A Catholic Revival in Northern Europe

Northern Europe has become one of the world’s least religious regions. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has legalized same-sex “marriage” and said that he opposes abortion. . .after twenty weeks of pregnancy. A decade ago, Scandinavian Christian Democrats, whose national flags contain crosses, opposed including references to Christianity’s role in European culture in the European Constitution’s preamble. In today’s Britain and Scandinavia, laissez-faire morality is the reigning political dogma and religious apathy is the dominant worldview.

At the same time, the state churches of the region have retained some social importance. In Britain, the queen remains head of the Church of England, while Anglican bishops are peers in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, polls consistently show that levels of trust in the Lutheran Church are high in Scandinavia. Most Scandinavians are baptized, married (if they marry – over  half of births are to non-married couples), and buried by state churches. In Sweden, most families light Advent candles and St. Lucy’s Day processions remain popular.

André Malraux predicted that the 21st century would be religious, or it would not be at all. Sociologists note that, even in secularized societies, people thirst for things spiritual. Despite the aforementioned social and cultural visibility of Protestantism in Northern Europe, however, the Lutheran and Anglican Churches there are dying. British sociologists predict that practicing Anglicans will soon meet the fate of the Dodo and woolly mammoth, falling from 800,000 to just 50,000 by mid-century (Episcopalians face similar disastrous prospects in North America). In Sweden, 4 percent of Lutherans attend services regularly, while the corresponding figures in Norway and Finland are below 2 percent.

By contrast, the Catholic Church is experiencing a mini-renaissance in Northern Europe. There are currently more practicing Catholics than Anglicans in Britain. In Scandinavia, there are about 600,000 Catholics, roughly 3 percent of the region’s population (a proportion similar to that of Catholics in Asia). Certainly, part of this has to do with immigration. Since the European Union expanded to include less prosperous former East Bloc states in 2004, Scandinavia and the British Isles have been deluged by immigrants from the Catholic nations of Poland (2.2 million Poles have left their country in the past decade), Slovakia, Croatia, and Lithuania.

While Mass is celebrated in Polish or Serbo-Croatian across Northern Europe, the region’s indigenous population is also being drawn to the Catholic Church. In the past decade, the number of British seminarians has grown fourfold. This cannot be explained by immigration (young Polish immigrants who enter seminary usually go home) or by short bursts of enthusiasm, such as that after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2010, as this upward tendency has been ongoing for ten years.

Currently, Scandinavia is one of the most vocations-rich regions in the Northern Hemisphere. The Church has 103,000 members in Sweden and 17 seminarians. By contrast, the Archdiocese of Vienna has thirteen times as many faithful but fewer than twice as many men studying to be priests.

A St. Lucy's Day celebration in Sweden
A St. Lucy’s Day celebration in Sweden

In 2009, the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux traveled across Britain, attracting the largest English pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. Young British Catholics are creating new initiatives such as the annual St. John Paul II Walk pilgrimage. The sacrament of reconciliation is making a comeback in the Isles: the number of British Catholics attending confession has mushroomed by two-thirds since 2010.

In Scandinavia, the Neocatechumenal Way – a mission-focused community founded by Spanish painter Kiko Argüello – is playing a key role in evangelization. Denmark, a country with just 40,000 Catholics, has 18 Neocatechumenal seminarians, while Finland, with just 10,500 Catholics, has 15. Meanwhile, a growing number of Scandinavians are becoming nuns; their number has inched up to 680. Cloistered orders are particularly successful in attracting new members. There is one nun for 880 Catholics in the region; in the United States, the corresponding number is one per 1,400. However, the number of American nuns is rapidly declining, while female religious are growing in Scandinavia.

Northern Europe is proving to be fertile ground for converts. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI created the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, allowing Anglican priests to cross the Tiber. Since then, many Anglican clerics, frustrated with Canterbury’s eschewing of tradition, have done so. Scandinavian converts are hoping that the Vatican will create a similar ordinariate for Lutherans. Meanwhile, one of Scandinavia’s best-known Christian leaders – charismatic pastor Ulf Ekman – recently converted to Catholicism along with his wife. He said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best book he has ever read.

Northern Europe is clearly one of the world’s most Godless regions. Yet, at the same time, the Catholic Church, while a minority denomination, is experiencing a revival that only Counterreformation popes could have dreamed of. There is an important lesson to be drawn from this.

As Christ said, His followers are to be the salt of the earth. The Lutheran and Anglican Churches have long lost their taste. Other than some fading rituals, they have become largely indistinguishable from the broader secular culture. The fact that the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm is a practicing lesbian perhaps best epitomizes what has happen to Northern European Protestantism. Catholicism has always been countercultural, and while political climates and intellectual currents have changed, it has retained its belief in one moral truth. Despite the pressures by some Catholics, the Church has remained steadfast in its proclamation of truth even while that truth has been unpopular.

