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Saturday, July 21, 2018

THE REMNANT ON THE ROAD: The Church in Scandinavia (Part 1)

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Fr. Håkan Lindström, SSPX Fr. Håkan Lindström, SSPX

“The true Sweden is Catholic Sweden.” –Fr. Håkan Lindström, SSPX

(Western) Europe is post-Christian.” –Justice Antonin Scalia

On an unusually warm Spring afternoon in Stockholm, an architecturally beautiful city, described by a frequent visitor “as a mixture of Edinburgh and Venice,” I met with Fr. Håkan Lindström, SSPX, to discuss the past, present, and future of the Catholic Church in Scandinavia. (N.B.: when speaking of “Scandinavia,” the only nations that are correctly included are Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. When Iceland and Finland are included, the word “Nordic” is used. Some ethnographers would include the “Sami,” Europe’s only nomads, in that group.)

Also at the meeting was Ferdinand Hellers, an “advokat” (attorney), who, like Padre Lindstrom, is a convert from Lutheranism, and, as the lawyer mentioned, someone who “had enough” of the Novus Ordo Church. He is dedicated to the SSPX in general, and Fr. Lindstrom, who was ordained in 2009, in particular. So much so, in fact, that Herr Hellers has traveled to London to hear Fr. Lindstrom say Mass and preach. To square the circle, I also sought the input of official representatives of the Novus Ordo Churches in Sweden and Norway to assess where the Church of Rome currently stands in their respective countries.


What follows may strike the Remnant reader as a greater effort to describe the Catholic Church in Sweden's past, present, and future more than the other Scandinavian nations, and that is correct, for since the middle of the 17th century, when Sweden overtook Denmark as the region's hegemon, and until recently, "Sverige" was the unchallenged engine of Scandinavian political leadership and industry, as well as the home of the largest Official State Lutheran Church. Times have changed: as a result of its fortunate ownership of the North Sea's oil deposits, Norway now ranks as the per capita wealthiest nation in Scandinavia, if not the world.

I also posed questions about the state of the Catholic Church in Sweden to Kristina Hellner, who is the Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm; in all of Sweden, there are 44 parishes. In June, 2017, Anders Cardinal Arborelius, a convert, became the first Swedish cardinal in Church history. More on this later.

In a country of slightly more than 9 million people, there are about 120,000 Catholics in Sweden, almost all of whom live in its major cities; the largest segments are immigrant Poles and Croats. Sweden’s Lutheran Church became the State’s “official” church in 1593, but dropped that designation in 2000. Norway was to do the same in 2017, and, as a result, the current numbers comprising religious bodies in both countries can only be estimated, since official records are no longer kept. Denmark remains the only Scandinavian nation with an “Official” State Lutheran Church.

Sweden’s Catholic history included the founding of the Order of Brigittine Sisters, aka The Most Holy Savior Order of Nuns, in 1344, by St Brigitta, whose current members can still be seen in their distinct habits in their Mother House in Rome near the Farnese Palace. Virtually all of their abbeys and convents in Northern Europe were destroyed during the religious wars following Luther’s break with Rome.

Perhaps the greatest shock to Lutheranism in Scandinavia came when, in 1654, Queen Christina, the daughter of the Swedish king who died on the battlefield in Germany defending the Protestant cause during the Thirty Years War, converted, abdicated, and moved to Rome, where she died in 1689, the friend of four popes. She is buried in St. Peter's Basilica.  Fr. Lindstrom believes that Queen Christina’s conversion can serve a model for many more Swedes to convert to Catholicism.

Although Scandinavia is considered a citadel of religious liberty today, that was not always the case: from 1599-1781, deportation or death awaited those who sought to keep “the old religion.” It was not until 1860 that conversion to the Church of Rome was decriminalized.

Fr. Håkan Lindström, who bears a striking resemblance in both voice and looks to the English actor, Kenneth Branagh, is a member of the SSPX Priory in London, where it has an apostolate, and also directs St. Michael’s School in Hampshire.  Given his Swedish birth and upbringing in Stockholm, Fr. Lindstrom’s responsibilities include serving as an “itinerant” SSPX priest in Scandinavia, visiting Malmo, Stockholm, and other cities in Sweden, Aarhus in Denmark, and also Oslo. During his sojourn to Scandinavia each month, Traditional Latin Masses are held in Malmo, Stockholm, in Sweden, and Oslo in Norway.

Fr. Lindstrom noted that few Danes make the journey across the lengthy (4.8 miles) and costly ($65) Oresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmo to hear Mass. There is, however, a noticeable irony in the current situation regarding the "Official" Lutheran Church in Denmark: it is generally agreed that the Danes are the least religious by any measure of the Scandinavian countries, which is saying a lot, although it has the longest history of being Christian: the first representation of Christ in Scandinavia was in Denmark. It was Catholic missionaries in Denmark who began the long, and often dangerous, civilizing of the Vikings there, and who were primarily responsible for the end of slavery and polygamy. And to compile further irony, religiously indifferent Denmark is the only Scandinavian nation today that has a "Church tax," although paying it is optional.

