PEREGRINATIONS - Canadian Catholic Perspectives and Reflections by members of the PERSONAL ORDINARIATE OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
Thursday, 22 May 2014
Catholic Ecumenism in Sweden
The following is an account by Matthew J. Milliner, assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College of his visit to Sweden, the remarkable moves to Christian unity and the growth of the Catholic Church there:
It’s 4 a.m. and I’m in an eighteenth-century Swedish castle that has been transformed into an ecumenical monastic community run by Pentecostals. I gather my bags and descend a grand staircase, past family portraits going back generations, past neo-classical statues, past Coptic, Russian, and Greek Orthodox icons—their candles still flickering from the night shift. Then past a well-stocked patristic library, down another enormous flight of stairs, and through a foyer.
. . . . Still making my way to the exit, I pass a picture of influential theologians gathered on the castle steps a century ago. They include Gustaf Aulén, author of Christus Victor, and Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, an ecumenical pioneer who worked with Catholics to revive devotion to Bridget of Sweden, one of Europe’s patron saints. In the same image is the grandmother of the woman whose life, nearly a century later, would be changed by the Jesus People USA and Pentecostal Christians—sufficiently changed that when the Ekman family decided to give up this castle in the 1980s, it was donated to Swedish Pentecostals. Continuing the ecumenical spirit, the castle, now known as Bjärka-Säby, hosts Coptic, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians as well. The precision and beauty of their prayers rival the liturgical exactitude I have witnessed on Mount Athos.
. . . . Two mottos govern: Ora et labora (“pray and work”) and Esse non videri (roughly, “to be and not to be seen”). The man now smiling down a long hallway, gesturing toward me, lives them both. He is Peter Halldorf, Pentecostal minister, renowned writer, and the spiritual leader of the castle. Bearing a white beard, black cassock, and prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, his eyes radiate with life as if he’d been up for hours. He wants to show me something before I depart for my flight.
Down we go into the castle’s basement depths—through yet another hidden passageway—entering the subterranean bakery. “We call it Bethlehem,” Peter proclaims. “The house of bread,” I reply, proud of catching the reference. He pulls out the key and we enter the tiny kitchen. On the table are a Coptic icon of Mary and her son, two candles, and two Swedish Psalters. It is Sunday morning, and two members of the community will shortly be appearing to pray the Psalms while Peter and an assistant bake the Eucharistic bread for that morning’s liturgy.
With a luminous smile, Peter shows me the Coptic Orthodox seals that will shortly be imprinted onto the bread. There are twelve crosses in the center of the seal, eight on the outside and four in the middle. These delineate the holiest area—the Bread of the Lord (Asbodikon). Unlike in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, which uses a ceremonial knife, the Coptic ceremony, emphasizing unity, does not cut the bread—though it is indented and ceremonially pierced five times—once in each corner of the four central crosses, and once in the center, signifying the five wounds of Christ.
. . . outside the pilgrim entrance to the monastery church of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–73) in Vadstena, just an hour drive from Bjärka-Säby. A cousin of the Swedish king, Bridget married at thirteen and bore eight children. Following the death of her husband, the revelations she had received since her youth intensified. Faced with the corruption of the Avignon papacy, she even predicted an eventual Vatican State, foretelling almost the exact boundaries delineated by Mussolini for Vatican City in 1921. Bridget—or Birgitta as she is known in Sweden—left her homeland and travelled to Rome, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, sending back precise instructions for the construction of the monastery I am now entering, known as the “Blue Church” after the unique color of its granite. Birgitta insisted that the abbess, signifying the Virgin Mary, should preside over both nuns and monks.
As we approached the Blue Church I saw some ruins, and braced myself for another case of the stripping of the altars. Like England, Sweden went Protestant during the Reformation. But the Lutheran pastor who met us there was not the steward of an empty shell, but instead oversaw a living devotional site frequented by Protestants and Catholics alike. (It does not hurt that Birgitta’s forceful critique of the papacy led some to see her as proto-Protestant.)
. . . . Although there was some destruction and damage to statues from invading Danish soldiers, most here have survived. We make our way to the still-preserved relics of Birgitta, but are interrupted by a bell. Thirty pilgrims stop to gather in the rear of the church for a Taizé prayer service before a gorgeous Byzantine icon of Christ made by that same Pentecostal painter.
. . . . Martin Luther may have called her die tolle Brigit, “crazy Birgitta,” but there was her body—enclosed in a red casket, now tastefully tended by Lutherans. Nevertheless, leaving Birgitta’s monastery, we visited a recently constructed Benedictine convent populated by onetime Lutheran women who converted en masse to Catholicism. The abbess looked herself like the imposing statue of Birgitta we had just seen. “We converted to build bridges, not to burn them,” she told us matter of factly. She has visited Bjärka-Säby castle several times, and knows Peter Halldorf well. The abbess proudly boasted of the recently acquired relics of Sts. Benedict and Edith Stein—a piece of her veil—installed in the altar at the dedication. After returning home I learned that some of the bridges she hoped to build have already been constructed. My Wheaton College colleague Sarah Borden, an Edith Stein specialist, keeps a relic from the very same veil in her office.
Back at the castle, after a scholarly symposium with Swedish theologians who had gathered for the weekend, the group of us walked the grounds of Bjärka-Säby. Tensions should have been high in this group of Protestant and Catholic scholars. The week before, Sweden’s most influential charismatic pastor, Ulf Ekman (no relation to Hedvig), had announced his plan to convert to Catholicism. The group included the young theologian Benjamin Ekman, Ulf’s son, who preceded his father into the Catholic Church. The group also included Joel Halldorf, a Protestant theologian and son of the Pentecostal abbot.
Adjourning from our walk, we entered the main foyer and saw on the table an article covering Ulf’s conversion, with quotes from Swedish Christian leaders, including some of those present, responding to the news. There were some misquotations and typos, and the group laughed it off. What was causing a scandal for the rest of Swedish Christianity did not so much as ruffle the bonds of these friendships, and while global Christians speculated as to what caused Ulf to convert, those closest to him were reluctant to pry.
. . . . whereas American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep, Swedish Christianity is an inch wide and a mile deep. Never have I seen ecumenical cooperation as I have here. I unfurl a grand analogy: Under secularism’s tectonic pressure, the continents of differing traditions are drifting closer together. As the landmasses merge, some jump to another side, while others remain. But the merging of continents is far more significant than isolated bounds, however athletically impressive. Personal conversions, despite the attention they can generate, are small change compared with the payoff of broader ecclesial union. And toward this goal, Sweden—thanks to the remarkable Bjärka-Säby—seems decades ahead.
. . . .I enter the castle one last time and make my way through the winding hallways to my room, past portraits, past statues and flickering icons. I didn’t know it then, but I was walking over Bethlehem. “And if the priest be skillful and well taught after the elders,” reads one of the Coptic rubrics, “he shall break the Eucharistic loaf (qurbanah) regularly until it be broken yet remain whole, and he shall raise it with his hands broken yet whole, and this is also good.” I pack and sleep. I have to be up at 4 a.m.