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How the founders of a Protestant mega-church converted to Catholicism

Birgitta and Ulf Ekman (Youtube screenshot)

Ulf and Birgitta Ekman gradually came to realise the truths of the Faith

We have entered the week of Prayer for Christian Unity and thus today at Mass we prayed the traditional prayer that our “separated brethren” may return to “the one true fold.” What a potent mixture of theology and pain these phrases conjure up: yes, those members of the many Protestant churches are separated from the Church but they are also our “brethren”, not least in their fervour for fundamental aspects of the Christian faith; and it is also true that Christ intended one shepherd and one flock – the “true fold” of the Church. That this can cause anguish is not in doubt; witness the spiritual travails of Blessed John Henry Newman before his conversion. But its resolution, sometimes referred to jocularly as “swimming the Tiber”, can also bring peace that the world cannot give.

These thoughts occur to me having just read the moving witness of Ulf and Birgitta Ekman, a Swedish couple who became Catholics in 2014 and who have charted their journey into the Church in The Great Discovery (Ignatius Press). Ulf had been ordained a Lutheran priest in 1979, then the founder of Word of Life, a large Pentecostal church with a worldwide congregation of 200,000, in Uppsala in 1983.

The authors are honest about their initial prejudices against Catholic belief and practice, yet how they also, as Birgitta put it, began to have “a longing for depth and an anchoring in something that was greater than our own denomination.” They also, in Ulf’s words, started to note the conflict between Pentecostal renewal, “when the new continually replaces the old”, and that kind of continuity and tradition “that is passed on through the generations.”

Their work of Word of Life took them all over the world and to many conferences and ecumenical gatherings. Between 2002 and 2005 they lived in Jerusalem and made contact with “a living Catholic faith”, realising “how illusory it is to set the Church against the Scriptures or against the Gospel.” Ulf recounts how by chance – one might call it Providence – he read the Life of Faustina Kowalska, the Polish saint and mystic of Divine Mercy; it opened up for him the possibility of “co-redemption”, uniting one’s sufferings with Christ on the Cross, which led to a “whole new and unknown world.”

On a trip to Rome he read George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope; he discovered “What a spiritual giant this man was” and regretted that he had ignored John Paul II’s life and ministry up to that time. Visiting St Peter’s tomb, recently excavated in St Peter’s in Rome, Ulf was moved to reflect, “Was there really a Petrine ministry that stretches through time?”

Birgitta frankly states that they “were not really prepared for the strong spirituality in the Catholic Church”. She discovered the life of her namesake, St Brigid of Sweden who had lived in Rome, as well as the life of St Therese of Lisieux and St Francis of Assisi: “Once again I was ashamed of my ignorance and my prejudices.”

For Ulf, his spiritual journey made him realise that he “could not simply pick and choose among different truths and sift out what I did not like”. There was a slow realization, borne of many meetings with a religious order of nuns in Israel and with Catholic charismatics and priests, that the Church “is both sacramental, evangelical, charismatic, diaconal and so much more…” In his readings about the great reforming saints, he saw that they often suffered and were misunderstood – “but they did not leave the Church and start their own.”

Gradually, through grace, prayer, reading and conversations with Catholic friends and mentors, the Ekmans’ problems with the theology of Mary, purgatory, the Pope, the priesthood and transubstantiation were removed. By 2010 they had both come to accept all the teachings of the Church. Feeling responsible for their huge congregation of 200,000 members in World of Life in many countries made them delay their reception into the Church until 2014, when age and ill-health forced Ulf to resign his responsibilities. Many of their members, who had read Ulf’s writings on his growing understanding of the origins and development of Christianity, were warmly supportive.

Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Sweden has written the Foreword to the Ekmans’ book, reminding Catholics that evangelical Christians often have “a more personal relationship with Jesus, dedication and zeal for the missions, a more biblical preaching and depth, more participation of the laity [and] a longing for the gifts of the spirit”. In other words, conversion always confers mutual enrichment.