Recently my daughter Jessica and I spent some time traveling in Sweden, in the upcountry north of Uppsala. We don’t care for cities, and my daughter, no surprise here, is something of a traditionalist, so we visited old villages, well-preserved “gamlasgardar” or collocations of log cabins, barns, threshing floors, and so forth, and village churches. These latter were members of the Svenska Kyrka, or Swedish national church, most notable these days for a wholesale embrace of feminism and the sexual revolution, to such an extent that ten foot high banners were on display in the cathedral of Uppsala, boasting quotations from a prominent bishop, to the effect that the commandment to love overrides all other commandments and prohibitions in the Old and New Testaments. That was by way of blessing same-sex pseudogamy. It is not coincidental that these churches are also empty. A deeply devout and melancholy minister of the Svenska Kyrka told me that, before he was essentially driven out of his pastorate, he was considered one of the most successful priests in the diocese, as his church drew about two dozen communicants on a Sunday.
For me, some of the churches showed forth a kind of symbol of the eventual eradication of Christianity from the country. In the wonderful province of Dalarna where we did most of our touring, we saw the concrete ceilings of some churches covered with paintings done in the local folk style — often with the figures from Scripture dressed in local garb, for instance a lad David in a blue jacket and trousers, readying his slingshot against a Viking-like Goliath. But in some of the churches there was nothing on the ceiling, though in one of those I thought I noticed strange shadows mingled with the blank white of the concrete. I said to Jessica, “Either my eyes are playing tricks on me, or that is mildew, or somebody has whitewashed the paintings over.” The same minister we dined with revealed that the third guess indeed was correct. “During the Enlightenment,” he said, “some people thought that all images were superstitious and beneath the dignity of the church.” Thus it was that what we would now recognize as folk works of inestimable value, irreplaceable, were destroyed. But that was just a stage, it seems, in the whitewashing of faith, which implies, whether people will admit it or not, the whitewashing of something lower in the order of being, namely a genuine culture.
Yet that is not the whole story, not at all. For we had taken rooms in Uppsala, at The Newman Institute. We had supposed that the Institute was one of what we know in the States as Newman Centers, the gathering places of Catholics attending or working at a nearby non-Catholic university. We were mistaken, thanks be to God! For The Newman Institute, or “Newman Institutet” in Swedish, is the only Catholic university in Sweden, and the first to be founded since the University of Uppsala itself in 1477. It is a remarkable development. The Swedish government has recently granted accreditation to the Institute, so that now it may offer degrees, particularly in theology. This is no hole-and-corner affair; the Institute publishes a terrific journal, Signum, and invites scholars of international reputation to lecture there. Swedish seminarians reside and take their courses there, and the same energetic Jesuits who have founded the university preach at St. Lars, the Catholic church in Uppsala, just a few doors down the street. We attended one of the four Sunday Masses celebrated there, and the church, in marked contrast to the cathedral within sight, was filled.
The Holy Father knows well the spiritual slough into which Europe has fallen, and yet he has not given up on Europe; that is perhaps why he assumed the name of Benedict, the saint whose monks evangelized (and eventually civilized) the pagan Germanic tribes, and created Europe itself. It seems that the priests who have founded and who lead The Newman Institute are of Pope Benedict’s mind. News of this needs to be known more widely — and not least because The Newman Institute must depend upon the farsightedness and generosity of donors outside of Sweden, where Catholics are less than two percent of the population. To assist in that effort, I sent several questions to the president of the Institute, Father Philip Geister, S. J. Our “interview” follows.
Anthony Esolen: How many students are enrolled at the Institute?
Father Philip Geister, S. J.: This is difficult to say, as our program will not start before September. But the Government has commissioned us to train 100 students full-time. It will not be a problem to fill that quota.
AE: What degrees are given?
FPG: The degree Bachelor of Arts in Theology.
AE: What kinds of courses do you offer?
FPG: Courses in theology, philosophy and cultural studies are offered. A full description of all courses offered at the Institute is available on our website, www.newman.se/courses.htm. The courses are available to any interested students who meet the entrance requirements, whether they are pursuing the degree program, seminarians of the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm, or students interested in taking individual courses.
AE: Do you see the Institute as part of the rejuvenation of the Catholic Church in Sweden?
FPG: Yes, in several respects:
First, there is a growing interest in Catholic theology, evidenced by the increased demand for individual courses as well as for a degree program in Catholic theology. The Swedish Government deemed it appropriate to fund the Institute for a total of 100 full time students, which it is expected to achieve within 2-3 years.
The Newman Institute has also witnessed the growth of the Catholic church in Sweden by the increased material support given by Catholic benefactors to the Institute during the past 10 years. This support has helped the Institute realize many of its goals, although the Institute continues to rely heavily on financial donations from abroad, including from the US.
