Pentecost retreats strengthen Sweden’s spiritual ecumenism
Lutheran bishop and Catholic cardinal host online ‘Quiet Days’ in second edition of ‘A Spiritual Dwelling for God’
(LWI) - The spirit of Pentecost is alive and accessible online in Sweden, where hundreds of people are taking part in weekly ecumenical retreats hosted by the Lutheran Bishop of Uppsala Karin Johannesson, and the Catholic Bishop of Stockholm Cardinal Anders Arborelius.
The initiative began last year when the two church leaders invited people to join four ‘Quiet Days’ of reflection and prayer, beginning on the eve of Pentecost. The idea came to Bishop Johannesson one day, during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she contacted the cardinal asking if he would be willing to organize the virtual event with her.
Some 600 Christians from different denominations signed up to receive the Scripture readings, music, video and prayer resources last year, confirming the bishops’ belief that “during the pandemic, people were becoming more open, more eager to find God.” In an interview with the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches, the two leaders shared perspectives and hopes for the success of this second edition of ‘A Spiritual Dwelling for God’.
Tell us about the background to the first retreat you organized together last year?
KJ: I had the idea during morning prayer one day and I emailed the cardinal because I wanted it to be an ecumenical retreat. We had met over the years and I had already taken part, with other members of the Church of Sweden, in several retreats where the cardinal preached. So, you could say we had been silent together a lot!
AA: Yes, we have had connections through the years, but we hadn’t done something so special together, because it was a very original idea from Bishop Karin. It is also good to understand the background here in Sweden, where I would say that spiritual ecumenism is the most dynamic part of the ecumenical movement, with so many common events and common prayer groups.
What sort of audiences are you attracting to these Quiet Days?
AA: I think there are more people from the Lutheran church as most Catholics in Sweden are from other countries so it might be a bit difficult for them to join. Most are ordinary Swedish church goers from various denominations, also from the Free Churches, because at the level of spirituality they are happy to go to a Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal or Lutheran event. For many, the denomination is not so important as long as they feel they can get some spiritual nourishment and come closer to each other.
KJ: Most people are coming from Sweden, although this year we are translating the material into English and Spanish as well. This year, over 300 people signed up to receive the material and they also came from the U.S, Finland, Germany, Norway, the U.K., the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Belgium, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Italy and the Philippines.
Last year you were responding to the fears and uncertainty about the pandemic - what is the focus of your reflections this year?
AA: There has been so much concentration on the pandemic because that’s what people speak about all the time but we tried to open up their spiritual perspective and help them to realize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in this time of Pentecost. The news can be a bit of an obsession so we wanted to open up their spiritual life by concentrating on the Good News instead.
KJ: Last year, we made a film for each Saturday and focused more on preaching, but this year we wanted to engage in a dialogue instead to encourage people reflect on the need for dialogue with God and with other human beings. We don’t try to agree on things but come with our own perspectives and try to be ourselves.
Catholic Bishop of Stockholm Cardinal Anders Arborelius and Lutheran Bishop of Uppsala Karin Johannesson. Photo: Magnus Aronson
The retreats are free, but you encourage contributions that go towards the restoration of a Catholic and a Protestant monastery – do you know how much you have raised?
AA: No, we do not know the numbers because we don’t have the same culture of donations that you have in other countries and people think it is ugly to speak about money. But it is good for them to know about these religious communities. Many Catholics do not know that there are also Lutheran nuns, so we can show we have more in common than people think.
The joint commemoration of the Reformation with Pope Francis and LWF leaders took place in Sweden in 2016 – how has the ecumenical scene changed in recent years?
AA: The Catholic church is growing due to immigration and over the past years we have been able to buy a few Lutheran churches, showing that when there is no possibility to keep up a church, they are keen that it should remain a church. For many years now, we are using more than a hundred Lutheran churches and this creates a special kind of ecumenism when people come to the same church. There is no official theological dialogue between the Church of Sweden and the Catholic church but we have an ecumenism of ordinary life and spiritual sharing, as well as around social issues, such as justice for migrants and the sustainability of nature.
KJ: I think Sweden is quite unique when it comes to spiritual ecumenism: when I went to a seminar in Wittenberg recently, I realized that in Germany and Finland they are interested in dogmatics and history, in the U.S. there is a focus on family life and mixed marriages, but we mainly pray and do things together. I hope there will be a theological dialogue in the future, maybe focused on this shared spirituality.
What do you hope will be the lasting legacy of these shared retreats?
KJ: It is very inspiring to see something like this grow. We don’t have to sit and hope for dialogues to begin, we can start something ourselves. It is also interesting to meet people and hear other perspectives about our country, or to share different ways of seeing spiritual issues. People also read about this, so when I visit parishes in Uppsala, I meet Catholics who are joining our celebrations and this creates friendships. We hope people will see that we are brothers and sisters and feel encouraged about that.
AA: Every dialogue about God is important for us to see that we can come closer to God through each other. In an individualistic society like ours, it is good to see that we can help each other to grow closer to God. We hope we can help people to have courage to speak openly about their faith, even if they belong to different churches. In a country where so many Christians feel isolated among colleagues or friends, we hope they find joy in sharing their experiences and we ask the Lord to bless all those who attend the retreats.