The history of the Catholic Church in Sweden

The Catholic mission in Sweden began in the early 800s with the arrival of the monk St. Ansgar. It is probable that there were already small groups of Christians in the country. These perhaps were people who had become Christian in other countries, slaves or tradesmen who had ended up in Sweden. But it is not before the beginning of the 1100s that one can speak of Sweden as a Christian country. In 1164 the Catholic Church in Sweden was organized as an ecclesiastical province. A cathedral was built in Uppsala over the relics of the martyred king Erik (1125-1160). The Church flourished and many international orders established monasteries in Sweden – the Cistercians during the 12th century and the Dominicans and Franciscans in the 13th century. St. Birgitta (1303-1373) founded the Bridgettine convent in Vadstena which became the country’s spiritual hub. She was canonized (declared a saint) in 1391. Sweden was a Catholic country until the early 1500s.

 

The 16th Century

Lutheranism spread during the state under King Gustav Vasa. The king was indebted to the Hanseatic League in Lübeck and needed to settle government debts. At the Diet (Riksdag)    of Västerås in 1527 it was therefore decided that church property should be transferred to the Crown. The bishop Hans Brask of Linköping, resisted and was sent into exile. Relations with Rome were broken and Gustav Vasa became the head of the Swedish Church. During his reign the Catholic Church was replaced by a national Lutheran church in the nation state of Sweden. Catholic institutions were forced to cease their activities. The great monasteries were quickly dissolved; the Bridgettine Sisters were expelled from Vadstena in 1595.

 

The 17th Century

From 1617 onwards, it was forbidden for Swedish citizens to belong to the Catholic Church.If they broke the law the punishment was the death penalty. The Church Law of 1686 stipulated that all Swedish citizens should profess the Evangelical-Lutheran faith, and that those who refused were to be banished from the country. However, it was permissible for foreign Catholics to live in Sweden. This applied primarily to the staff of the embassies of a number of Catholic countries. The daughter of King Gustav II Adolf, Christina, Queen of Sweden, abdicated her throne in 1654 in favor of her cousin Karl Gustav in order to be able to convert to Roman Catholicism and caused a great scandal. She is one of few women buried at the Vatican.  

The 18th Century

Gustav III’s Edict of Tolerance of 1781 allowed foreign Catholics who moved to Sweden to practice their religion freely but the ban on Swedes converting to the Catholic faith remained. In 1783 Pope Pius VI sent the Frenchman Nicolaus Oster to start an Apostolic Vicariate in Sweden.

The 19th Century

The Catholic Church in Sweden had a significant foreign influenceduring this time. A subject of dispute was whether sermons should be held in German, French or Italian.

Since 1873 Swedish citizens have been allowed to belong to the Catholic Church without risking exile. In 1880 about 1,000 Catholics lived in Sweden. The civil rights of Catholics were however curtailed. The last discriminatory laws were repealed in 1951; until then Catholics were not allowed to study or work as teachers, nurses or doctors.

The 20th Century

In the year 1900 about 2,500 Catholics were registered in Sweden. There were Catholic churches in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and Gävle.

In 1953, Sweden became a separate diocese (Catholic Diocese of Stockholm). From 1783 to 1953 the Catholic Church in Sweden had been an Apostolic Vicariate and had come under the jurisdiction of the Pope, or more specifically the Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. But now Johannes Erik Müller was appointed by Pope Pius XII as the first Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm, and the church of St Erik was elevated to Cathedral status. In 1957 Bishop Müller was succeeded by Danish-born Knut Ansgar Nelson who became the secondBishop of the Diocese of Stockholm.

Bishop Nelson resigned in 1962 and was succeeded that year by the American priest John Taylor OMI (Oblates of Mary Immaculate), born in Illinois, USA. Bishop Taylor's tenure was characterized by the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962. After Bishop Taylor's death in 1976 there was a one and a half year-long vacancy.

In 1977 he was succeeded by Bishop Hubertus Brandenburg from Germany. It became Bishop Brandenburg's task to organize and build a church that grew rapidly in membership because of extensive immigration from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latin America and the Middle East and, later, in the 1990s, from the war-torn Balkans. To assist him the English Passionist priest William Kenney was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Stockholm and Vicar General in 1987. Bishop Brandenburg became the first Swedish bishop to welcome a pope John Paul II, to Sweden, in June 1989.

Bishop Brandenburg retired in 1998 and was succeeded by the Carmelite Anders Arborelius.

 

The 21st Century

During the 2000s the membership of the Catholic diocese of Stockholm increased steadily and in 2015 amounted to 113,356 registered members. It is primarily immigrants and refugees coming to Sweden that have contributed to the increase.

There are about 100 conversions to the Catholic Church in Sweden per year and this has been the case for the last decade.

In the 2000s there has been a large influx of Oriental Catholics to Sweden because of the persecution of Christians in Iraq and the war in Syria. A large group of Chaldeans have settledin Södertälje, south of Stockholm, and the diocese has collected money to build a church for them. It should be completed by the end of 2017.