Pope off to Sweden

STOCKHOLM – Usually feted ecstatically by Catholics across the world, Pope Francis may face a far more muted reception when he arrives next week in Sweden, one the world’s most secular nations, with openly gay Lutheran bishops and special cemeteries for atheists.

Add to that the fact that the Pope will be there to take part in a joint Catholic-Lutheran service to mark the start of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s anti-Catholic Reformation that led to a bloody schism in Europe.

In the first papal visit to the country in nearly 30 years, the Pope, who is seen as breathing freshness into traditional Catholic doctrine and reaching out to other religious communities, will also hold a public Mass in Malmo, a gateway for thousands of immigrants who have fled from Middle East wars over the last few years. While trips to the likes of the Philippines attract huge crowds, the Pope’s attempt at dialogue with Lutherans may go either unnoticed or criticised by Scandinavians whose views on sexuality and abortion are among the world’s most liberal.

“This is really the first time Francis will have spoken so directly to the secular West, and he will do so in the country that is considered the world’s capital of irreligion,” said Austen Ivereigh, a papal biographer and Catholic commentator.

The visit could see the Pope make a symbolic attempt to help unite Lutherans and Catholics, such as allowing non-Catholic partners in a Catholic-Lutheran marriage to receive Communion at Catholic Masses. But that could be lost on most Swedes.

“It’s easy to perceive this as a papal visit when it’s not. It’s about the meeting of Lutherans and Catholics,” said Antje Jackelen, Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala and Sweden’s first woman archbishop.