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 Francis will be there to take part in a joint Catholic-Lutheran service in Lund 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, Francis, 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, Francis’s attempt at dialogue with Lutherans may go either unnoticed or criticized 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 Francis 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.
Media coverage ahead of the visit – which starts on Monday – has been minimal, although the mass at a 26,500 seat capacity stadium in Malmo has been nearly sold out.
Polls show Sweden, nominally Lutheran, is one of the world’s most irreligious nations. In a WIN-Gallup survey last year, around eight in 10 Swedes said they were either “not religious” or “convinced atheists.” Surveys show Swedes trust institutions like the tax agency more than the Lutheran Church.
An atheist cemetery opened this year, where Swedes can be buried without religious symbols like the cross, star of David or Islamic crescent.
David Thurfjell, professor of religion and history at Sodertorn University, said for many Swedes it may be easier to come out as gay than to come out as religious.
“Swedes are just uneasy with the word,” said Thurfjell. “You would just never call yourself religious.”
It is a trend seen across the Nordics. After making it possible to exit from membership on-line, Norway’s Lutheran state Church saw 25,000 people exit in August, the biggest one-month drop in its history.
Swedes still take part in Christian sacraments such as baptism and many still pay small voluntary tax contributions to the Lutheran Church of Sweden.
Some also say that a wave of new immigrants – many Christians and Muslims who have fled war in the Middle East – is changing attitudes. Around 17 percent of Swedes are now foreign-born.
“It has been secularized for so long, that people start to get tired and sick of it,” Sweden’s only Catholic archbishop, Anders Arborelius, said. “The new situation with a massive immigration of people who are often more religious has also changed the mentality.”
Multi-culturalism has challenged Sweden’s comfortable secular identity. This year Sweden faced controversy when former schools minister Aida Hadzialic, herself an immigrant, said religious schools that separate boys from girls should not be allowed.
That backlash against any perception of religious interference may mark rancis’s visit.
“I hope they’ll (Swedes) be opposed to the Middle Age dogma the papacy represents,” former ABBA band member Bjorn Ulvaeus and member of Sweden’s Humanist Association said in an email. “But, I fear, they’ll be mostly indifferent.”