More on the Ekmans’ Conversion

A married couple established hundreds of churches and then became Catholic - Part 2

Topics

Faith

Highlights of Ulf and Birgitta Ekman’s conversion story were described in Part 1 (linked below). In telling their story they identified this long list of books as among the many they read:

  • Peter Hocken’s The Glory and the Shame, on the historical churches and new movements. Ulf arranged for Word of Life to republish it.
  • Sister Sophia Michalenko, The Life of Faustina Kowalska, which Ulf read “again and again.” Ulf appreciated what he learned in it about both suffering and intercessory prayer.
  • George Weigel’s biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope, which Ulf “devoured”
  • Longenecker and Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate
  • Johannes Jorgensen, Saint Francis of Assisi
  • Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue and Catholic Christianity; they included these two books for reading in a church study group in 2006.
  • John J. Delaney, A Woman Clothed with the Sun, about Our Lady of Guadalupe
  • Cardinal Van Thuan (the persecuted Vietnamese cardinal), Five Lives and Two Fishes;
  • Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer)
  • Bernard Ruffin, Padre Pio, the True Story
  • Scott Hahn, Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
  • Paul Glynn, Healing Fire of Christ (on healing)
  • Prof. Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Birgitta described as “a treasure that everyone ought to read.” As for Ulf, Birgitta wrote that Ulf was “lyrical” about the book.
  • An unidentified book by Charles Colson on church unity (presumably either Being the Body (1996, updated 2004) or Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (1995)
  • Ulf read three biographies of St. John Henry Newman and Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. For Ulf, Newman asked and answered the question: “Which church is closest, is in union with, follows, and has most faithfully developed the teaching and essence of the early Church?” Ulf wrote that not everything needs to be in the Bible but nothing must contradict it.

Ulf and Birgitta became deeply immersed in the history of Christianity. Both were deeply affected by the lives of saints (whom Word of Life called “heroes of the Faith”). Ulf studied ecclesiology, that is, the theology of the Church, and undertook an academic program to study the episcopacy, the role of bishops. He wrote that, in his last years as pastor, his preaching benefited from the depth and breadth of Catholic resources.

Of course the Ekmans had issues with respect to the role of Mary, the saints, intercessory prayer, Scripture alone, confession, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (Ulf wrote Take, Eat on this subject), purgatory, and infant baptism — all of which they address — but it seemed the overriding concerns for them, precisely from their vantage point as church leaders and founders, were (1) Christian unity versus division, and (2) the ability through leadership succession to transmit the Gospel to future generations, overcoming the current age’s relativism and secularism. These two issues were inter-related. Here are some key quotes from Ulf on these issues:

  • [In our churches] “there was a great lack of awareness and disregard for what God had done throughout Church history. There was also a somewhat naïve idea that we, by going back to the first community of Christianity found in the Acts of the Apostles, could merely jump over two thousand years of Church history in order to find the origin, the original Christianity, and just begin from there. It was like looking for the roots but ignoring the tree that had grown up from them. The idea we had was that the tree had more or less detached itself from the roots.”
  • “I wondered how one could know that one had true apostolic teaching…How do we know that we are a biblical, apostolic church?”
  • The focus in the free charismatic churches was “on the individual and relationship to Jesus, not the Church, His visible body…I began to see that we had in some way backed ourselves into a corner through our criticism of what was stable, long, lasting, and durable — what we considered old, rigid, and dead in the historical churches.” (Independent Pentecostal-charismatic churches lacked stability and continuity, resulting in “division after division.” They feared unity. They feared bureaucratic superstructure stifling freedom of the Spirit.)
  • “Tradition is the spiritual experience that the Church has transmitted. It is everything that the Church, led by the Spirit, has been led to receive, practice, and pass down.” Recall Thessalonnians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter…” Ulf says, “[T]he whole idea of Scripture and Tradition meant…a preservation of the Scriptures, an explanation of the Scriptures, and a protection of the entire revelation, so that it remained intact, authentic, and powerfully operative throughout all of history…” The Catholic Church, instituted by Christ, “held fast to this revelation, to God’s Word, when so many newer denominations and movements had let go and allowed the spirit of the age, with all its relativism, to take over.”
  • It is “not at all strange that Jesus had appointed Peter as his representative and, thereby, also his successor, as a guarantee of the well-being, unity, and survival of the Church. I also realized that the [petrine] ministry is truly necessary for the preservation and survival of the Christian faith.”
  • After the fast growth of their churches: “Who actually decided who would become the pastors? What kind of organization would the different parishes have, and who settled disputes? Who decided the content of the teaching and how?…[W]ho would…have the genuine authority to admonish, discipline, stop, or rehabilitate the pastors who had misbehaved?…[W]hat happened if the pastor or a whole parish went astray? Was there then a legitimate authority that could come in from the outside and help these churches reform themselves?”
  • “If lasting unity is to be attained, the Catholic Church must be brought into the equation. And then the claims of the Catholic Church must also be considered…”
  • “I had to come to terms with the lack of historicity and also the elitism that comes from thinking that what is latest is the best. C.S. Lewis so aptly calls this ‘chronological snobbery’…”
  • “The [Catholic] Church is not a problem that prevents us from seeing Jesus but, rather, the unique and singular means through which Jesus lets himself be seen and manifested in the world today…”

In The Great Discovery: Our Journey to the Catholic Church (2018, Ignatius), written several years after Ulf and Birgitta’s conversion, Ulf affirmed the good in Pentecostal-charismatic movements but said he had long been open to Catholicism. During the time he prayed about conversion, he was focused on three concepts:

  1. historicity: the anti-historical churches such as his led to elitism and sectarianism;
  2. authenticity (Catholicism was “sound, genuine, simple and thorough”) versus the commercialization by pastors of revival and the spiritual life;
  3. authority: a teaching office versus individualistic and arbitrary interpretation of the Bible.

In the end, he “realized that the Catholic Church not only had important and well-considered answers to these questions. She was the answer.” [italics in original]

 

For Part 1, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/swedish-conversion-story/

 

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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