In Oslo, Communications Director Hans Rossine' added information to put this large and complex Scandinavian religious crossword puzzle together. When asked if the Church in Norway gives a high priority to proselytizing, Rossine's answer reminded me of the response of the late Fr. Milward in Tokyo three years ago: "The converts come on their own initiative." As in Tokyo, one does not see that response as a positive sign of substantial growth of the Church in Norway, or, for that matter, in Japan.  However, as was also true in Tokyo, "...Mormons, Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Pentecostal churches are actively involved in missionary work." (More about this later.)

Swedish CHapter 2018The first official Swedish chapter to walk the Chartres Pilgrimage. Chartres 2018. Read their testimony HERE.

The most important Norwegian Catholic convert of the post-Lutheran era, Sigrid Undset, was born in Denmark in 1882.  Her family moved to Norway, which had been a colony of Denmark for centuries - the Norwegian language is heavily influenced by Danish - when she was two. Undset is famous as the author of Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy of historical novels following the life of a fourteenth-century Norwegian woman. She converted to Catholicism in 1924, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, “principally for her powerful descriptions of Nordic life during the Middle Ages.” She is the only Catholic depicted on a Norwegian banknote. “Estimates” claim that there are currently more Catholics in Norway - about 150,000 - than in Sweden with half the population, the result of recent immigration. 

Included among the Padre’s initial remarks was the claim that, although both Sweden and Norway have had autocephalous State Lutheran churches for centuries, the Church in Norway, especially outside of Oslo, still retains at least some functional aspects of its earlier existence, which cannot be said of Sweden. (Full disclosure: I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Oslo from 1984-88, and in my travels around the country, the influence of the Lutheran Church in the area of Telemark, south of Oslo, was noticeable, and I am informed by a Norwegian journalist that it still is.)  Rossine' does not see the Norwegian Lutheran Church in the same way: "As we see it, the Lutheran church has somewhat to decide if it wants to be more profiled as a Christian church, or if it wants to continue as a church which is very adjustable to the changing trends of our time and current society." There can be no doubt in my mind that Fr. Lindstrom, Rossine', and I agree where the answer lies.

Fr. Lindstrom recounted an episode in Norway's Catholic past that is both amusing and telling at the same time: in the archives of the pre-Lutheran Norwegian Church are two letters sent to Rome in the 14th century, the first of which asks if beer could be substituted for wine for the consecration. The second makes something of a similar request, asking that beer, instead of holy water, be used for the baptism of children. Needless to say both requests were denied, but I have rarely seen more bottles and glasses of beer on tables then when I walked the streets of both Stockholm and Oslo recently. As Advokat Hellers remarked, "it was, and is, like drinking water."

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In contrast, attendance at the former State Churches in Sweden has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared: I was told by the priest of a large Lutheran Church in central Stockholm that, other than around Christmas, church attendance at the Sunday weekly service number about 20 (no typo) parishioners. According to the sexton of the very architecturally impressive Engelbrekt Lutheran Church, also in Stockholm, which has a seating capacity of 1400, there are about 30 parishioners who attend services on any given Sunday, except at Christmas. To attract more parishioners, this Church, which is often thought to be Catholic because of the altar crucifix and icons present, offers programs, concerts, and other forms of entertainment to attract parishioners, but with little apparent success. The former State Church has been described as “spiritually dead.” In St. Johannes Swedish Lutheran church, there is a Catholic altar, replete with Polish, Vatican, and Swedish flags; a weekly Catholic Mass is also celebrated, attended by Polish and Croatian immigrants living in the area. One “estimate” is that one in three Catholic priests in Sweden today is of a Polish family background.

The impact of Luther’s break with the papacy was to have major, and unforeseen, consequences. A writer of Scandinavian history opined, “…the Reformation was a more important cultural and social force than the Renaissance.” Then this: ”Something deep within the Scandinavian psyche embraced Lutheranism to a far greater extent than it had been embraced in the land of its birth.” Perhaps…but it is beyond cavil that Lutheranism was a top to bottom political and religious movement in Scandinavia. The latter would not likely succeeded as quickly and thoroughly without the former.

One of those unforeseen consequences occurred in 17th century Scandinavia: when Luther sundered Christendom, it allowed the monarch, especially Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus, “the warrior king” (and Queen Christina's father), to assume the unprecedented political power to confiscate Church property, similar to what Henry VIII had done in England the previous century.  But what of the remnants of the Catholic Church’s authority and influence in Scandinavia after Luther’s break? Here Fr. Lindstrom filled in some blank spaces.

Father Lindstrom began by claiming that "the loss of Faith," although evident in much of the Western world, is far greater in Scandinavia. He added, and here one can also project his answer to all of Scandinavia, "Religion is considered to be a private thing, an opinion, and has no place in the public square." As to why and when this attitude began to develop noticeably within Swedish society - and recall Sweden's dominant position in Scandinavia - Fr. Lindstrom said this: it was Luther's new Church, now "a worldly power, without its supernatural foundation" that began this trend toward total secularization. (See my review of Reformations; The Remnant, May 15, 2018) But there was, the Padre added, a further dimension: Freemasonry.

