The distance is vast between Peru and Sweden—in miles and memories—for Ken Overberg, S.J. The longtime theology professor and Cincinnati native visited Peru as a young seminarian in the summer of 1972. That immersion experience changed his perspective on life and heavily influenced his decision to specialize in Christian social ethics. His semester teaching in Sweden, from which he recently returned, exposed him to another facet of the Jesuit mission, though in a starkly different environment.
“We don’t think of Sweden as mission territory because we think of that,” he says, pointing to framed pictures of Peru on a shelf in his Hinkle Hall office. “But in terms of religious reality and the Church, it is.”
“Religious reality” is the spreading of Catholic Christian beliefs. In Peru, faith and Church missionaries help the underprivileged cope with dire economic circumstances. In a developed country like Sweden, the goal is to provide a voice of faith.
“Catholics are a very distinct minority in Sweden,” Overberg says. “It’s a very secularized country. The Jesuits there consider themselves missionaries in terms of the mission’s reality. We’ve been there for quite some years in two parishes, but what else do we do? We do education. That’s what Jesuits do. We start schools. Therefore, it makes sense to be a Catholic presence in the intellectual discourse.”
Overberg spent the semester in Uppsala, the fourth-largest city in Sweden, about 40 miles northwest of Stockholm and home to a famous European university founded by the pope in 1477 but taken over by Lutherans after the Reformation.
In 2001, a group of Jesuits established the Newman Institute for Catholic Studies in Uppsala. The Institute was recently accredited and now qualifies as a “university college.” Overberg taught a course on Christian ethics there last fall. He got the teaching position through a former Jesuit colleague who is president of the Institute. The two reconnected after Overberg first visited Uppsala in 2007 as a guest speaker at an AIDS conference.
“I got to experience the Church in lots of different ways, through different cultures,” he says, which included traveling to Finland and serving as a guest speaker for a daylong series of talks at a Dominican institute in Helsinki. He also presided at weekly Mass in English in the lone Catholic parish in Uppsala. Overberg’s services were well received as one of the few native English speakers in an internationally diverse congregation. “People from around the world made up the worshipping community, so that was quite an experience.”
What kind of impact did the experience of teaching in Uppsala have on Overberg, who was nervous about going in the first place? “I prayed a lot about it because, at age 66, I was going to become a missionary, not in the same image as you think. I was starting this mission effort in terms of higher education and moving into a culture I did not know with a language I did not speak.”
“It’s probably too soon to tell,” he says of the lasting impact Sweden has had on his life compared to Peru. “I have come up with five words to describe it: satisfying, enjoyable, challenging, difficult and rich.”