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How Sweden is getting its first saint in over 600 years

Published fredag 3 juni 2016 kl 11.00
Sister Beata: A miracle is a miracle because we cannot explain it
(5:35 min)
Sister Beata first came to the convent in Djursholm in 1983. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
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Sister Beata first came to the convent in Djursholm in 1983. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
Sister Beata will be in Rome for the canonization of Elisabeth Hesselblad, who founded this Bridgittine convent in Djursholm. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
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Sister Beata will be in Rome for the canonization of Elisabeth Hesselblad, who founded this Bridgittine convent in Djursholm. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
Catholic Bishop Anders Arborelius. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
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Catholic Bishop Anders Arborelius. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
Brochures about Elisabeth Hesselblad stand on the front desk at the offices of the Catholic diocese of Stockholm. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.
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Brochures about Elisabeth Hesselblad stand on the front desk at the offices of the Catholic diocese of Stockholm. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / Radio Sweden.

Elisabeth Hesselblad, a Swedish nun who died almost fifty years ago, will be canonized in a ceremony at the Vatican, presided by Pope Francis. But how do you become a saint?

"We have been waiting for many years for this day, so it's a wonder that we finally have reached this day," Sister Beata, at St Bridget's Convent in Djursholm in Stockholm, tells Radio Sweden.

On top of her veil, Sister Beata wears a white cloth crown punctuated by red dots, which is the signature garment of the Bridgettine nuns.

The order was founded by Bridget of Sweden, who became a Catholic Saint in 1391. Now, the woman who founded this convent as part of her effort to breath new life into an order that had in places been languishing after the reformation, will become a Catholic saint. According to Björn Göransson, who just wrote a book about Elisabeth Hesselblad (Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad - Ett Helgon från Sverige), she will be the second Swede ever to be canonized in a solemn way by the Pope.

It will have taken nearly 30 years since the case for declaring Elisabeth Hesselblad a saint was first brought forward. She was beatified in 2000.

Anders Arborelius, the Catholic Bishop in Stockholm, whose diocese covers the whole country of Sweden, tells Radio Sweden:

"I think she's an example of a woman who really took her faith very seriously and saw that she had occasion to revive the order of St Bridget." 

But how does the Vatican decide, in general, whether someone is worthy of sainthood?

"The first thing is to see that this person really lived a heroic life, according to the Gospel, according to the virtues," says Bishop Arborelius, who adds that the person's writings are also scrutinized.

As for Elisabeth Hesselblad, she was born into a Lutheran family in western Sweden in 1870 but converted to Catholicism after emigrating to New York and becoming a nurse. Besides reviving the Bridgittine order, she is also credited with sheltering two Jewish families in the convent where she lived in Rome during World War II, and denying the Nazis entrance.

But in the Catholic church, to become a saint, you also typically need also to have two proven miracles under their belt. The Vatican has determined that the miracles in Elisabeth Hesselblad's case were the recovery of a nun in Mexico, who had been wheelchair-bound, and the recovery of a boy in Cuba, who had been partially paralyzed due to complications from a brain tumor operation. Both of these events happened after Hesselblad's death.

Bishop Arborelius explains how the church decides whether a recovery is the result of a miracle.

"It's a very tricky thing to prove. First, you have to prove that people really asked for help from this person . . . then, it has to be proved that the healing cannot be explained in a natural, empirical way," says Arborelius.

There's been some discussion about whether the Vatican puts too much focus on miracles in the process of granting sainthood, but Sister Beata believes their inclusion serves an important purpose to indicate to people praying that saints can intervene on their behalf.

"We can trust that she is an example that we can follow. We can ask for her prayers. So the miracle is like a second confirmation from God. It is always God that works the miracles, but through the intercession of the saint," says Sister Beata.

Both Bishop Arborelius and Sister Beata are bound for Rome, along with at least a couple hundred other Swedes for the occasion of Hesselblad's canonization.

Brett Ascarelli

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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