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Swedish prejudice 'baffles' Catholic convert

Published: 24 Mar 2014 07:10 GMT+01:00

"I thought church was for old ladies and fools," says Rebecka, 45, about her teenage years when she revolted against her atheist parents. ”I was part of the flower-power movement that came to Europe, and I was interested in eastern spirituality, also shamans and astrology."

She quit high school and headed to the countryside to live and work in a commune.

"I wanted to live a more genuine life, that was natural and organic," she says.

Her parents were not happy.

"They were angry and reacted with all types of desperate attempts to get me back on the right track,” she recalls of her parents who worshipped rationality and science. ”They were outraged, they banged their fists on the table. So I cut off all contact.”

Something was not quite right, however. Her life swung from Sweden to Spain, where she had lived as a child, and then back to Sweden again. It would take an accident a few years later – Rebecka discretely declines to give details – for her to see that she had lost her way.

"While I was unconscious I saw a very clear picture of myself standing on a cliff. And then I heard a voice: 'All your life you have neither appreciated yourself nor your life. You're about to lose your life, but if you let go now you will regret it afterwards'," she recalls hearing.

As she had no concept of an afterlife - "or any clear idea of God" - the words 'You will regret it afterwards' played on repeat as she woke up in shock.

"That sentence hit me like a bomb."

"I realized that I'd been riding a wave of teenage optimism about what life would be like,” she explains. "But by 23 it hadn't taken me to the beautiful place that I'd believed in."

Instead, she was in a dark place, and knew something had to change. She returned to the countryside and worked on a farm, which she enjoyed, but her travels soon resumed. She found herself back to her childhood's Spain. She had spent a lot of time there dodging her parent's attempts to educate her about the country's heritage.

"I always refused to enter churches and palaces, I'd just stand outside waiting, but on this trip... I just got this notion that I should go to Santiago de Compostela," she says.

It was New Year's Eve. It was cold. Early in the morning, she took refuge in a church.

"I only have fragmented memories of what happened. I stayed in that church all day. I fell on my knees and just cried and cried," Rebecka says.

She had no clue, however, what the Catholics in the church were up to.

"They sat down, they got up, they sat down again, then they got up, they went up to the front of the church, they returned to the pew... I didn't understand anything,” she says.

But she knew one thing.

"I just felt bathed in love."

She let go of her life in Sweden and stayed on in a commune run by monks. Prayers morning, day, and night shuttled her straight into ”the practical”.

Eventually, she returned to Sweden, where she contacted the Catholic Church in Stockholm for help with her conversion. It proved a challenge because she was barred from communion. She could participate in the rituals, read the texts, and speak privately with a priest, but... no communion.

"For nine months, it was like a pregnancy,” she laughs more than two decades later. ”I wasn't interested in the theory back then, it was the practical I wanted to get at.”

"You were taught to wait. It was horrendous but it was part of this process of becoming more mature.”

Today, Rebecka is a guidance counsellor.

"I mean, if I hadn't converted, I’m not sure I’d be alive today,” she says of her depression in her early twenties. "In general, I think Catholicism has given me a broader and more in-depth knowledge of human beings.”

Her conversion had not been all plain sailing. however, especially not in a country that at the time had a state church and a large Protestant majority.

"There are a lot of stereotypes and many Protestants have a very clear picture of the Catholic Church as evil incarnate,” she explains calmly, pinning it on a historically rooted us-versus-them rhetoric in Christianity at large.

"They see the Vatican as corrupt and power abusive, which, it should be said, has been the case, absolutely, but the problem is that this is the only thing that people see,” she says. “Unfortunately you’ll find misguided people in every human endeavour, but average Catholics go to church because they love the spirituality and feed from it, quite independently of whatever might be going on in the Vatican.”

"In actual fact, it becomes a kind of racism that is incredible, with these stereotypes perpetuated in the media and being so very anchored in our collective cultural conscience,” she continues.

Rebecka also believes that Catholics are more harshly criticized for their views on sexuality, abortion and spirituality in general, than other groups

"You can openly discredit Catholics who are against abortion, but when it comes to Muslims and Jews, for example, it’s considered racist to express contempt for their beliefs. Also, if a non-religious group of young people argue against abortion, it's seen as an acceptable viewpoint,” she says.

"It's baffling.”

Yet while Swedish Catholics still face prejudice, Rebecka says there is a rising awareness in Sweden that many people need spirituality.

"There's a spiritual dimension that didn't exist when I grew up, when people thought religious people were stoners or cult members. Nowadays many people see it as a legitimate need,” she says.

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

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