If you were to see a brochure from a Catholic travel company advertising a trip to a country with some of the world’s most gorgeous medieval Catholic churches, a roster of legendary saints, and a spring of healing water, what country would you suppose they were promoting? France? Portugal? We’re going to guess that Sweden would not be one of the countries that came to mind – and with good reason!
After all, this is a country where only 1.5% of the population is Catholic. A country with only one Catholic bishop and a smattering of traveling Catholic priests to cover 44 parishes. A country in which a European court ruled that a woman may not become a midwife unless she is willing to participate in an abortion.
But this wasn’t always so!
“During medieval times, Sweden was a very developed Catholic country, especially after St. Brigid’s death until the Reformation,” says Ulf Silfverling, Executive Editor of Katolsk Observator, one of a small number of magazines for Swedish Catholics. “We have a treasure trove of well-preserved medieval churches with fantastic alfresco paintings where you can almost see the whole Bible. What this tells us about the Catholic faith in Sweden is not well-known, even among Europeans!”
Silfverling, who recently visited EWTN in the hopes of starting a Catholic television station in his country, has made it his mission to find and photograph Sweden’s amazing Catholic past in the hopes of restoring its Catholic future.
Silfverling says that the prejudiced secular media likes to portray Catholicism as a backward immigrant church which is only now arriving on their shores. Yet he has thousands of photographs to back up his claim that the Catholic Church was an integral part of his country’s history. So what happened?
“We didn’t have Napoleon or the French revolution,” he says. “We didn’t have the first and second World Wars so a lot of the medieval art and architecture was preserved.” Instead, there was the Reformation and what Silfverling calls “the great secularization.”
As a consequence of the Reformation, Silfverling says “the King commanded that church frescoes be whitewashed;” in other cases, frescoes on church walls were destroyed when windows were installed. While Silfverling says the people didn’t want to do this, they did. Fortunately, the whitewash ended up protecting the images, as did the fact that most of these churches had no heat.
The churches themselves were taken over by the Church of Sweden, a branch of Lutheranism. Fortunately, they did not destroy all the statues. Instead, they placed some of them in church basements.
Catholics today would be amazed to visit Sweden’s beautiful medieval “Lutheran” churches. Says Silfverling: “Most Lutherans would not be comfortable with the saints and Mary, yet Swedish churches are filled with such images. They don’t know what a tabernacle is so they put a stone or a candle inside. But we have Lutheran churches with votive lights!”
Like the Catholic Church, Sweden’s Lutheran Church has experienced a great decline in numbers; Silfverling also says it has become very secularized. “It’s more or less a social institution,” he said. “Most Lutherans here only go to church for weddings and funerals.”
Yet many of them hunger to know God and they are turning to the Catholic Church to find Him. How does Silfverling know that? Because most of the readers of the Katolsk Obervator, Silfverling’s magazine, are Lutheran! “There is an interest in the Catholic faith and life among many who formerly belonged to the Lutheran Church,” he says.
Meanwhile, it is Catholics like Silfverling who keep the Church and her history alive. In addition to the great St. Brigid and the recently canonized St. Mother Elizabeth, Silfverling delights in telling the stories of lesser known Swedish Catholic saints like St. Botvid and St. Romfar – saints whose histories help tell the story of Catholicism in Sweden.
For example, St. Botvid converted to Catholicism following a trip to England. After his return to Sweden, the future saint began preaching and baptizing, much to the consternation of many of his countrymen. Eventually, a servant killed him. Although St. Botvid was buried in a small, out-of-the-way church, his brother vowed to honor him by building a much larger church in his name, which can still be seen on the road to Stockholm.
Here’s where things get interesting. Silfverling said he was told that once that larger church was built, St. Botvid’s remains had to be exhumed and his coffin carried to the new church. However, the coffin was too heavy to carry without the pallbearers resting the casket on the ground. This they did, exactly two kilometers from the old church. According to Swedish oral tradition, which is very strong, a spring of pure, clean, cold water immediately gushed from the ground. As in Lourdes, France, many healings reportedly occurred when people walked into these waters.
Silfverling wondered if this was true so he went looking for this spring using the exact measurements he was given. Lo and behold, he found that spring! However, because there are no signs, most visitors would never discover it.
Silfverling also loves telling the story of St. Romfar. Although some of the stories about this 13th Century Swede may be the stuff of legends, they convey a sense of who this man was to his countrymen. St. Romfar was converted abroad and became a priest. It is said that he returned to Sweden with a beautiful chalice. Because his would-be parishioners were not yet Christianized, Father Romfar feared the chalice would be stolen. So he announced: “Whoever steals this will be hanged.” Some days later, the chalice was stolen. When the priest questioned the people, they told him to look in his backpack. It was there and so, the story goes, they hanged him. Today, in Sweden, there is beautiful church named after St. Romfar, as well as an association.
A few weeks ago, Silfverling traveled all the way to Irondale, Alabama from Sweden with his wife. His initial goal is to start an EWTN affiliate in his country. Even though EWTN provides extensive satellite coverage, relatively few cable TV operators in Europe carry the Network as they consider that, in the highly secularized environment which prevails in Western Europe, Catholic religious programming would have a very limited following.
“Such is the case in the Nordic countries where Christians of many traditions have been falling away from their faith,” Silfverling said. “However, with many Catholic immigrants coming to live in the Nordic countries, and the increasing interest in Catholicism, we founded the Saint Romfar Association (SRA) whose sole purpose is to provide a Swedish “node” for making a selection of EWTN programs subtitled in the Swedish language available either by broadcast and/or through its website. We also plan to produce programs, news, interviews, and liturgy at the local level for viewers in Sweden, and also in other countries, who want to know more about how Catholics in Sweden are living out their faith.”
We wish Silfverling much success and hope he succeeds in bringing more Catholics to his homeland.
“There’s a lot for a Catholic to discover,” he said, “if only you know where to look!”