Many have jokingly said that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer. Today, the Church of England and Lutheran churches are secularism at prayer. From teachings on life and marriage to women’s ordination, Northern European Protestant churches have made it seem that morality is something changeable. This makes such churches seem less credible. Yet spiritually hungry hearts like Ulf Ekman and the ex-Anglicans Catholic priests want something more. They want a Church more interested being coherent in its teaching than in receiving praise in the New York Times.

Filip Mazurczak

Filip Mazurczak

Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the European Conservative. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, Crisis Magazine, and many others.

  • Ib

    I suppose all the older comments are gone the way of all bits …

    • Brad Miner

      Bear with us. Tonight is our “shakedown cruise” on the new site. Soon all comments will be restored to the site. -Brad Miner

  • James Ullman

    The numbers and percentages do not represent the true facts. Rather than great numbers of English C of E parishioners or Scandinavians Lutherans being converted – most of the increases are coming from Polish or other Eastern European Roman Catholics emigrating to Britain or the Scandinavian countries.

    • Howard

      To quote the article: “Certainly, part of this has to do with immigration. Since the European
      Union expanded to include less prosperous former East Bloc states in
      2004, Scandinavia and the British Isles have been deluged by immigrants
      from the Catholic nations of Poland (2.2 million Poles have left their
      country in the past decade), Slovakia, Croatia, and Lithuania.”

      Don’t say an article is not presenting the truth when it says the same thing you say, but actually in more detail.

      • AugustineThomas

        He was too busy denouncing the article to read it!

  • gigi4747

    “the Catholic Church, while a minority denomination,”

    Good and encouraging article, but the Catholic Church is not a denomination; it’s a church. It’s the Protestant world that is fractured into countless denominations.

    Would be wonderful to see an arrangement for Lutheran pastors similar to that available to Anglican priests who want to enter the Church.

    • chesterlab

      I think your sentiment on absorbing Lutheran pastors into the church of Rome will be a long time in coming. When I was an Anglican I revered Luther as the man who freed us from the yoke of Rome, the man who ushered in the modern age, the man who paved the way for America to exist. As time went on and I saw how splintered the protestant church had become, particularly the evangelicals, I began to look to Rome as a stable influence in my life. I began to wonder, “was Luther right or did he make a tremendous mistake?” When I finally decided to convert to Catholicism, I was shocked at how much resentment the Catholics had for Luther, whom they view as an evil and vulgar priest, and a heretic. I struggled for half of my RCIA classes, reading and re-reading the history of the Reformation, and locking horns with my priest on a regular basis. Thank God he was patient! I read Luther’s works over and over during my catechism classes and I have to say that although I may not believe he was “evil,” I wish he, Jean Calvin and of course, Henry VIII of England had tried to work within the framework of the Catholic church for change, rather than make a total break from the Church. My ancestors were caught right in the middle of the English Reformation, and I was raised with the usual prejudices against Catholics. Looking back on English Reformation now, I believe King Henry VIII of England probably did more damage to the Roman church and helped seal the schism between the two groups more than anyone. Of course Henry’s reasons for breaking with Rome were self serving and, in my opinion, evil, and his razing and looting of the English monasteries, killing or disbursing priests, and forcing his subjects to swear an oath of allegiance to him over the Roman church still sticks in my craw. But even King Henry, the consummate Catholic (ironically), was influenced by Luther. It seems unlikely that the RC church would give the Lutherans a pass now. Please know that I am not making a judgment on Lutheranism, because I’ve been to Lutheran churches that are more Anglican than some Episcopal churches I’ve attended. It is just an observation on my part.

      • Jim

        Many “high church” Anglicans believe they are Catholic theologically. Lutherans, historically anyway, believe Catholic theology is of the Anti-Christ. This makes it sort of tough to make an ordinariate for them. There are former Lutheran Pastors who have been given the exception as individuals and are now Western Rite Roman Catholic Priests…with their wives and all.

        • chesterlab

          Yes, Jim. I would agree with you-or so I thought that Anglicans believed they were theologically catholic-until i decided to convert to Catholicism. Wow! That was the shock of my life. My Anglican parish thought I was walking into the pit of hell when I made my decision. And the funny thing is that the liturgy is so similar that even though I joined a Latin Rite church, it wasn’t a stretch for me to become catholic. There are doctrinal differences of course, and all of my Anglican friends told me I was making a mistake. My priest tried to talk me out of it, my bishop was upset. And I lost ALL of my evangelical friends, save one who married a roman catholic.
          Actually, I think Anglicans are split into two camps. There are those who are evangelical and low church, and then there are the high church Anglicans who do have sympathies to Rome-but not enough to want to join with her.

      • FRP

        For America to exist?! It was the Spanish who conquered America and evangelised it!

  • Cestius

    I live in a rural part of England, “Cromwell country” which has little history of Catholicism since the Reformation, but the Catholic Churches seem to be doing well here with congregations slowly growing and lots of young people. Not just boosted by immigration, but also by a considerable number of converts. Catholicism still seems to be in decline in the bigger towns where there have in the past been a lot more Catholics, but I think that that is largely down to people who went purely out of habit dying off/giving up.