Another sign of the rejuvenation of the Church in Sweden is the Diocesan seminary program, which now has a new seminary building, and has seen an increase in the number of seminarians in formation. (Seminarians receive most of their philosophy and theology training at the Newman Institute).
Further evidence of a rebirth is seen in the local Catholic parish in Uppsala, which is staffed by the same Jesuits who started the Newman Institute. In the past 50 years, the parish has moved from a small chapel in the Jesuit residence to its own church building in central Uppsala, and the number of registered families has increased dramatically, due in large part to Catholic immigration, but also to conversions among native Swedes. St. Lars is a vibrant congregation, with active prayer and social ministry groups, several youth groups, and a comprehensive religious education program.
AE: Is the (Protestant) Church of Sweden dying?
FPG: It can certainly be asserted that the Lutheran Church is struggling to retain active members. Many parishes no longer offer religious services because of a lack of priests and lay interest.
AE: You’ve received recognition from the government of Sweden. Is that government generally hostile to the Christian faith, or indifferent, or benignly disposed?
FPG: The current government has been helpful to the Newman Institute. They have recognized the importance of the Catholic Church, and the Jesuits in particular, for their contribution to education and cultural life, and also for the role the Church plays in promoting the integration of ethnic minorities into Swedish society.
AE: Do you see your role at The Institute as part of the re-evangelization of Europe? In what way do you seek to call upon Europeans, as Pope Benedict has done, to remember and revive their own heritage?
FPG: Yes, the Newman Institute definitely has a part to play in the re-evangelization of Europe, and of Sweden in particular. The philosophy and theology courses offered at the Institute in and of themselves serve to teach students about Europe’s rich Catholic heritage. Additionally, courses on culture related to theology are specifically oriented toward this task. Finally, it is fair to say that through the publication of the theological journal Signum, and through the many lectures offered to the public that are scheduled throughout the year, the Newman Institute is actively working toward the revival of Christianity in Northern Europe.
AE: Do you offer courses at the Institute that would be difficult to find elsewhere in Sweden — I mean courses other than those in theology?
FPG: The courses that deal with culture are unique to the Newman Institute, for example the connections between theology and art and architecture, and religious themes in literature. Additionally, the Institute offers courses on topics like general ethics and medical ethics that are taught from a Catholic perspective and are not found elsewhere in Scandinavia.
AE: Do you have any special hiring policies?
FPG: The Newman Institute regards it as very important that members of the faculty be well-versed and at home in the Catholic tradition. Currently all of the full-time members and most of the part-time faculty are actively practicing Catholics.
AE: I’ve noticed that your lineup of speakers this year is mightily impressive. Who has come to visit the Institute? What do you look for in speakers and guest lecturers?
FPG: The Institute tries to attract speakers who seek to penetrate the depths of the Christian faith, and to broaden the perspectives of Catholic theology. I want to give credit to my friend Thomas Levergood who directs the Lumen Institute in Chicago, for his assistance over the years in making connections to various American theologians and philosophers, who have agreed to visit and lecture at the Newman Institute.
During the past year the Newman Institute has hosted Prof. Horst Seidl from the Angelicum in Rome, Prof. Oliver Ruppel from the University of Namibia, Prof. Margaret Mitchell from the University of Chicago, and Professor Widl from the University of Erfurt. This fall, when the Institute celebrates its inauguration as a new college, the General Superior of the Jesuit Order, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, will be present as a special guest and speaker. In addition, an academic conference will be held, in which Prof. Hans Joas (Erfurt and U. of Chicago), Prof. Jean-Luc Marion (Sorbonne and U. of Chicago) and Prof. John Haught (Georgetown U.) will give lectures.
AE: How is the practice of the Catholic faith integrated into the life of the students at the Institute? Do you see your students as drawing ever nearer to the person of Jesus?
FPG: The Newman Institute has the good fortune of being close in proximity and in cooperationn with the local Catholic parish, St. Lars, which has a vibrant campus ministry/young adults program. Students at the Institute are encouraged to take part in the life of the parish’s many nourishing activities. There is also a chapel in the Newman House, providing an easily accessible place for quiet prayer and meditation.
A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand is to be seen on the horizon. Will the Church survive in Europe? That is not the question. It is rather whether Europe herself will survive. The whitewashed ceilings have become a blacktopped continent, paved over with the blank meaninglessness of the pursuit of sensual gratification and material ease. Yet there are cracks in the blacktop, and here and there — in Uppsala, for instance — the crocus of resurrection is shouldering away the rock. Long may The Newman Institute thrive!
(Those who wish to assist the mission of The Newman Institute can visit their website at www.newman.se.)