INTERVIEW: Future Cardinal Arborelius: ‘Even If Sweden Is Secular, It’s Still Possible to Build Up the Church’

A Conversation With Future, and 1st Ever, Cardinal of Sweden

Cardinal-elect Anders Arborelius - Wikimedia Commons

Cardinal-elect Anders Arborelius, to be Sweden’s first cardinal, says that “while Sweden is regarded as the most secular country in Europe, it is still possible to build up the Church.”

In an exclusive interview with Zenit in the Vatican yesterday, June 14, 2017, Bishop Anders Arborelius of Sweden’s lone Diocese of Stockholm, made this point as he spoke about his nomination, the fruits of the Pope’s visit to the Swedish cities of Mälmo and Lund, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2016, and what his expectations are as cardinal to a country with such an almost invisible percentage of Catholics and with cultural mentalities that differ from Church teaching.

He also shared about the coexistence in a country which has received so many immigrants, why he believes the Pope remembered Sweden during this consistory, and discussed upcoming ecumenical steps.

During the Pope’s General Audience yesterday, Cardinal-elect Arborelius and the Archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran Church Antje Jackelén brought an ecumenical gift to Francis as a sign of gratitude for his visit to Sweden.

The gift is an icon of Saint Francis of Assisi painted by the Swedish icon painter Lars Gerdmar who was part of the Swedish delegation.

This marked the first visit to Rome by Carmelite Bishop Arborelius since Pope Francis announced during his May 21 Angelus that the Archbishop of Stockhom would be among those named new cardinals during the June 28 consistory.

Here is our interview with Cardinal-elect Arborelius:

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ZENIT: What was your initial reaction when you learned Pope Francis nominated you to be a Cardinal and why is this appointment important to the Church in Sweden?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: Well, it was a kind of shock, as I had not awaited for something like that. And I saw on the internet that it was true. And of course, for our little Church in Sweden, it is something, very, very special, because we feel we are more united with the Pope and the universal Church.

So, it’s something historic for all of us. But of course, we feel very humble and small because one doesn’t know how to behave as a cardinal, what one is supposed to do.

Many people thought that all the cardinals had to go to Rome. But I told them the Pope has nominated cardinals from the peripheria (‘peripheries’): Mali, Laos, and now, Sweden… In the Catholic world, we are very small and unimportant but that is his way of doing things.

Why do you think Pope Francis thought of Sweden in particular this consistory?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: Well, as you know, he was with us for this great ecumenical event, and we have had some contacts before [during the planning for the papal trip]. So, he knew we existed.

ZENIT: What were the fruits of the Pope’s visit to the Swedish cities of Mälmo and Lund for the 500-year Commemoration of the Protestant Reformation on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2016?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: I think it has started to happen on a world level that the Catholics and Lutherans have decided to work together more intensely to find a way forward and it was an event for all the Christian world, because the other Churches had been very impressed by the work that had been done at the ceremony. And for Sweden of course, it means that the Catholic Church has become part of the religious landscape. We are not only a little minority of second-class foreigners, but we belong to the society. And I think for many Catholics, and for many Christians, this was a very important sign that the Pope was received by all the officials, the king, government, and so forth. So, it was really a sign that we belong to this society, we have a right to be there. We are, well, part of the country.

ZENIT: As the first cardinal for Sweden and Scandinavia, what do you see as your responsibility or role, given that it is an environment that thinks very differently than Catholics generally on sensitive issues, such as defense of life and other bioethical issues or cultural norms?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: Well, it’s true, we are just a very small minority. And even if we have a cardinal, we remain, a very small minority. But I think that Sweden has become a multicultural, multi-religious society. And I think people are more open to listen to other voices. In a democracy, we have to listen to each other, even if we have different points of view on many issues. So I think it somehow can help people to see that Sweden is pluralistic, a multi-religious, multicultural reality and the Catholics are part of that reality even if we have some points of view, that in generally people may have difficulty accepting, that we are not as strange as they thought perhaps.

ZENIT: As cardinal, one of your tasks is to advise the Holy Father. What do you believe will be the substance that you will offer him?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: That is a question I cannot answer because I don’t really know how much and how often I am supposed to be in Rome. But of course, if the Holy Father wants to listen to my advice, I would be very happy to offer it to him, because Sweden is regarded as the most secular part of Europe and still it’s possible to build up the Church, and to still live as Christians, Catholics together with other Christians, and I think maybe there are some ideas, that we can show the Pope that Europe is not last for Christianity. Even in our part of the world, it’s possible to live as a Christian and to receive an interest from non-faithful people to listen to our voices and that Christian voices in Sweden work very much together in many issues, migration, refugees, and so forth. So that’s also something else the Pope could see with his own eyes when he came to Sweden.

ZENIT: And the coexistence in Sweden, a country which has had a great reception of immigrants, what is the secret? What can you teach the rest of Europe? 

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: Well. Of course there are also problems. We have to be honest. We are now a country of immigrants. We have to listen to their experience and need to help them as much as possible to integrate. And sometimes, this is successful. But, of course, there are also areas of the big cities, where only immigrants live. And that is one of the big issues throughout Europe: the segregation between immigrants and native people. That is also a problem for us. But I think we are starting to realize that we need to do more about that.

ZENIT: Could you please tell us about your encounter this morning with Pope Francis at the conclusion of the General Audience, and the ecumenical gift you presented with Archbishop Jackelen, of the Swedish Lutheran Church?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: It was a very symbolic meeting because we presented Pope Francis with an icon of St. Francis. And we know that he put the message of St. Francis at the center of his pontificate and also in his dialogue with other Churches. And we also know that St. Francis is very much beloved by other confessions. It was a very brief meeting, but it was symbolically very important to show that we have to work in common with all the issues that we have in common and somehow, St. Francis is a good symbol of this ecumenical friendship that is so obvious in the situation in Sweden.

ZENIT: Are there any upcoming steps? Any other encounters to come?

Cardinal-elect Arborelius: Well, I am very happy that for the Consistory, that the permanent council of the Swedish Council of Churches will be present. So that shows that somehow, that all the Churches in Sweden want to work together on so many issues.

And I think in the daily ecumenical tasks, there will be many occasions to work together.

Photo by ZENIT

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