  • MichaelVMcGuirk

    The Catholic Church is not a denomination. The Catholic Church is the only Church established by Jesus Christ. All others are denominations

    • chesterlab

      Don’t tell that to the Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic or Oriental Orthodox folks. And BTW, the Armenians converted as a nation to Christianity in 301AD, before Constantine had even thought about converting. And the Armenians have been continuously devout Christians for 1700 years now. Check out Holy Etchmiadzin some time.

      • AugustineThomas

        Those churches all split from the One True Church. They’re schismatic.
        Christ only founded one Church. He gave authority over it to St. Peter, who founded the Holy See in Rome.

        • John Clare

          There is no proof that St Peter founded the Roman see. He may have gone to Rome, and been martyred there, but that is not the same thing. If Christ had given authority over the whole church to the bishop of Rome, he would have said so.

          • AugustineThomas

            Yes there is. St. Peter and several other of the early Church Fathers acknowledge St. Peter as having been given primacy by Christ and they refer to him always as teaching from Rome.

            You must deny St. Paul himself if you want to deny the One True Church.

            Please repent, leave behind your Protestant sect which is just as wrong as all 40,000 other Protestant sects, and return to the only Church that Christ founded. The keys to the kingdom are a direct reference to the giving of authority. It is clear that Christ wants ONE physical Church and chose one leader of it, St. Peter, who passed on primacy down to Pope Francis. (And, no, Christ never promised that popes would be perfect, just like he makes it very clear that the first pope, St. Peter, is far from perfect.)

    • John Clare

      That is a statement with no proof at all, filled with the arrogance of pride. The Orthodox Church has a better claim, and the Roman Catholic Church broke away from it.

      • MichaelVMcGuirk

        I’m not trying to be arrogant. I’m just telling the truth. Have you read the Church Fathers (writings from Christians from the first few centuries)?

        “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church [Letter to the Smyrnaeans(c. A.D. 107)]. -St. Ignatius of Antioch, who lived from ~ A.D. 35-107. He was the third bishop of Antioch and tradition records that he was a disciple of St. John the Apostle.

        “Fly to the Catholic Church! Adhere to the only faith which continues to exist from the beginning, that faith which was preached by Paul and is upheld by the Chair of Peter.” -St. Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236)

        “There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock [St. Peter] by the word of The Lord. Another altar cannot be constituted nor a new priesthood be made, except the one altar and the one priesthood. Whosoever gathers elsewhere, scatters.” -St. Cyprian of Carthage [Letters 39:5(A.D. 251)].

        “But what is also to the point, let us note that the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian” -St. Athanasius (296 A.D.-373 A.D.)

        “[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called ‘Catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5 [A.D. 397]). – St. Augustine

        • John Clare

          Yes, I accept that Christ founded the Catholic, or universal, Church, but I do not identify it with the Roman Church. The rock on which the Church is founded is not St Peter, but Christ himself.

  • Petr

    I would not be so optimistic with the conversion of Protestants, because liberal ecumenism undermines this effort. Pope Francis on board of airplane from Turkey, “uniatism is a dated word, another solution needs to be found”. From this flows: For Lutherans no next ordinariate. I am afraid that we have a problem at home.

    • chesterlab

      Not all catholics are liberal novus ordo types. I am a traditional catholic who used to be a traditional anglican and well, what’s the point of remaining with them? We celebrate latin mass, low and high. Our RCIA classes were taught with the Baltimore Catechism. The choir (I am in the choir so I know this) sings Gregorian Chant and polyphony for high mass. We women also wear mantillas. I became a traditional catholic because protestants and novus ordo catholics are too liberal. And the evangelicals -all they want to do is have rock concerts on Sundays.

    • chesterlab

      Well, Peter, I keep praying, and it is in God’s hands in the end.

  • Lynn

    is there a Neocatechumanal Way in Gothenburg?

  • Bronxbabe

    I am praying for everyone in Europe to join the Catholic Church, come home its time…

  • FRP

    Anglicans are not Protestants, just ask the High Anglicans who celebrate Mass!

    • James Hart

      FRP: High Anglicans appear to have the same beliefs on morality that their very liberal Protestant brethren have, therefore, they are no different from the Protestants. The use of incense, vestments, and the sign of the cross does NOT make one a Catholic. A belief in ALL of the things that the Catholic Church teaches, about morality and theology, is what makes one a Catholic. Don’t delude yourself.

      • FRP

        I have been to a High Anglican Mass and Low-Church service, which are quite distinct. The High Anglican Mass was just the same as the RC Mass to me, adoration of the Virgin, blessing oneself, incense and more effigies, whereas the Low Church does not have that. That is one reason why the High Church Anglicans have move so easily to the Roman Church in swathes.