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Megachurch pastor Ulf Ekman: ‘We need what the Lord has given to the Catholic Church to live fully as Christians’

The founder of Scandinavia’s biggest Bible school on why he is becoming a Catholic

By on Thursday, 24 April 2014

Ulf Ekman and his wife, Birgitta, meet the Pope on April 9

Ulf Ekman and his wife, Birgitta, meet the Pope on April 9

On Sunday March 9, Ulf Ekman stood nervously before the congregation of the Word of Life church in Uppsala. Dressed in a suit and pale blue tie, the Swedish pastor looked out at the faces of those whose delights and hardships he had shared since he founded the megachurch in 1983.

“This is one of those days when I have something special to say,” he began. Several minutes into the address, which has been watched more than 8,000 times on YouTube, he got to the crux: “[My wife] Birgitta and I have in recent days sensed the Lord’s leading, urging us to join the Catholic Church. This may seem a very radical step. But we have great peace and great joy in this decision.

“Now,” he continued, “you may be thinking: ‘Boy, that’s the worst thing I’ve heard for a long time…’” The camera then cut away to a young woman whose lip seemed to quiver with shock.

It’s hard for those of us unfamiliar with the charismatic world to grasp the significance of Pastor Ulf’s decision. Described as “a pastor of pastors”, he founded Scandinavia’s largest Bible school and helped to establish more than 1,000 church communities in the former Soviet Union. Through his preaching and writings he has given coherence to one of the fastest-growing, yet most diffuse Christian movements in the world.

When I spoke to him I was struck by his sharpness, integrity and good humour. He is evidently a man who has searched his own heart thoroughly and obeyed what he found there, no matter how inconvenient.

Were you baptised a Lutheran as a child?

Yes, I was. I was born and raised in Gothenburg, which is a big port. It’s a very Leftist city with a strong labour movement. I lived a very secularised life. I had a very strong conversion in 1970 through a friend who started to evangelise me. It was a great shock to me that he had become a Christian and then I suddenly realised there was something to this I could not escape. So he led me over a period of several months to realise that I needed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. That totally changed my life. It was really coming out of darkness in a very, very concrete way.

You’ve said you had an experience in your youth when you suddenly became aware of the divisions among Christians and began crying. Can you tell me about that?

Well, it was very unusual. I was there with a friend. He is now actually head of one of the Lutheran low church movements. We were both students at that time. We were talking about the Church and the problems in the Church. This came very suddenly over me, the feeling of the sorrow that Christ has over all the divisions in the Church. It was something that came in one way unexpectedly, something that I didn’t really process. I think it was in my heart, but life was going on and I was involved in many different things. But it has been there underneath the surface for many years.

You were ordained in the Lutheran Church in 1979, but by 1983 you were founding the Word of Life church in Uppsala. Had you left the Lutheran Church to do that?

I had not left the Lutheran Church, but I left the ministry in the church. What I felt in the beginning was the need for a Bible school. In starting a Bible school we saw that we had to receive people from many different denominations, not just spirit-filled, charismatic Lutherans. I was very much in a charismatic environment in the Lutheran church. It became the largest Bible school in Scandinavia and we have over the years graduated over 10,000 students in the school. We felt that in order for these people to be properly taken care of we needed a local congregation.

Are there sacraments in the Word of Life church?

Yes. In the beginning I would say it was very much low church and free church teaching, which was an emphasis on the Word and on the movement of the Holy Spirit. Step by step and since maybe 1998 we started to emphasise the importance of Holy Communion. I also wrote a little booklet about it and that booklet has been spread a lot, actually. I was quite surprised. As a Catholic, I think you would appreciate it, because it has a very Catholic view on the Eucharist. What happened to me personally around 1998… our local congregation grew a lot. It was a phenomenal growth, actually. The Bible school grew. We started missions work in 1989 into the Soviet Union. We see that there are now around 1,000 congregations that we have a relationship that came out of this missions work. I came to feel the need for a more dogmatic, theological background and more stability. I also saw the need for more understanding of ecclesial structure. So I was challenged to get to know the essence of the Church. We saw the progress and the advancement and we were involved in so many different projects. Everything was going very well. But there was this dissatisfaction about what is the Church really? I couldn’t get away from this question. It just kept coming back to me again and again and again.

