Former Carmelite Monk Heads the Catholic Church in Secular Sweden

The news that Pope Francis had elected Swedish Bishop, Anders Arborelius, to one of the highest positions in the Catholic Church surprised both practicing and non-practicing Christians. It came as a surprise also to Anders Arborelius himself, who received a letter from the Pope asking the Bishop of Stockholm to become one of the 220 Cardinals in the Vatican. Cardinals are senior ecclesiastical leaders and advise the Pope on various issues. One of their duties is to elect the Bishop of Rome when the See becomes vacant.

"I was surprised. I didn´t expect Sweden to be represented by a Cardinal", said Anders Arborelius on May 28, when the news broke. When asked about why the Pope had chosen Sweden, the Bishop pointed to Pope Francis’ strong support of the Church in peripheries.

"We have come to expect Pope Francis to look to those parts of the world that are far away – other Cardinals were named for the first time for Laos and for Mali – so he wants to encourage those minorities scattered all over the world." Arborelius said.

Furthermore, he believes that the Catholic Church’s minority status in Sweden might well have influenced the Pope´s decision.

"I can only guess why he chose Sweden. He might have considered the fact that the Catholic Church is a minority Church in Sweden. Our church is small, and it is surrounded by a highly-secular society. However, we still have a very important mission here, and I strongly believe we will be able to further strengthen the Church."

The Swedish authorities’ liberal attitude to immigration, especially during the Syrian refugee crisis, could also be something that the Pope has taken into account.

"We have been able to integrate many refugees and we know that this is a very important issue for the Pope. We also have a very broad ecumenical dialogue with all the Christian Churches."

Another important issue for Pope Francis is women´s role within the Catholic Church. Women cannot become priests, but the Pope wishes to find new ways to improve women´s opportunities at all levels, and may believe that Sweden could contribute to this end.

Prior to the decision to elect Bishop Anders Arborelius to Cardinal, the Bishop says Pope Francis had shown interest in Sweden´s commitment to greater gender equality in society. The five new Cardinals elected in May were formally elevated at the Vatican on June 28, each one of them assigned a titular Church in Rome.

For Anders Arborelius, a Carmelite monk who has spent approximately 27 years in a monastery, life has changed significantly. In 1998, he was appointed Bishop of Stockholm by former Bishop Hubertus Brandenburg and left the small monastery in Norraby, southern Sweden.

"Yes, the surface of things has changed. But if you consider the inner side of life, it hasn´t. If you are a monk you are dedicated to trying to do God´s will, and if you are a Bishop or a Cardinal, it is the same thing. You try to serve God as well as you can." he says.

When talking to Bishop Anders, one can see he's somewhat reluctant to describe his leadership qualities, saying that this was a task best left to others. He said that when he was just 18-years old he was asked about his dreams and ideas for the future. His answer? Always that he wanted to be "one who serves".

These words (ie ‘one who serves’) can be found no less than three times in the letter that I received from Pope Francis. He stressed that it is not an honour or something glamorous to be elected Cardinal: it is a duty.

So, who was the young person who decided at the early age of 18 that he wanted to serve God and the Church? His name was Anders Arborelius. He was born in Switzerland and started his life in a Catholic clinic. After the family moved to Lund in southern Sweden, his mother and father divorced - something that, surprisingly, did not cause the young man much distress.

"No, it didn´t affect my childhood that much, even though divorces weren´t common in our circles." Arborelius said.

As a student, he studied Latin and modern languages. He wasn´t very outgoing as a student and he describes himself as a “swot”.

"But I wasn´t alone. And I liked traveling. During my trips to different countries, I often visited churches so this is an interest I have had from a very young age. 

Anders Arborelius was baptized and confirmed in the Church of Sweden but later decided to convert at the age of 18.

"I didn´t convert from something to something else. When I was a baby, nuns cared for me. So the Catholic Church has always been present in my life", said the Cardinal.

He wanted to become a priest but came across the story of French Carmelite saint, Therese of Lisieux. He was deeply affected by the story of her life and her desire to serve God and the Church. He decided he wanted to become a monk himself within the Carmelite order, which is characterized by its emphasis on Christian mysticism. Both monks and nuns live their lives in silence and contemplation.  Within the order, there are many female saints that have influenced monasterial life for centuries.

"Women are very important for the Carmelites. In the beginning, the monks were there only to help the women." he said. 

The word ´mysticism´ can give the impression of being something difficult or hard to understand for modern man. However, when the Bishop talks about what mysticism brings to Christianity, one is struck by the simplicity of the concept.

"Christian mysticism contributes to Christianity by making people understand that everyone is able to enjoy an eternal and intimate connection with Jesus Christ and therefore with God." he said.

Anders Arborelius has written several books about the holy men and women within the Carmelite order. Another field of interest for the Bishop is ecumenical work and Christian-Jewish relations. He is the author of a biography on Edith Stein, a Jewish convert and Carmelite nun. Stein was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) and sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis. She died in 1942 and was canonized by Pope Johannes Paulus II in 1998.

Before and during the Second World War, many Germans were spreading anti-Semitism, and, unfortunately, also some church leaders. Some of the leading personalitites in the Catholic Church as Cardinal Von Galen and Prelate Bernhard Lichtenberg opposed Nazism more actively. Some monasteries, especially in Poland, hid Jews during this period.

According to the Bishop, the Church has historically been separated from the State.

"The Church must be Church for the poor, ´the peripheries´, and the vulnerable" he said.

However, some would say that the Church has departed from this position by becoming too powerful and too rich. Where are the poor, the women? What about the rings, the hats, and other symbols of wealth and power?

"It is interesting that you bring up this topic", said the Bishop. "When I was created Cardinal in the Vatican in June, the people who were most eager to kiss my ring were not wealthy people from the West. Instead, they were a group of Christians from China. I saw them standing there, holding a Chinese flag, and they rushed to kiss my ring." he said.

"For them, kissing the ring of a Cardinal is important. Rich people don´t need those symbols, because they already have glamour in their lives. But for the poor, this glamour is important, because they don´t have it." he said.

"Of course, there is always a struggle within the Church about these issues, and there is the temptation to seek power instead of seeking to serve." he continued.  "You have the same struggle in your own life."

The wealth of the Catholic Church can strike you when looking at services from the Vatican. But there is another side to the coin. The first thing Anders Arborelius did after being promoted to Bishop of Stockholm was to visit the congregations in the poorer suburbs of the city.

"The Church belongs there. It belongs in the suburbs, it belongs in the prison. These are the places of the Church, rather than in the Royal castle with the King", he said.

Today, the Catholic Church in Sweden is a growing Church, and it is the influx of immigrants, who often live in the suburbs, that contributes to its growth. But the Church is increasingly relevant also to other groups, said the Bishop.

"I think there is a new kind of openness to religion in today´s society." he said. "People tend to be more interested in religious matters than a decade ago."

For many Swedes, religion is a thing of the past or occupies only a small corner of reality. However, according to the Bishop, faith is not something that belongs to the past or something that belongs in a church building or even to a special part of life. He believes it is possible to lead a life inspired by God every hour of every day.

"Yes. It is possible to reach the sources of mysticism in an everyday life. Even if you are working in a shop or in an office, you can be close to God." he said. 

"I used to illustrate this with the image of a woman who has two children and a newly-started computer firm. She has to manage these two responsibilities. She has her office in one room and her children are in the next room."

He goes on to say that faith is what keeps him going and makes him hopeful.

"There is someone there for us. Life is hard, and sometimes you forget about this. You forget about this. But God does not forget about us.".