When thinking of the “peripheries” of the Church, many think of places such as Latin America, Africa, or maybe Asia. However, in Wednesday’s consistory Pope Francis sought out a periphery that slips the minds of many: Sweden.
Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm told Vatican Insider he was “somewhat shocked” to get the news of his elevation, saying that “(w)e must also be happy that Sweden and all Scandinavia can be said to have entered the map of world Catholicism, as the gates of the Catholic Church open more to our land.”
“The last become first!” he told CNA while in Rome to receive his red biretta June 28.
Catholics number only about 150,000 in the largely secular and Lutheran country, whose sole diocese is led by the new cardinal. His time as bishop has been dominated by building connections with others, both of different creeds and those who come from different lands.
Cardinal Arborelius was born in Switzerland to Swedish parents in 1949, making him the first Swedish-origin bishop of Sweden since the Protestant Reformation. A historic shortage of priests in the country led to the need to appoint bishops from Germany or the United States to head the Diocese of Stockholm.
However, he was born into a Lutheran family; he converted to Catholicism at age 20 after coming into contact with the Bridgettine sisters. Two years later he entered the Discalced Carmelites, under the influence of the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux. He has since written a biography of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
He took perpetual vows in 1977, and was ordained in 1979 after receiving his doctorate in Rome.
Cardinal Arborelius was appointed Bishop of Stockholm in 1998 by St. John Paul II.
With his elevation to cardinal, Arborelius is also the first Swede in history to wear the red hat.
In a country dominated by secular culture and with a strong Protestant population, ecumenism has been at the forefront of Cardinal Arborelius’ ministry. In 2016, Pope Francis visited the country to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, speaking on the need for unity.
Cardinal Arborelius, 67, has been on the Ecumenical Council of Sweden for more than 15 years and has participated in conversations with a broad range of ecclesial communities and Churches, not only Lutheran, but also Orthodox and Pentecostal.
“Naturally, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox have a particular importance because we share a heritage and a tradition which go back to the origins of Christianity,” the newly minted cardinal told CNA.
“But we must do what is possible to involve the Lutheran Church and the evangelical communities in the common work of rendering Christ and his message alive for the greatest possible number of people in Sweden.”
In an interview with the National Catholic Register regarding the 2016 meeting, he described how “(a)ctually, Catholics and Lutherans have already come to an agreement that the Reformation should not be celebrated. Instead, we have agreed that it should be remembered in a spirit of prayer and reconciliation in order to heal.”
Cardinal Arborelius pastors a flock who come from many countries: he estimates the true Catholic population of Sweden is double the official count due to a strong immigrant presence, coming from the Middle East and Asia. This has given the Church there a deep appreciation for migrant peoples, a forefront issue of Francis’ pontificate.
The Church in Sweden is also seeing steady growth due to converts.
“In reality, the number of converts is rather constant, around a hundred every year,” he told CNA. “Their provenance is very mixed. Always more numerous are those who come from evangelical communities. Some come because they are attracted by more traditional groups, others are more engaged by the media, but often they are very different between themselves.”
The appointment comes at a time of increasing attention given to Sweden by the Vatican in recent decades. In 2002, the papal nuncio for Scandinavia was moved from Denmark to Sweden, and the country received its first papal visit from St. John Paul II in 1989.
Angela Ambrogetti contributed to this report.
By Joe Slama