Do you mean: what is the Word of Life church or what is the universal Church?

I would say both. What are we in essence and what is the Church? We would talk about the body of Christ and we would all give at least lip service to some form of unity. But when it comes to concrete, outward unity we back off, of course. Something in this made me dissatisfied. It challenged me to look more at: OK, what is the ground of the Church, what is the rock bottom, where is authority coming from really? And that led me to the sacraments.

So did you introduce Holy Communion into the Word of Life church?

We had it in the beginning. For me, with my Lutheran background, of course it would be natural. But the emphasis was not there. I would say it was very much wrapped up in free church theology and the free church way of doing it. That was unsatisfactory for me, so we started to emphasise it more, teaching more about the Real Presence, the Lord actually being in Communion, in the bread and in the wine. Of course, that leads you on to other questions.

Did you celebrate the Eucharist at an altar, wearing vestments?

Not with vestments, no. We started with what we called a communion table and later we put in more of a proper altar. I would say that the structure of the liturgy would be very close to the Catholic one.

Is it true that when John Paul II visited Sweden in 1989 the Word of Life church prayed against his visit?

Yes, that is true unfortunately. Even though my theological studies were quite liberal, they were still quite anti-Catholic. In Sweden – especially in free churches and in charismatic circles – there is an outspoken anti-Catholicism. I was influenced by that and lived in it. So when the pope came to Sweden – which was very unusual, because there had never been a pope in Sweden before – we prayed that he would not have an influence that was unscriptural. I have publicly asked for forgiveness for this. Where we were at that time, that’s what we thought was the truth.

Did you see John Paul II as a Christian leader?

We didn’t see him as Antichrist. We did not have those ideas. But we saw him as coming with teachings that maybe were not rooted in Scripture.

Is there one main spiritual experience that has led you to become a Catholic?

There are several experiences. What happened, as I said, around 1998 was really a quest for what the Church really is. For me it was an existential and an ecclesiological question: what are we really doing? What are we really part of? And where does this lead us? What will happen to the free church movement 100 or a 150 years from now? How come that the historic churches, especially the Catholic Church, seemed to keep on going? It was an understanding of the stability and historicity of the Church that intrigued me. As I started to study this, especially ecclesiology, there’s no way you can study that without coming into contact with the Catholic Church. So I discovered one thing after another.

I’ve worked a lot in the former Soviet Union and in India. My wife and I had planned to move to India. But in the process we actually ended up in Israel. We spent three years there and started a study centre. In Israel I met Catholics everywhere. I couldn’t walk across the street without meeting a Catholic. It was amazing. I met many different types of Catholics, from the most conservative to charismatics. And, from there, being invited to different Catholic environments and fellowships, different places in Europe, it really opened my eyes to the Catholic Church.

You’ve said that in Sweden the Catholic Church is seen as a small immigrant phenomenon.

Yes, more or less. It is growing. In Sweden Catholicism has not had a great influence since the Reformation. We do now have a Swedish Catholic bishop [Anders Arborelius]. He’s a Carmelite. When he became a bishop in 1998 he became the first Swedish Catholic bishop since the Reformation. We got to know each other. His example and his deep spiritual life really spoke very strongly to me. So, I would say Bishop Anders Arborelius, the experience we had in Israel, then coming into contact with charismatic Catholic communities and monastic movements, and different personalities within the Catholic Church, and as well I studied these things a lot from 2000 on – this has gradually, step by step, led us to this decision.

Did you have an inner sense that it was right to move closer and closer to the Catholic Church?

Yes, absolutely. My wife and I had prayed a lot about this. We’ve had many instances where we felt that the Lord led us. I felt the necessity to take it slowly because I felt responsibility for all the different congregations. So for me in the beginning it felt like an impossibility. It felt like something my heart was yearning for, but impossible to do in reality. But then there came a point when I felt that, no, this is possible, even though it seems difficult to do. I also felt in this process a relief in being exposed to a number of different prejudices that you are not always clear that you have. But as you go along you notice them: lack of knowledge, just common prejudices, because we have cultural blind spots in Scandinavia when it comes to Catholics. Many times revival movements would pride themselves on having personal contact with Jesus and really knowing him. To meet Catholics that have this experiential reality, where Jesus Christ is not just a dogma but also a reality in their lives, was very fascinating.

