In Sweden, like other Scandinavian countries, Catholics are a very small minority. At the same time, this is one of the few areas of Europe where the number of Catholics is increasing, largely thanks to immigration. Most Catholics in Sweden have an immigrant background. In an average parish, it is not unusual to find parishioners from 50 or even 100 different countries. The immigrants can be divided into three categories: refugees, those who have come to work, and those who have come because of love.
Sweden’s refugee policy used to be generous. Now it is quite the opposite. Still, people from Eritrea and Syria are admitted. Workers from Poland and Ukraine and IT specialists from India come as well as Filipino women. During the last decade, a great many Catholics from the Oriental Catholic churches have settled in Sweden. We also have the highest number of Chaldean Catholics in Europe.
This means that the Catholic Church of Sweden is really catholic, universal. So are the clergy. We have some 170 priests from all over the world for 125,000 faithful. Polish are the most numerous group in the clergy, followed by Swedish. There are also native Swedes who are Catholic! Every year, some 100 converts are received into the Church. Some are former Protestant ministers (male and female). We have seven married priests who were formerly Lutheran pastors. There are also Catholics who become Protestant. Many immigrants from Latin America and Africa have joined Pentecostal groups.
Ecumenical relations are quite harmonious here. In a secular society as ours, it is very important to promote ecumenism – and interreligious cooperation. Sweden used to be a uniform country where everyone was Lutheran. Nowadays, 60 per cent are Lutherans, and the country has a great diversity of cultures.
Last month I had the privilege of inaugurating two new churches, both formerly Protestant, in Karlskrona and Motala. These conversions are a win-win: we save on money, since it is very expensive to build a church, and the Protestant former owners are pleased that their old church can remain a house of prayer. Still, there is a lack of churches, especially for the Oriental Catholics, who are usually more active churchgoers than other groups. Luckily, we have recently been able to buy a church in Akalla, one of the immigrant “ghettos” of Stockholm, for Syrian Catholics.
As all over the Western world, the main difficulty for the Church is to transmit the faith to the younger generation. Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world. Young people are immersed in a very individualistic and hedonistic atmosphere. Those of immigrant background are also very eager to become “real Swedes”, and often find that being Catholic is a hindrance: Catholics are still regarded as foreigners. I admire those young Catholics who are very active and dynamic. The number of vocations seems to be increasing slightly; now many have immigrant background whereas before they were mostly converts like myself.
Even if Sweden is very secular, many people are quite open to spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox spiritual writers are popular among Protestants. Many Lutheran ministers attend retreats at a Jesuit centre in Wales. In our diocese, Stockholm, we have a good number of contemplative communities. Two Benedictine monasteries were founded by Lutheran sisters who converted. One Franciscan community was founded by former Protestant friars.
The Catholic influence in Sweden is quite humble. Still, in the cultural and academic parts of society, there is a considerable group of active Catholics. The rector of the University of Stockholm is a Catholic woman and a lay Dominican. Another part of society where Catholics are quite numerous is prisons. There is a flourishing prison ministry, sometimes including the Ignatian spiritual exercises.
Our Diocese of Stockholm, the only one in Sweden, has received a lot of help from Britain. English and Irish Passionists, including Bishop William Kenney, have been very helpful in building up parish life all over Sweden. The Swedish mentality is quite close to the British; even though our Catholic population is smaller, there are parallels between our situation and yours. It is natural, then, that we have sent some of our seminarians to the Venerable English College in Rome.