In 2016, Fr Joseph Enkh Baatar was ordained in St Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar. Like so many buildings in Mongolia’s capital, the cathedral is modelled after the yurt – a round tent made of animal skin in which the peoples of the steppe have dwelled for millennia.
Fr Baatar is the country’s first native priest. There are fewer than 2,000 Catholics in Mongolia since missionary work began in earnest about 25 years ago, but their numbers are growing – albeit slowly. And the seedling Church in Mongolia isn’t alone. As pews empty in traditionally Catholic nations, conversions are flourishing in unlikely corners of the world.
Take Sweden. The Lutheran state Church, like the Church of England, was established in the 16th century by royal decree. The Catholic Church was subsequently outlawed and virtually wiped out. And, although Sweden is heavily secularised (fewer than 30 per cent of Swedes describe themselves as religious), the Reformation’s legacy continues to cause difficulties for the Church.
“The general level of knowledge about Catholicism is very low in Sweden, with a lot of bias and prejudice,” Kristina Hellner, the Diocese of Stockholm’s communications officer, told me.
Yet Catholicism is among the fastest-growing religions in the country. There are 116,000 Catholics in Sweden, with 4,000 more registering each year and about 100 adult conversions. In fact, Church officials believe the number may actually be twice as large: it doesn’t take into account many immigrants, refugees and catechumens. In any event, Sweden is one of only a handful of European countries where the Church is growing.
Recognising the Church’s astonishing progress in Sweden, Pope Francis named Anders Arborelius the first Swedish cardinal last June. Since then, he’s become something of a celebrity. “Cardinal Arborelius is very popular among journalists and has been interviewed literally everywhere,” says Hellner. Fokus, the country’s largest news magazine, named him “Swede of the Year” in 2017.
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