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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST ANSGAR – AN UNEXPECTED CATHOLIC RESURGENCE IN SCANDINAVIA

“Scandinavia might not be the first part of the world you think of when you mention the Catholic Church, but these northern European countries have a long Catholic heritage, and in recent years have seen the highest increase in church attendance and vocations in Europe. In October 2012, during the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned Norway among the countries where the Church is experiencing renewal. He said, ‘Today we see, where one would not expect it, how the Lord is present and powerful, and how he continues to be effective through our labour and our reflection.’

ST ANSGAR

Christianity came to Scandinavia later than in the rest of the continent. St Ansgar, ‘the apostle of the North’ was the first missionary to bring the faith to Denmark and Sweden in around 820. He was followed by many more missionaries who came from England and Ireland over the next 300 years. Another Christianizing influence was the mass emigration of Danes to England and Normandy in those years. Thousands settled in east central England and northern France displacing or intermarrying with the locals who were Christian. By the 12th century, Denmark, Norway and Sweden had established their own archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope.

The Catholic Church thrived in Scandinavia from the Middle Ages until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when King Gustav I broke off relations with Rome. Monasteries and cathedrals were confiscated, and many priests and bishops were martyred. Gustav established the Church of Sweden, based on the teachings of Martin Luther, and this was the only legal church in Sweden until the middle of the 19th century.

A turnaround began in 1850, when the practice of Catholicism was again permitted. In 1951, the Freedom of Religion Act was introduced, allowing individuals to belong to a church or not. This may have been prompted by the aftermath of the Second World War, which saw thousands of Catholic refugees arriving from Eastern bloc countries. Lutheranism continued to be the State church until it was disestablished in 2000, but across Scandinavia religious practice declined dramatically in the Protestant churches, while the small immigrant Catholic communities were quietly growing. Nearly a third of the priests now are from Poland. Copenhagen’s Bishop Czeslaw Kozon was born and educated in Denmark, but his mother’s family immigrated from Poland, and his father was a Polish refugee after World War II. It would take several more years, until 1998, when Anders Arborelius was appointed Bishop of the Stockholm Catholic Diocese, and became the first ethnic Swede and second Scandinavian Roman Catholic bishop since the Reformation.

EXCITING NEW TREND

Fresh waves of immigration have brought more Catholics. After the war on Iraq, in Stockholm alone more than 20,000 Chaldean Catholic refugees arrived, and they have begun buying disused old churches and converting them for Catholic worship. Many Vietnamese refugees have settled in Norway; 400 are in Norway’s Catholic cathedral parish alone. The Vietnamese now have one priest ordained there and several seminarians. There is also a growing Filipino community.

When the Nordic Bishops’ Conference met in Iceland last September, it noted an ‘exciting new trend’. Fr Fredrik Heidling SJ, a Swedish theology lecturer at the Newman Institute in Uppsala wrote in The Tablet in January this year. He said, ‘The Catholic Church is growing in Scandinavia and is showing signs of vitality in several ways, one of which is the growing number of vocations both to the secular priesthood and to religious orders.’

SURGE IN VOCATIONS

Currently, out of about 282,000 registered Catholics in the Scandinavian countries, there are 31 candidates preparing for the priesthood. As a proportion of the total number of Catholics, the Scandinavian countries have more seminarians and people in the early stages of consecrated life than many other regions in Europe. The Archdiocese of Vienna, Austria, for instance, has 30 seminarians out of 1.3 million Catholics. The Nordic Bishops’ Conference issued the following statistics this year: Sweden has nine seminarians in formation for the secular priesthood and eight preparing for ordination in religious orders out of 103,500 Catholics (population nearly 9.5 million).

Norway has nine seminarians out of 115,600 Catholics (population 4.9 m), while Denmark has two seminarians out of 40,400 Catholics, with the Neo-Catechumenate in that country having a further 18 candidates in formation (population nearly 5.6m).

Finland has two seminarians and an additional 15 Neo-Catechumenate candidates in formation out of 11,900 Catholics (population 5.4m). Finally, Iceland has one seminarian out of 10,500 Catholics (population 319,000).

The Vatican Hierarchy website reports that there are 215 women religious in Sweden, 173 in Norway, 222 in Denmark, 36 in Finland and 34 in Iceland – a total of 680. There are no overall statistics to show how these compare to earlier figures, but anecdotally it would seem that numbers have increased and contemplative orders are growing more than apostolic ones…

WORK OF THE SPIRIT

Fr Heidling [who interviewed Swedish seminarians] found that, ‘Love for Jesus Christ and a sense of calling constitute an absolutely central motivation for the seminarians, several of whom have been received into the Catholic Church as adults’… Fr Heiding adds there is a spirit of optimism in the Nordic Church. While Scandinavia took the lead in an ‘anything-goes’ liberalism, he specifies that ‘What we are experiencing now is a counter-reaction to this liberalism, a reaction that may surface in other countries too.’

Dominican Sister Sofie Hamring, from Rogle monastery, just east of Lund in Sweden, argues that all academic explanations are secondary to the essential love for Jesus Christ, saying simply, ‘The Holy Spirit is at work.’ The 9th-century spirit of St Ansgar, patron of Scandinavia and its first Catholic missionary, seems to have been rekindled.”
– These are excerpts of an article by Josephine Siedlecka entitled ‘Nordic Lights’, published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue April 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy

 

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