The Bishop of Stockholm receives the red hat on Wednesday 28 June 2017

Last time I met Bishop Anders Arborelius, we were toasting the canonisation of Mother Elisabeth Hesselblad, the Bridgetine nun who brought the order back to Sweden in the 19th century after its suppression following the Reformation. When I meet him now, he is preparing to receive the red hat at a consistory of cardinals in Rome on June 28.

When he was appointed Bishop of Stockholm in 1998, the Carmelite priest became the first ethnic Swedish bishop since the Reformation. This month he will become the first cardinal in Swedish history.

He tells me that his appointment as cardinal is significant not only for him, but for all Swedish Catholics, who are a tiny minority in the largely Lutheran country. It’s special “because we are not used to cardinals in our part of the world, and people think it is very thrilling and somehow it shows that the Holy Father is interested in us.” He says it’s as if Pope Francis was telling Swedish Catholics that “you are also important in a secular, pluralistic country as a minority”.

We speak about the possibility of a Swedish Lutheran ordinariate. As readers will know, in 2009 Benedict XVI set up a personal ordinariate for Anglicans. But Bishop Arborelius thinks it would be difficult to set up a similar structure in Sweden for Lutherans. “There are no entire parishes,” he points out. “There are some people who are interested to convert, and every year there are some. But I don’t think there are enough people to form an ordinariate.”

Furthermore, he is wary of a “double jurisdiction”, with the ordinariate running alongside the Diocese of Stockholm (the country’s only Catholic diocese). He notes that when a large group of Lutherans from the Berget retreat house in Rättvik converted, they were content to be received into the ordinary Catholic Church in Sweden.

There is no official dialogue between the Lutheran Church and the Swedish Catholic Church. But there is a lot of cooperation through the Christian Council of Sweden, and the bishop believes this form of ecumenism can at times be more fruitful than the bilateral type. While there are many local initiatives – for example, in Lund, “where they have common Vespers, once in the Lutheran cathedral, once in the Catholic church” – the diverse views found within the Lutheran Church can make dialogue on dogmatic or ethical questions difficult. Bishop Arborelius says he’d not be against starting such discussions, but he also sees great benefits from “spiritual ecumenism”, where people come together for prayer.

The Catholic Church in Sweden may be small, but it is growing rapidly. The main reason is immigration. But challenges remain. The bishop says the main one is transmitting the faith to the younger generation.

“Maybe many of them remain members, but they are not active in the Catholic Church,” he says. “You can see the tendency that many Catholics in the second generation have the same relationship to their church as Protestants. They belong to it, they receive baptism, sometimes they are married and buried, but they have missed the deeper sacramental spirituality within the Catholic Church.” We should not complain though, he argues, because people attend Mass regularly on Sundays “even if it is 10 to 20 per cent of registered Catholics. Compared to other religious bodies, it is quite good. We have to work for even more spiritual conversion among our Catholics in Sweden, and integrate them into the real sacramental life of the Church.”

We discuss another group of immigrants to Sweden in recent years: Muslims. There are no bilateral relations as such between the Catholic and Islamic communities. But connections are being made through the Inter-religious Council of Sweden.

“As a whole there is a harmonious way of cooperating between the various religions, but there is no deeper religious dialogue with Islam,” Bishop Arborelius says. “It is more on social issues, against terrorism, and issues like that. Inter-religious dialogue is functioning on that human, social level.

“But it is not so easy to come to this deeper religious dialogue. We can speak about various issues that are common in society, but to speak about our belief in God and what that means on the spiritual level is not always so easy.”

Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a postgraduate student at Uppsala University

This article first appeared in the June 16 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here