Interview | Head of Catholic Church in Estonia on an unparalleled Christmas

Bishop Philippe Jourdan.
Bishop Philippe Jourdan. Source: Apostolic Administration of Estonia

Christmas is here in perhaps more muted and reflective tones than many people can remember, but it's Christmas nonetheless. With that in mind, ERR News talked to Bishop Philippe Jourdan, leader of the Catholic Church in Estonia, and with it the small, but growing and vibrant minority community of Catholics in the country, to find out how things stood with current discussions in society, his experiences in Estonia, and of course what has changed and what has remained constant, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'm from southern France where Rugby Union is a big sport – I played on the wing myself – and there has been a lot to learn from that sport, when talking about this year in particular. When you're playing together, but also suffering and struggling together, making the tackles and so on it really creates a sense of team unity. The pandemic has been a bit like that too."

"I'm not active in rugby nowadays of course; I know there is an active team which has been going for many years and draws a lot of interest and participation from younger Russian-speaking people in Tallinn."

Meaning of Christmas in 2020

While Estonia's winters mean its rugby (and football) seasons do not quite follow the same calendar as in countries like France and Britain, this winter, so far and like last year's, has been mild. At the same time, no possibility of a white Christmas forecast for much of the country might seem a fitting end to 2020. So what will have changed and what will remain the same, so far as the meaning of Christmas this year goes?

"The meaning will certainly will be the same, we still have the decorations and nativity scene here at the church, the work of the parish priest and important to demonstrate that we will be having the same Christmas as ever."

"I think the main difference is it will be less commercial than before, with a little more space for reflection rather than what presents I might get or have to by – it might perhaps even be a better Christmas than in previous years."

Societal questions of the day

Christmas-time it might be, but that hasn't halted some pretty frenetic discussions on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues. Are these things the Catholic Church should also be having a say in, in Estonia?

"First of all I would note that the church is not a political party, even though our discussions on some of these questions predate the existence of some of the political parties talking about them."

"So these questions are not anything new for us, and I think people know very well what the church in general and in particular the Catholic Church says about marriage, the family and abortion and so on."

"This does not mean we don't have any voice, but our primary goal is of course that people will receive in their heart what we are talking about. So even if the church has a right and a duty, to have a voice in the societal debates, we should also never forget our goal is not to come up with new legislation; we do believe that is what our Lord Jesus Christ said."

"Our approach is to plant the seed in peoples' hearts that they should behave as Christians and as Catholics; they can also take part in the public debate and don't have to wait for the bishop's say-so. This is part of the reason I don't see the question of whether the church is conservative or liberal to be a fair one, as these are categories taken from political life and put in another frame of reference. For the liberal, the focus is on what can be changed while for the conservative it is on what can be conserved, but for the church, truth is not what can be either changed or conserved, but the revelation of Jesus Christ, so the reference point is different, higher and more constant."

"You see this sometimes when Pope Francis is speaking, people run the risk of misunderstanding what he is saying when they impose these categories."

Estonia the least religious country in Europe?

Pope Francis did of course visit Estonia in 2018. This, plus the debates going on in society, and the fact that churches are seen by the government as an important beacon, to be kept running at least at 50 percent capacity during lock-down, may give the lie to the oft-heard claim that Estonia is one of the least religious countries, in Europe anyway.

"This is a paradox. It's true that from one side, Estonia is one of the least religious in Europe in terms of being related to any particular church. But on the other hand, the inquiries we get from Estonian people suggest there are in fact very few true atheists in Estonia – at least compared with France where I'm from, where generally you are either a Catholic or an atheist and there is a very hard divide between the two – but rather a thirst for spirituality here which you don't see in some other countries."

"There is thus more of a positive view of religiosity here than in people in France, with a lot of camaraderie between the different churches, particularly at this time when we have more zoom meetings and other communication perhaps even more than we would normally do."

Catholics and culture

At this point I can't help but take somewhat of an anglo-centric stance and mention three twentieth century giants of fiction – and non-fiction – who have had a huge impact on Catholicism and Christianity as a whole. J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic convert and perhaps the most well-known thanks to the movie versions of the middle earth sagas, G.K. Chesterton – another convert and whose work is probably the most profound of the three, and C.S. Lewis – neither English nor a Catholic, but maybe the most widely-read in terms of popularizing Christianity. What does the bishop think of these figures and do they carry the same apologetic and literary currency here in Estonia too?

"Well Lewis behaved somewhat like a Catholic, but perhaps because of his roots – he was from [at that time Protestant-dominated] Belfast and, with the tension there, perhaps it was not feasible for him to convert."

"We can see a similar story with [twentieth century French philosopher Henri] Bergson. People often asked him towards the end of his life, since you seem to be speaking more as if you are a Catholic (Bergson was Jewish – ed.) have you converted or are you planning to: His answer was at the end of the day he was a Jew, and would as such be betraying his family, roots and people if he converted, regardless of what he believed, which is understandable. But in his belief and spirituality he seemed to be more Catholic than Jewish if anything."

