On October 31, Pope Francis is traveling to Sweden in order to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but here at the CNA office, the announcement left us with an itching question- Why Sweden? Didn’t the Protestant Reformation start in Germany? What does the land of lingonberries and modular furniture have to do with Catholic-Protestant relations?

 

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While lovely, an IKEA Midsommar festival isn’t really what comes to mind for “Reformation Day”

Anyone who has read Kristin Lavransdatter will already be familiar with some of the pivotal saints and locations of the Catholic history of Sweden and Scandinavia. Christianity was introduced to the country by the Germanic Archbishop, Saint Ansgar, in 829, and continued to spread throughout the region in the 9th Century – although paganism remained popular in many areas until the 12th Century. In 1008, King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden was baptized as a Christian at Husaby, and remained Sweden’s first Catholic King until his death.

Sweden also boasts to have raised St. Bridget of Sweden, one of the six patron saints of Europe. She was born in 1303, and was married and a mother of eight children, six of whom survived. When her husband died in 1344, shortly after they took a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, she joined the Third Order of St. Francis. Later on, she went to found the Bigittine Order, and ministered, along with one of her daughters, to victims of the plague.

However, tensions between the Catholic Church and the Swedish government erupted during the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation began on October 31, 1517 in Germany, when Martin Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz. Luther, who was at that time an Augustinian monk, wrote protesting the practice of the sale of indulgences, including in his letter the now-famous “Ninety-Five Theses.” Over the next three years, the dispute over indulgences, the sacraments, Mary, salvation and Papal authority between Luther, his bishops and the Pope continued, until in 1920, Luther was given a choice: recant 41 of his public statements or face excommunication. Luther refused to recant, and was excommunicated on January 3, 1521.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a disagreement in 1523 erupted between Gustav I of Sweden and the Pope concerning who could be appointed as the Archbishop of Sweden. When the Pope responded that King Gustav’s election of Johannes Magnus would not be confirmed and that the formerly exiled Gustav Trolle would be re-instated as archbishop, King Gustav started to promote the work of Swedish Lutheran reformers. In 1526, Sweden surpassed Catholic printing presses and Church funds were taken to pay off the country’s debts.

While Lutheranism was adopted as the official religion of Sweden in 1527 and the Catholic Code of Canon Law was abolished in Sweden in 1536, various Swedish kings – some of them Catholic themselves– made attempts to re-Catholicize Sweden and reintroduce Catholic elements to the Lutheran Church in Sweden. During the same time period, however, Catholicism was also banned. At various points, Catholic priests, nuns and laity were often forced with the choice of deportation or execution if they did not renounce the Church and become Protestant.

Swedish church and cemetary

Swedish church and cemetery

In 1781, Catholics from other countries were finally allowed to visit Sweden after the passing of the 1781 Tolerance Act, and in 1860, conversion to Catholicism for Swedes was decriminalize. However, it wasn’t until 1951 that Swedes were officially allowed to leave the Lutheran Church, and it was only in 1977 that Sweden lifted its last ban on Catholic convents and monasteries.

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Today, the Catholic Church is starting to grow considerably in Sweden, mostly due to the immigration of Catholic Christians from the Middle East, and migrants from other Catholic countries such as Sweden, Ireland and Italy. The Church has also gained attention among native Swedes for its clear teachings- the Church’s strong tradition and principles has inspired increasing conversions since the 1980’s, as well as greater dialogue among Swedish Protestant churches and other organizations.