Did you think much about what effect the decision would have on your livelihood and your family?

Yes, of course I did. My basic question was: is this true or not? If this is true, then I have to act. If this is not true, then it will go away. But it was becoming more and more, not just a personal truth, but that there was truth here that I have to relate to. Then, of course, there was the question about my family. We have four sons and they are all grown, so they can handle this in a good way. But then there is the realisation that if this is true and the Lord is calling me, then I have to step down. We’ve lived by faith when it comes to our finances all our lives, so of course the Lord will take care of us. But here in Uppsala there were 3,300 people [in the congregation] and some of them would probably feel let down, and I wanted to handle this in a proper way as much as I can. That was why I had the brakes on more than my wife.

How did you feel just before you announced the news to the congregation?

I was, of course, a bit nervous. But I had talked to a number of small groups of leaders within our congregation for about two weeks before the initial announcement. So I was a little bit accustomed to it. But of course going there and knowing that some of these people would be shocked, it’s a special feeling. I’m a pastor. I love the people and I’ve been with them for 30 years, so I don’t take it lightly at all. I’m not flippant about this. I think it’s a serious position. But I felt a calm come over me as I stood there. I could really sense that this was in God’s hands. If he was leading us he would also take care of our dear congregation. We really love them a lot and think they are wonderful.

What did you see on their faces as you were speaking?

Well, it became very quiet. And when it becomes quiet in a charismatic church, then you know people are thinking. When I’d finished there was actually spontaneous applause. That surprised me a lot and many, many people came up to me afterwards. Some of them said: “We don’t understand, but we bless you. We thank God for you and think the Lord is leading you.” So that was very encouraging. Then, the day after, we had a question-and-answer session. I stood for two hours and they bombarded me with questions about Catholicism. The rest of the week all our pastors were ready to help people and answer questions. Every night there were sessions for that. So there has been a mixed feeling. Some understand. Some don’t understand at all. Some have very strong feelings about this. Others give it to the Lord.

Have you become a Catholic yet?

It will be in the spring, a little bit after Easter. Bishop Arborelius will confirm us. But we are doing it more privately.

What role would you hope to have within the Catholic Church?

I don’t hope for any role. I’m just very content to become a Catholic. We’ve had for the last year a very strong yearning and we feel very privileged. We feel this is a grace from the Lord, to be received into the Catholic Church. I have, of course, 30 years of background, and that could be of use. But I feel very content just to try to be a good Catholic.

What are you most looking forward to about being a Catholic?

The sacramental life. That is what I’ve been longing for. When I started to question the essence of the Church, it was authority, the sacraments and unity. Those are the three things that draw us to the Church. I’ve always had a strong sentiment for the sacraments, but when I started to discover what they really are and how they work I felt really on the outside looking in. I had a longing to participate in and to draw life from the sacraments in a way that I’ve not been able to do. Seeing that, I also saw what was lacking in our way of doing Communion. So I would say that the fullness that the Lord has put in the Catholic Church – that is what I discovered and long for.

I’ve been asked: “Does that me that everything you’ve taught was wrong?” My answer to that is no. I believe I’ve taught the Bible to the best of my ability. We’ve preached the Gospel and evangelised according to the light we’ve had. I’m very happy about all the work that has been done and all the congregations that have been built. I in no way dismiss that. It’s not a going from, it’s a going to. It’s a longing for more fulness, for a deeper understanding and participating in what the Church really is. I do believe that many people will understand – maybe not now, but in the future – that this was not an emotional thing we did, but a thing that the Lord really led us to.

Do you see Pope Francis as being a charismatic Catholic?

Well, I think he is. He’s God’s gift, definitely. I know he’s very open to the charismatics. I think he’s God’s choice, God’s man for this hour. I think he challenges us all. He’s challenged me a lot with his view on poverty, his radicality, the way he lives out the Gospel and also his courage to step over borders. He’s been a real encouragement.

You said you’ve received a word from the Lord: “The task is fulfilled but the friendship remains.”

I said that to the church on that Sunday. I felt that – a relief that this time is now over. But I do feel that the reason for being drawn into the Catholic Church is that I need – we need – what the Lord has given to the Catholic Church to live fully as Christians. That is why we want to be part of the Catholic Church.