Vatican Congregation for the Clergy member Cardinal Anders Arborelius has said he “doesn’t know” how the controversial Congregation instruction on parish reform was completed.

– “I have had no personal contact with the Congregation… I don’t really know how this document was completed”

“I have had no personal contact with the Congregation so far. I don’t really know how this document was completed”, Cardinal Arborelius, Bishop of Stockholm in Sweden, told Domradio in an interview published July 27.

The news outlet of the Archdiocese of Cologne in Germany asked the Swedish cardinal whether, as a member of the Congregation for the Clergy, he had any insight as to why Rome decided to publish the parish reform instruction in this way and at this time.

The preparation and timeline of the parish reform document has been fiercely criticised by German bishops like Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising – who lamented the lack of consultation ahead of the document’s release – or Ludwig Schick, the Archbishop of Bamberg – who bemoaned the fact that “why the Congregation for the Clergy has issued this instruction is nowhere clear: neither occasion nor purpose is explicitly mentioned. This is a great shortcoming. It opens space for all kinds of speculations that cause harm”.

But Arborelius answered “not really” to the question of why this instruction and why now. A meeting apparently scheduled to discuss the document had been cancelled, the Swedish cardinal said.

– Spreading the good news “is more a spiritual process than an organisational one”

The mystery surrounding why a Congregation for the Clergy member like Cardinal Arborelius had no input into a major Congregation document aside, the Bishop of Stockholm praised the parish reform instruction and welcomed the fact that in the same Pope Francis – who signed off on the text – “puts evangelisation and the poor in the centre”.

“One must remember that it is more a question of pastoral conversion. The parishes are there to spread the good news. This is more a spiritual process than an organisational one. And I think it’s very important in our circumstances, in our secularised society, that the churches really do more missionary work, more evangelising work”, Arborelius reflected.

The nub of the criticisms of the parish reform instruction that have rained down from Germany or Portugal and Austria, just to mention three places, have concentrated on the fact that the new Vatican document strengthens the clericalist hold of the priest on parish power to the expense of the greater co-responsibility in parish life of lay men and women.

But in Sweden parish dynamics are different to those in Germany, with more and not fewer priests and fewer and not more laypeople looking to take on greater responsibilities in local Church life, Arborelius explained.

“For us it is not a big problem that the laity cannot take over the leadership [of a parish]; they can often work very independently in their field, [such as in] catechesis or charitable work”, the Swedish cardinal underlined.

– “The call from the Pope is to spiritual conversion… Organisation is less important”

The theological and ecclesiological debates about the new parish reform instruction aside, Arborelius was keen to stress that “this call from the Pope is really one to spiritual conversion. It is very clear that he also placed evangelisation at the centre of the reform in the Curia. And organisation is less important than this spiritual conversion process, I would say”.

“It is an important task for us to be more missionary, more evangelising in the secular society of Sweden”, Arborelius explained.

He added that “for many congregations, this can be difficult. Most of Sweden’s Catholics come from other countries, so there is sometimes a bit of anxiety to make a public appearance for the faith”.

“For us it is probably a task to convince the believers that they have to be more missionary”, the cardinal concluded.

Novena’s full coverage of the debate over the new Vatican parish reform instruction:

“Doesn’t help a bit”: Yet another German bishop criticises Vatican parish reform instruction as Cardinal Kasper defends it (with nuances)

“A document destined for oblivion”: New Vatican parish instruction met with criticism in Portugal, Austria

Cardinal Marx rips new Vatican document on parish life: “No fruit is borne like this”

“Living in a patriarchal bubble”: ‘We Are Church International’ hits out at Vatican over new instruction on parish reform


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.