Wisdom of centuries: Swedish cardinal says much to learn from church's past

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The prophecies and revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden, who lived in Rome for nearly 20 years until her death in 1373, were known for their direct reprimands to popes and princes alike, calling for an end to corruption and the start of reform within the Catholic Church.

"She was not afraid to deliver stern admonitions about the moral reform of the Christian people and the clergy themselves," St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 apostolic letter proclaiming her co-patroness of Europe.

Her countless admonitions, written in several volumes of her "Revelations," highlighted a new vision for the church, one that emphasized the importance of humility within the church hierarchy.

"The pope can improve the situation greatly by allowing (cardinals and bishops) to have only what they need and nothing superfluous, and he should order each bishop to watch over the ways of his own clergy," she wrote in her fourth book of "Revelations."

Centuries later, standing on the rooftop of the convent where Sweden's first saint spent her final days in Rome, Sweden's first cardinal reflected on the Aug. 27 consistory that saw the creation of 20 new cardinals of the Catholic Church.

"It's a very typical consistory of Pope Francis because, as we see, he always picks people -- as someone said -- from nowhere," Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm told Catholic News Service Aug. 28. "But it's his policy to call people from all over the world whom you don't expect to be cardinals, in order to show the universality of the church."

It's clear "that the center of the church is now not in Europe anymore," he added. "It's very evident, especially (because) he picked so many from Asia, where (Catholics are) mostly a minority, but it's where people live. And if we're going to stress evangelization, we have to stress it in the areas where faith is not known."

Cardinal Arborelius, who was named a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2017, was among the nearly 200 cardinals, Eastern patriarchs and officials of the Secretariat of State who met in the Paul VI audience hall with Pope Francis Aug. 29-30 to reflect on the apostolic constitution "Praedicate evangelium" ("Preach the Gospel") on the reform of the Roman Curia.

Reflecting on the apostolic constitution, Cardinal Arborelius said "it would be interesting to see" how the Roman Curia will place evangelization at the center of the church's "bureaucratic work."

Pope Francis, he said, "wants all the church to be present in every dicastery and to have people from the clergy and religious life, of course, but also laypeople."

The pope's emphasis on including the laity in church leadership, he said, is also evident in his naming of 14 new members of the Dicastery for Bishops, including three women, in July.

Cardinal Arborelius, who was among those named, said the inclusion of women in the group that helps the pope choose bishops shows that Pope Francis "is very eager to have a broader viewpoint of what it means to be a bishop."

"Someone said that it used to be professors or rectors of seminaries" who were chosen as member of the Curia, including those who choose bishops, the cardinal said. "Now, it's mostly pastors; not university people but people from the (ground,) from the grassroots. Of course, it's very important to have women."

While the Catholic Church is growing in the peripheries, the Swedish cardinal said the church must also look to its own backyard and address the crisis of faith in Europe.

Traditional Catholic countries in Europe, such as Italy, Poland, Spain and France, "are facing big problems," from confronting the horrors of abuse to the politicization of so-called Christian values, he said.

One of the reasons for the steady decline of Catholicism in Europe, he said, could be "that people identify Christianity with a kind of political movement," Cardinal Arborelius said. "It's a bit dangerous when some politicians would use" Christianity to justify certain policies that often counter church teaching, like on issues such as migration.

Some politicians "often speak more about Christian values than about Christ," he said.

"It's a problem that some will use Christianity -- or Christian values as they say -- for political (purposes) without bringing the Gospel. They pick out what they think is Christian," the cardinal added. In Sweden, "we call it a 'smorgasbord faith.'"

The Swedish cardinal told CNS that the pope is not only confronting challenges at home, but abroad as well, from Russia's ongoing war with Ukraine to the persecution of Catholics in Nicaragua.

Cardinal Arborelius acknowledged that although the pope has been tireless in his appeals for peace since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in late February, "many want stronger words and actions."

Similar calls for the pope to speak out have also been made after the Aug. 19 arrest of Bishop Rolando álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, and nearly a dozen others who had been under house arrest for more than two weeks.

Although the pope did not specifically mention Bishop álvarez's arrest, he prayed for peace in the country during his Sunday Angelus address Aug. 21.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Arborelius said it was important for people, especially those who live in countries "where we can say exactly what we want to say," that there are areas where speaking the truth can have the opposite effect on those who suffer.

"Traditionally, the pope has always been a bit above" political agendas and tries to help those in need "in a more silent way to bring about better conditions."

"People have to realize that there are societies where it can become much worse, even if you say the truth," Cardinal Arborelius told CNS. "I think it's the experience through the ages that makes the pope more prudent and not too outgoing in his criticism. It's part of the wisdom of centuries."

"It's not easy to be the pope, because people expect so much," he added.

-- -- --

Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju