Tag Archives: Scandinavia

St. Stephen of Sweden: Of Odin, Evangelism, and the Ascension

2 Jun

“The blood of Christians is seed.”

We re-watched Thor: Ragnarok (2017) the other night. What a fun ride – lots of laughs, lots of fun amid the wreckage and (bloodless) carnage. It’s representative of the best in superhero films – the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, and their characters don’t either. Thor and his movies are particularly enjoyable, however, because of the cognitive dissonance: You’d expect a guy named “Ant-Man” to be self-deprecating and goofy; you wouldn’t expect the Norse god of thunder to be so.

Not that there aren’t darker moments in Ragnarok – like when Odin, a preeminent deity and Thor’s dad, fades away (or dies, or its equivalent – you’re never quite sure in the Marvel universe). In a sense, though, Odin is still very much with us: We commemorate his legacy the middle of every week, for Wednesday (that is, Woden’s day) is named in his honor.

Did you know that? Yes, the days of our modern week are residual shout-outs to ancient pagan gods and their associated planets. Sun-day and moon-day, plus Thor’s day and Saturn’s day, and the rest. Yet, if the worship of Odin and his crew was so entrenched in the past that we’d still be remembering them every day of the week today, how is it that they and their followers have disappeared – just like Odin did in Ragnarok?

We can credit the likes of St. Stephen of Sweden for that, and this happens to be his feast (June 2). Stephen was an 11th-century monk of Saxony’s New Corbie (or Corvey) Abbey. “From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe,” reads the Catholic Encyclopedia, and Stephen was among them.

He was consecrated a missionary bishop and dispatched to Sweden where paganism stubbornly held sway. Apparently St. Stephen was tremendously successful in his efforts to preach the Gospel, for conversions were rife. So much so that Swedish devotees of Odin decided the good bishop needed to be silenced, and they murdered him in a murky forest around the year 1075.

Now, there are some historians who say that Stephen of Sweden never existed, and that he was an amalgam figure concocted via folk traditions to account for a variety of secular cultural practices – namely festivals and horse racing and other mid-winter rioting on and about December 26, St. Stephen’s day (but that other St. Stephen, the deacon and protomartyr from Acts 7). Maybe, but these kinds of tricky historical conundrums are hard to sort out a thousand years later.

In any case, there’s no question that somebody like St. Stephen got in there and starting mixing it up with the Odin-worshippers around that time. “Norse beliefs persisted until the 12th century, and Sweden was the last Scandinavian country to be Christianised by Catholic missionaries,” reports the country’s official website. “In 1164, it became a so-called ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church and Catholicism became firmly established.”

In addition to St. Stephen’s feast, today is also Ascension Sunday for most U.S. Catholics, and we heard in the Gospel the Lord telling the Apostles that they’d be his witnesses everywhere. “Behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” Jesus tells them before he ascended, “but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

He’s talking about the power of Pentecost, and it’s the power that St. Stephen and his ilk must’ve drawn on when they fearlessly proclaimed Christ throughout pagan Scandanavia. Such actions may have cost them their lives, as it did the Apostles, but their drawing on that power nonetheless made it possible for the Church to take root there and flourish.

We could use some of that power today. Come Holy Spirit.

King St. Eric of Sweden: Template for Dads

18 May

It can’t be easy for kings to become saints. Most are also husbands and fathers, and so you have all the challenges that come with those callings, plus the enormous headaches and perpetual consternation associated with ruling a people. Raise taxes, lower taxes? Go to war, sue for peace? Statecraft, diplomacy, court intrigues – how do Gospel values square with all that? Just pack up the fam, head to the hills, and camp out near some monastery or other, that’s what I say.

Of course, I’m not in danger of inheriting any royal titles any time soon, so there’s that.

Anyway, despite the hurdles involved, there are plenty of royals who’ve run the race and won the prize of heaven, and today we commemorate a notable example: King Eric IX of Sweden. His story is no doubt instructive for kings (and other political leaders) who seek holiness, but I think it’s also edifying for us commoner dads who are equally earnest in aspiring to sanctity.

Born into wealth, Eric married a princess, yet it was his personal merits that earned him the crown of the realm around 1156. Although thrust into power and all the responsibilities accompanying it, the young king’s chief concern was his relationship with God, and he was known for his extensive mortifications and fasting in addition to regular times of prayer and contemplation. These practices buttressed his efforts to fortify the practice of the Faith among his subjects, which included building churches and restraining vice.

Eric was a solicitous king who is remembered for his care of the poor – sometimes through direct visits and almsgiving. Also, he promoted impartial justice for all and, toward that end, supervised a definitive collation of laws – the Code of Uppland – that strengthened the Swedish social order.

When that social order was threatened by pagan raiders from neighboring Finland, King Eric took up arms in defense of his people. Even so, Eric sought the good of his foes by inducing St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, to accompany him into battle and then stay behind after the victory to evangelize the Finnish populace – a missionary enterprise that met with success, but which also won Bishop Henry the crown of martyrdom.

King Eric similarly suffered martyrdom at the hands of those who rejected Christian faith and values. A group of irreligious rebels in league with a Danish prince hatched a scheme to murder Eric and take control of the Swedish throne. King Eric was attending Mass when he received word that the insurgents were gunning for him. “Let us at least finish the sacrifice,” was his reply according to Alban Butler. “The remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” Following the liturgy, Eric abandoned himself to God and, to minimize casualties among his loyal supporters, insisted on facing his enemies alone. As soon as they saw the monarch exit the church, the mob attacked, knocked him to the ground, and cut off his head. It was May 18, 1161.

The tomb of King Eric became a site of pilgrimage where many healings were reported, and he was deemed the patron saint of Sweden until the Reformation. He’s still a saintly template for those in authority, both royal and otherwise – especially dads. As Fr. Butler notes, “every father, master of a family, magistrate, or king, is accountable to God for those under his charge,” and St. Eric’s biography is like a paternal mini-catechism. Like the King, we fathers are obliged to maintain order at home, make adequate provision for our families, and defend them against harm.

Yet, even more fundamental is our duty to foster fidelity to Christ and growth in virtue among those we care for. That can’t be accomplished perfectly, but it can hardly be accomplished at all without our own personal example, and that example will necessarily, almost by definition, involve sacrifice – putting the needs of others before our own, for example, trusting in God’s providence even when we can’t see a way forward, loving those difficult to love, extending ourselves without heed of reciprocity.

In other words, fatherhood always entails martyrdom in one form or another, and here again St. Eric leads the way. Maybe we won’t get our heads chopped off like the Swedish sovereign, but our path to sanctity will nonetheless require death to self. Over and over, day after day, imperfectly, sometimes grudgingly, but consistently and perpetually. Good thing we have intercessors like King St. Eric who understand what we’re up against. Let’s lean on them; let’s lean on each other.

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