Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Queen Christina of Sweden
By John Janaro (’85)
The Protestant Reformation in Sweden involved the gradual imposition of Lutheranism in the 16 century by the newly assertive and independent Swedish monarchy. King Gustavus Adolphus then launched Sweden as a great European power during the Thirty Years War. At his untimely death in 1632, however, his only living heir was a girl of five. But Gustavus had made provision for his daughter Christina to inherit the throne under a regency, and to be educated “in the same way as a prince” so that she might eventually be queen.
Queen Christina grew up with a powerful, searching, encompassing intelligence, but she had no real competence for governing a country. Her interests were culture and the arts, mathematics, science, philosophy, and religion. She patronized the arts, built schools, and invited scholars to her court from all over Europe. It was the early Enlightenment, and the advance of science seemed to question the reasonableness of Christian faith. The Lutheranism that Christina knew seemed to divide faith and reason, or to affirm faith even against reason. Meanwhile, some scholars had begun to affirm science at the expense of faith. Christina was troubled by the conflict, and found herself tempted towards complete skepticism. Nevertheless, she continued her voracious reading and extensive conversations, and her restless mind was willing to entertain many viewpoints.
Among those who came to her court in those years were some Catholics who won her esteem and impressed her with their breadth of learning and their confidence that faith and reason did not conflict with one another. The French ambassador Pierre Chanut introduced her to Descartes, who came to Stockholm to instruct her personally in his new philosophy that he proposed as an answer to skepticism. Christina did not become a Cartesian, but she would later say that her impression of him as a man of both science and faith played a role in awakening her interest in the Catholic Church. Then, she discovered that Antonio Macedo, the secretary to the Portuguese ambassador, was a Jesuit well-versed in many of the issues that troubled her. At her request, Jesuits Paolo Casati and Francesco Malines arrived in 1652 disguised as courtiers. Impressed by their scientific competence, Christina explored more thoroughly with them issues of faith and doctrinal controversy. The Spanish ambassador, Antonio Pimentel, also became a confidant and mentor to the young queen regarding her thoughts of abdicating her unwieldy throne. Christina found in these Catholics of various backgrounds a kind of hospitality that made her great soul with all its troubles, peculiarities, and questions feel at home.
The combined efforts of people from France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy led the Swedish monarch to the conviction that her true home was the Catholic Church. She abdicated the throne to her cousin Carl Gustav on June 6, 1654, and quietly journeyed through Germany to the Netherlands. In Brussels on Christmas Eve of that year, she professed her Catholic faith privately (so as to avoid an immediate diplomatic incident). She eventually came to Rome and was confirmed by Pope Alexander VII in a grand ceremony fit for a queen. She resided in Rome for the next thirty-four years, patronizing many scholars and artists, and while not always living the most exemplary or coherent life, she remained true to her Catholic faith. Following her death in 1689, she was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica.