Filipinos … This goes for the whole of Sweden. The parish of Lund counts 3.200 registered faithful from at least 88 countries, maybe even more, according to the parish priest Father Johan Linden, a Dominican, who confesses candidly that he has lost count.

“When you belong to a religious minority, like the small Catholic community in Sweden, then in such a situation all that is your faith, your culture becomes important. But I warn my parishioners to not reduce faith to their cultural background,” Father Johan affirms.

Eduardo and Francesca, Italian, live in the surroundings of Malmö. They are the parents of 8 boys and girls, a Neocatechumenal family in mission for 21 years in Sweden. The days of the papal visit are an exception, Francesca explains: “news about what the Pope does or says are very few, but also in the church, in homilies, they speak very little about the Pope. We watch Italian TV, otherwise we would know nothing”.

Among the classmates of Francesco, the eldest son, “some know what’s his name, and that he lives in the Vatican,” he reports, but at least in these days they make him many questions, out of curiosity aroused by space now exceptionally dedicated to the Pope in newspapers and TV.

“The comments, however, have been rather mixed during the vigil,” says Eduardo; “Many have appreciated Pope Francis for his openness, his attention to the poor, the marginalized, others are more controversial, especially some Lutheran priests have expressed themselves in a somewhat ‘polemical saying that you have to see the facts, and in fact the Catholic Church is not changing, they see it as a closed structure which for example should give more power to women … I hope that Lutherans however can appreciate the gesture of the Pope and also know to go a bit ‘more to the bottom of issues, without stopping to the externality , to the surface, the gossip, the mundane…”.

For Swedish Catholics these are still exceptional days. Francis arrived in Sweden with the primary intention to encourage ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans, then decided later to stop one more day here to celebrate the Mass of All Saints, for this small and so varied suburban flock. It is not always easy to keep it united, says the pastor Msgr. Arborelius, “but it is the Holy Spirit who unites us. Sometimes there are crises, conflicts, but you can tell that there is an atmosphere of fraternity, of solidarity between different groups. And the Mass of Pope Francis in Malmö is an important event to strengthen the unity of our Church”.

About Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a 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 four languages). She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight, and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, EWTN and Salt & Light. For 'The Other Francis': https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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