Page 2, 28th July 1950

28th July 1950
Page 2

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SIR,-In the double capacity of Catholic (I was received into the Church in Cairo in 1936) and author of a recent book on Sweden, I read with special interest' Mr. John Hennessy's letter on '' Sweden and Catholics " in your issue of July 7. I have visited Sweden six times in all over a decade. and have worshipped in the Catholic churches both in Gothenburg and Stockholm; and in addition I know. the Bridgettine Convents (both at which have English Mother-Superiors) at Vadstena and Djursholm, near Stcrckholm; hut no instances of persecution of Catholics have ever come to my personal knowledge, although, as your article of June 13 makes clear, there remain certain sanctions against them in Government and other spheres which do not redound to the credit of an otherwise highly civilised and benevolent nation.

What is not generally recognised, either by English Catholic visitors or critics or by the preponderating mass of Swedish Lutherans themselves, is that Sweden cannot escape its "Catholicism "; it is as surely signed and identified by it as is this country by its magnificent Catholic cathedrals and historic Norman churches throughout the land, built by devoted Catholic hands and filled by Catholic congregations for five hundred years and more. In Sweden the memorials of that uninvaded Northern land's great rebirth from Paganism into universal Catholicism are still to be found in all their beauty and profound spiritual significance scattered throughout the country.

For the student of history, be he Catholic or not, it is a moving experience during the 3-day inland voyage from the West to toe East coast by the enchanting Gate canal route, when, on approaching Stockholm across Lake Malaren, the wooded shores are passed of Birka. For it was to this small island that the first Christian missionaries to pagan Sweden. Ansgar, Sigfrid the Englishman and St. Sigurd of York, came towards the end of the first millenium of the Christian era bearing the word of Christ to the Viking court of the Svear kings. One hour's steaming beyond Birka (if, instead of continuing to Stockholm, the diminutive steamer did the right about and sailed into the sunset) lies Sigtuna, the later 11th century capital founded by Olof Skotkonung, the first Christian Svea ruler (who, however, from time to time relapsed into paganism and bloody sacrifices). when Baltic pirates were harrying the kingdomSigtuna with its memories of Nicolas Breakspear, "the Apostle of the North," Cardinal of Albana and afterwards Adrian IV, the only English Pope, who came as Papal Legate to the Synod of Sigtuna in 1152 Sigtuna, with its haunted ruins and amazing Romanesque towers of 10th century churches, in whose overgrown precincts I have come across the rune-inscribed graves of Irish monks and missionaries.

" That the Swedish tongue of those days (if a quotation from my book may be permitted) could trot have been difficult for visiting Englishmen to understand is proved by the fact that the reason assigned for the selection of English missionaries to convert the Heathen Svear was the similarity between the speech of the two peoples. indeed it is locally reported to this day that when the English monk Adelsward preached at Sigtuna a thousand years ago ' he was perfectly understood by the inhabitants.' "

But long before arriving in Lake Malaren, on the second afternoon out from Gothenburg. an hour has been spent in Vadsteoa, in Ostergotland, where St. Bridget, " the most remarkable woman of her own age. and for that matter of all time " (as a modern Scandinavian guide-book handsomely puts it). established seven centuries ago a double foundation for monks and nuns, I defy anyone with a sense of atmosphere to enter the superb " Blue Church" at Vadstena, built by the Saint and still perfectly intact after the passage of so many centuries, and not feel the air vibrant with the eternal message of Catholicism. whether in the gloriously light nave or behind the high altar. before the silver shrine, reputedly containing the remains of her devoted daughter, St. Katherine. A few shore miles away are the well-preserved ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Alvestra, where St. Bridget's husband. the Prince of Ncricia (for she was married, of course. and bore eight children), passed his last years as a cenobite after their return from a two years' pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella; and Ulvasa Manor. their former homestill redolent of her dominant personality. And from the locks at Berg at late nightfall. Vretakloster is visited, a tree-embowered 13th century Cistercian foundation which was reconsecrated as an Abbey Church in the presence of King Magnus on June 13, 1289.

And then how much could be said of the great pre-Reformation Catholic Cathedrals of Sweden-Uppsala, designed in the 13th century by a French monk, Estienne. after the Saint-Chapelle at Paris, whose soaring twin spires dominate the entire surrounding plain, the panthdon of kings (here is buried in a chapel adorned with fresco-paintings of outstanding events in his extraordinary life. Gustavas Vasa, who introduced Lutheranism into the North and whose descendant, Gustavas Adolphus, carried it with fire and sword in the Thirty Years War across half of Europe), where the relics of St. Eric and his 12th-century crown are still preserved in a jewelled shrine behind the High Altar; the majestic early French Gothic pile of Skara, oldest and most renowned of Swedish medieval cities. where the chieftain of the Vestrogoths. Ragvald embraced the Faith in A.D. 1000. what time Olof Skotonung was baptised in the Huslaby spring nearby. and the massive Romanesque basilica at Lund, in Southern Sweden, founded by " Canute the Saint,on the building of which English masons were employed. The Lutheran veneer cannot disguise the overwhelming message of the Universal Church of Christ which these majestic memorials of Catholic Sweden convey to the receptive visitor. " The Swedish people are so good of heart; they are natural Catholics if they only knew it," the Mother Superior of the Bridgettinc Convent atDjursholm remarked to me in the summer' Of 1947, as we sat in the reception room looking at a print of Raphael's great painting in the Vati can of St. Bridget pleading with Pope Innocent Vi to return from Avignon to Rome: " it is immensely touching to watch the children who come here to see the Crib at Christmas-time. They have never seen one before and often know next to nothing of the

story of the Nativity. They can scarcely be persuaded to leave, and all want Cribs of their own! " They are so good of heart, yes; and yet " the modern generation does not go to church and does not believe in immortality." a former Swedish Press Attaché in Paris declared to me as we sat in a coach outside the surrealistic Grundtvig church in Copenhagen that same year. It is, in fact. for Swedish Catholics nothing less than a question of continuing the missionary labours of Ansgard, Sigfrid, St. Sigurd and Adelsward, and reawakening the Catholic Faith on pagan, albeit benevolently pagan, foundations.

S. F. A. cots.

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