Since there was no Catholic Church to attack, Fr. Lindstrom's believes that many of the Swedish kings, who were Freemasons, were not very dedicated Lutherans either, which increased the secularizing trend, but the real decline of the Lutheran Church in Sweden, and one could add all of Scandinavia, was the emergence of a religiously hostile political movement in the 1930s; in Sweden's case, the coming to power of the Social Democrats, the same party that seeks to abolish all private school in Sweden today, and has basically ruled the country for the past 80 years. Now it becomes more interesting.

Shortly after their victories in the 1930s, the Social Democrats sought to use the Official Swedish Church to advance the party's agenda, and with time and effort, they succeeded, so much so that the party now is able to appoint the bishops of the Church, including the Church's current female Archbishop. In short, the Church of Sweden has become an appendage of the major political party; according to Fr. Lindstrom, it still is. In the 1960s, the curtain fell on even the most tenuous form of religious observance, when the folke skola (people's school), centuries old, whose day began with opening Lutheran prayers and Bible readings, were abolished. That factor, along with the virtual monopoly of political power by the Social Democrats, has led to an accelerated downward descent for religion in Sweden ever since.

On a personal note, Fr. Lindstrom described in some detail his conversion, which had no real impact on his parents or younger brother. But then he added this: "If I was going to convert, I wanted the True Catholic Church, and not the modern or ecumenical one, where priests say, 'You don't have to convert..." He added, "The whole world is missionary territory, some more than others, but there are few true Catholic places in the world. People do not want a void in their lives; they want serious answers to serious questions, especially after they become parents. That is when they decide to become Catholic, the need to find something solid to base your life on." It is the Catholic "claim to Truth" which has the effect of bringing people to the Church, he maintaied. "The true Sweden is Catholic Sweden."

Another surprise: in Sweden, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to donate to your favorite religious charity, for all "charity" comes from the State from taxes. Such laws make the work of the SSPX, which depends on donations, difficult, but  not impossible.

Not a surprise, however, is the abortion issue. Fr. Lindstrom:  "There are some pro-life people, but not many, but the Lutheran Churches in Norway and Sweden, (and Denmark) take no stand on that matter," which is, of course, simply agreeing with the abortionists. Although there is no current equivalent of a Planned Parenthood in Sweden receiving governmental largesse, the Scandinavian health system does not appear to offer any serious counseling to prevent abortion. Supposedly, there are restrictions after the 18th week of pregnancy, but as the Swedish law proclaims: "According to Swedish abortion law, it’s the right of the pregnant women to decide on abortion." In Norway, "fetal reduction" allows the destruction of one of two twins, even if it is perfectly healthy. Abortion in Denmark was fully legalized in 1973, allowing the procedure to be done on-demand if a woman's pregnancy has not exceeded its twelfth week. According to the law of Denmark, the patient must be over the age of 18 to decide on an abortion alone; parental consent is required if she is a minor.

On the issue of Muslim immigration, and its potential of affecting Christian beliefs, Fr. Lindstrom's response was both telling and witty: "I believe that the Swedes and Christians in the West are doing a very good job of abandoning Christian beliefs on their own." He added that the historical competition within religious groups in the public forum in Sweden was always Christian versus atheists; now, you add a Muslim dimension, which makes the Christian role even more endangered, but this time on a permanent basis. "Muslims  are beginning to have a great presence in the public forum and weight behind their demands." 

Currently, Fr. Lindstrom posited that he, "...was beginning to suspect that Swedish politicians are afraid (emphasis mine) to upset them, (Muslims) and gave this example: south of Stockholm, the police (probably under orders) recently allowed Muslim announcements from the minaret of a mosque to be amplified all over a town. Ten years earlier, a request to use the bells in a Catholic Church for similar purposes in the same town was denied. There is no doubt that political correctness in dealing with Muslims in Europe now prevents any form of denial to most, if not all, Muslim demands, a situation, by the way, that does not apply to Christians in Muslim countries. 

In conclusion: "We of the Christian faith are abandoning it all on our own, and Muslim immigration will make that harder to change..." Then this: "I believe that sharia law will become part of Sweden."

This perspective that does not bode well for the West, but what of the Novus Ordo Catholic Churches in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm? How do they see the current and future plight of the Catholic Church in Scandinavia?

Part II will appear in the next Print Edition (July 31) of The Remnant Newspaper. Subscribe Today!

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Last modified on Saturday, July 21, 2018
Vincent Chiarello | Remnant Columnist

Born on the Day of St. Patrick in 1937 in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was a high school history teacher until 1970, when he entered the U.S. Foreign Service. His overseas assignments included U.S. embassies in Colombia, Guatemala, Spain, Norway and Italy; his last assignment was to the U.S. Embassy to The Holy See. He is married to Cynthia (nee Goldsmith) and has three children. They attend a Traditional Latin Mass in Northern Virginia.