Swedish Conversion Story

A married couple established hundreds of churches and then became Catholic - Part 1

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Faith

I promised some friends to read a book by two prominent Swedish Protestant charismatics, Ulf and Birgitta Ekman, about their conversion Catholicism to see if the book could be helpful to mutual friends who had left the Church for non-mainline Protestant churches. I believe The Great Discovery: Our Journey to the Catholic Church (2015, trans. 2018; Ignatius) would indeed be helpful.

Ulf Ekman was born in 1950 in Sweden. He started calling himself Christian at age 20. He and Birgitta married in 1976. In 1979 he was ordained a Lutheran priest but left that church in 1983, after a year in Tulsa, to found a “free” charismatic church called, in English, Word of Life. By 1987, it had become a megachurch with a sanctuary sitting 4,000. They led tours of their brethren to the Holy Land each year beginning in 1987. By 1991, 50,000 students had attended its year-long Bible program. The church sent 6,000 on mission. They founded hundreds of autonomous congregations, in Sweden and in the former Soviet Union, until there were between 250,000 and 500,000 members.

The book about their conversion alternates between Ulf’s and Birgitta’s accounts. Ulf’s first favorable emotional reaction to Catholicism was in 1998, at age 47, when he was walking in Hawaii and went into a church. He discovered it was Catholic but thought, “God is, in fact, very present in this church among these Catholics.” (He later learned that the gold object on the altar was a monstrance exposing the Real Presence.) The next year, Ulf and Birgitta were in Rome when, at a papal audience, a stranger, a young Australian man standing nearby, asked Ulf who the pope was. When Ulf said, “Bishop of Rome,” the man replied, “Is that all he is? Is he not the shepherd of the whole Church, the universal pastor?” Ulf and Birgitta bought a number of books on that trip, wanting to learn what Catholics said about their faith rather than depending on what non-Catholics said about the Catholic faith.

Birgitta writes that her first deep interest in Catholicism started in 2002 when she read a biography of her namesake, St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden, whose husband was also named Ulf, and whose 700-year anniversary of birth would be in 2003. Birgitta visited the ruins of her home where she’d been the mother of eight. By 2010, Birgitta was ready to convert.

Through these years, until their 2014 reception into the Church, they engaged with many Catholics, visited sites of Catholic pilgrimages, and read many books about the Faith.

From 2002 to 2005, they lived in Israel. Among the Jews, they appreciated “the importance of a living tradition.” They had contact with “a living Catholic faith” which they could not see in Lutheran Sweden. Ulf was in Jerusalem when he first heard of Medjugorje (in Bosnia and Herzegovina), where people were “on fire for Jesus.” An elderly Franciscan monk, a hermit who lived in a cave in Gethsemane, responded well to Ulf’s free prayer, stating he believed it was “of the Spirit.” Ulf was prejudiced against formal prayer but would learn that the early Church had fixed times for worship and fixed prayers: “The early Church was not a loosely organized charismatic prayer group of the modern sort; rather, it had fixed forms in the life of prayer, in the liturgical life, and in the leadership. This did not seem to hinder the actions of the Spirit at all, as is clearly seen in the Acts of the Apostles.”

In November 2003, they attended the consecration of an auxiliary bishop for Jerusalem. He was the first Jewish Christian bishop in Jerusalem since the New Testament era. They visited the Beit Jimal women’s monastery. Over the ensuing years, they brought 2,000 Protestant pilgrims there. Many were reluctant to enter a Catholic monastery but the nuns changed their attitudes. In the spring of 2005, they attended vespers at the monastery. They listened to the hymns in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Latin. They write that, when the nuns worshipped, “they did it with their whole bodies. They often bowed down deeply…and at Mass we saw how at times they lay prostrate with their foreheads to the floor. We were moved…”

They prayed at the Church of Holy Sepulchre and Dormition Abbey. They now saw Catholic churches as “bearers of spiritual treasures.” They attended Mass in Gethsemane.

In 2004, they met Kim Kollins, an evangelical convert to Catholicism. With her they visited St. Peter’s tomb underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where they felt “holy awe.” Another “precious moment” came in October 2005 when, with Italian Catholic friends, they visited Subiaco, outside Rome, where St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism, lived in a cave. They prayed for Christian unity and the re-evangelization of Europe. They knew how little most Protestants in the Nordic countries know about Catholicism. It was “embarrassing to confront [their] prejudices but refreshing to abandon them.”

Birgitta writes, “I simply had one ‘aha’ moment after another. Many times I thought or said to Ulf: ‘Why have we not heard this before? Why has nobody told us that this is the way Catholics believe? Here is so much that we can assent to with our whole hearts!’”

For the Feast of Pentecost, 2006, Pope Benedict gathered charismatic groups together. Alongside 350,000 pilgrims, “[W]e felt like we were dreaming.” On prior trips to Israel, they refrained from taking their Protestant pilgrims to a number of churches, favoring “simpler” ones, but on their June 2006 trip, they wanted the pilgrims to see “oriental expressions of faith.”

In the fall of 2006, they organized their first study trip to Rome. They continued these trips for many years. Birgitta lists a number of Catholics they selected to speak to their Protestant pilgrims. They met with Scott and Kimberly Hahn.

Beginning in March 2007, and every other year for six years, they attended meetings in Rome of Catholic and Protestant charismatics. Of these meetings Ulf writes, “The Catholic charismatics whom Birgitta and I met often had a much deeper understanding of the workings of the Spirit and of the Body of Christ and a greater love and humility than many of the Protestant charismatics we knew. This was a humbling experience…” Birgitta writes, “We were really not prepared for the strong spirituality in the Catholic Church.”

In addition to the sites mentioned above, they also visited Fatima, St. Padre Pio’s tomb, Knock, Guadalupe, the tomb of St. Maximilian Kolbe, Littlemore outside Oxford (where Newman pondered becoming Catholic), and World Youth Day 2011 in Spain. They visited Lourdes in October 2007. About this Ulf writes, “Though I have traveled the world and been to many healing conferences and meetings, I have never seen anything quite like [Lourdes].” Ulf believed for a long time, as the Catholic Church does, in the supernatural, in revelation and divine intervention. He says Jesus is alive and can heal, forgive, and restore in this day. He rejects those who are rationalistic and reject the miracles of Jesus and miracles today, such as at Lourdes. Ulf rejects the views of those who deny answered prayer.

To be continued in Part 2…

 

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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