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New normal: Swedish parish’s pandemic outreach bears fruit

LUND, Sweden — Like many priests around the world, it was tough for Dominican Father Johan Linden, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Lund, Sweden, to not be able to connect with his parishioners at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It affected me, I got quite depressed, a sort of spiritual depression,” Linden told Catholic News Service Nov. 2.

The safety of his parishioners, however, was paramount and he made the decision to close the parish “even before the diocese asked us to do that.”

Nevertheless, Linden went to work immediately on finding a way to use technology to connect with his parishioners, beginning with a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for new cameras and equipment to broadcast the Sunday Mass.

“I wanted to take the opportunity, which I think was good, of educating people about being in communion, in spiritual communion, in receiving the grace through the broadcasted Mass,” he said.

The result was an above-average production of livestreamed Mass, complete with varying camera angles and texts of the liturgical music on-screen, allowing viewers to follow along and be more engaged in the celebration.

“It is a way of preaching,” he said. “We are offering something good for the benefit of all Christians in the country.”

While Sweden took an overall less restrictive approach to the pandemic, tougher restrictions were placed on certain public gatherings, especially religious services. For a time, only seven or eight people were allowed in a church for religious services, regardless of the church’s size.

That caused many parishioners to rally behind Linden’s efforts to produce the weekly livestream, including one who taught documentary filmmaking and trained parishioners to operate the church’s new cameras.

Jakob Löndahl, one of the parishioners who volunteered to operate the cameras, told CNS that helping produce the livestream gave him a greater appreciation for the Mass and the importance of symbolism in sacred art and the liturgy.

Maria Green, the parish choir director, said she appreciated Löndahl’s attention to detail when it came to focusing the camera on sacred images in the church at different moments of the Mass because it was “a way of teaching the Mass” to others.

“I had my grandchildren watching, and they could understand, for the first time, the connection between what we were singing or saying and what it meant,” Green said.

Italian-born parishioner Roberta Colonna Dahlman told CNS said her experience during the pandemic was “terrible, especially knowing that my parents, my family was in Italy, and I couldn’t travel to go and see them.”

However, the livestreamed Sunday Mass brought much-needed solace in very uncertain times and showed her that even in the most difficult of circumstances, “we can be creative and invent new ways” of connecting with one’s faith.

“It was amazing to see that we never stopped going to Mass,” she said. “I am very proud and really happy and very grateful to those who made this possible. I was there every Sunday.”

The livestream had a steady following not only in Lund, but also across the country and beyond, Linden said.

“We had Catholics in Singapore, Poland and the U.K., and they said, ‘Well, we don’t understand a word of what you’re saying, but the liturgy is very beautiful,’” Linden told CNS.

He also said the parish is preparing to baptize 15 people next year, some of whom connected with the Catholic faith through the weekly livestream.

Although most restrictions are now eased in the country, Linden said he plans to livestream the Mass at least on the first Sunday of every month.

Linden said his ministry during the pandemic made him more aware of the sufferings of those affected by the pandemic, especially young people.

Ulla Berg, a parishioner who works as a psychologist with children and young adults with mental disabilities, said she saw firsthand how isolation from church, schools and extracurricular activities affected their mental health, including one patient who handed in a suicide note to his teacher for an essay assignment. He did not carry out his threat.

Kristina Heilo, another parishioner, said the pandemic has been a time for many people, both inside and outside the church, to confront their own mortality.

People had to learn “that we will all die. I think that was a very tough lesson for many people,” she said.

Linden agreed, adding that many were “confronted with their own death,” and some parishioners would even speak to him about their own funeral arrangements in the event of their death.

“That I think is important, it’s healthy,” he said. “There is a benefit in the long term that we don’t live as if life would carry on forever.


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