"We do have intellectuals here in Estonia which is – and you can see the same thing in the nordic countries – quite a common phenomenon compared with historically Catholic-majority countries like Italy, France of Poland. Many of these Estonian converts visit some of these countries and come back very enthused about the fact that there were 'ordinary' people who were Catholics too."

"The point is Catholicism is not purely a faith for intellectuals or artists, but the whole spectrum. You would have seen this in England in the nineteenth century too, during the time of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890, another convert, from Anglicanism, following the reestablishment of Catholic dioceses in England and Wales in 1850 under the Universalis Ecclesiae papal bull – Scotland had to wait another 28 years - ed.). The bulk of Catholics in England at that time came from among immigrants, often from Ireland, and the working class."

"But yes, a Swedish Catholic once told me that in their country, there were two groups which were either predominantly Catholic or the proportion of Catholics was significantly higher than the general society as a whole – one was in the parliament, where you might find these kind of high-minded types searching for something, and the other was to be found in the jails!"

Bishop the subject of a 2020 biography

Speaking of books, the Bishop has himself been the subject of a recent biography, in Estonian, by Indrek Koff, as covered in an interview earlier in the year he did with Eesti Päevaleht (link in Estonian).

"Yes, the book wasn't my idea – I tend to see biographies and similar for people after they have died, to remember them by, but the publishing house said they ran a series of similar publications and, since I had just had my 60th birthday – these jubilees in particular, and birthdays in general, are celebrated very much, again perhaps more than in France, I agreed to it."

"It's not really a spiritual testament, just more about my life and how the Lord set things out in a way even before I had planned to become a priest – I studied to be an engineer – through to ending up as a bishop in Estonia, which is perhaps an idiosyncratic path in life but it shows how sometimes life brings you to places you did not expect."

And it really was something new for Estonia too – there was no established head of the church in Estonia before the bishop arrived in the mid-to-late 1990s, not long after the restoration of independence.

History and organization of Catholicism in Estonia

"It's not like there had been nothing before me; there were Catholics in Estonia, following a lengthy break from between the early decades of the reformation in the sixteenth century, through to the early part of the 20th century, by which time there were more religious freedoms, which only grew following independence in 1918."

"While there was no Catholic tradition in the way that there was in Lithuania, say, Estonia got its first post-reformation Catholic bishop in Eduard Profittlich. He was German, but following the Soviet occupation of 1940 he was deported, later dying in prison in Kirov."

"He is now on course to become the first Catholic saint in Estonia, which is a big thing both for us and for the country as a whole, since the church and people worldwide will get to know about what happened to the Estonian people in the 1940s, and that Archbishop Profittlich wanted to share their fate and this tragic destiny. This is of course not directed against anybody; the Russian people suffered greatly under the Soviet regime too."

Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Roman-Catholic Church in Tallinn. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

"While the Soviet era was still a fact, there was a revival of interest, again particularly among intellectuals in Tallinn and Tartu, people got to know about Catholicism and many of them became Catholics. In a lot of ways our situation is not very different from the situation in Finland, Sweden Norway etc (traditionally Lutheran countries – ed.), except for the fact that we had 50 years of Soviet occupation, which crushed those small seeds which had already been sown."

"We are, canonically, speaking not a diocese here, but rather an apostolic administration – in fact if you trace it back to the original founding of the apostolic administration 100 years ago, it is the oldest in the world; after many years of great difficulty, we are, little by little, growing into a real Catholic community."

COVID-19 and spirituality

A community which is experiencing the same difficulties with the arrival of the coronavirus as other religious communities and society as a whole, nonetheless. Has this led to an uptick in interest or, where possible (for instance online) attendance at Mass?

"It's still too early to talk about the full effects in terms of numbers; we had two months of earlier in the year where, while the church was open for spiritual support, public masses were off, but now if we follow the 50 percent capacity and other restrictions we can function over Christmas. The online numbers are promising, but in these situations it's very difficult to say precisely if people are now more connected with either their church or their spirituality than before, at this stage, until the pandemic subsides if God so wills it. But despite the uncertainty people are coming – and also spending more time with their families, which can help to strengthen that and which in turn is also good for the faith."

What about in the worst case scenarios, with the pandemic, and the rising number of deaths connected to the virus?

"It's clear that many people are thinking a little bit more about the fragility of life than before. We haven't had a terrible situation to the extent that happened in, for instance, in northern Italy, where a lot of people were dying without any contact with the family; it was a really terrible thing. Though of course people are worried here too." 

"In old people's homes it is a bit more complicated, for example with getting a priest to come, but usually when they feel that someone needs that help, it is possible to find a solution to enable them to really be with their family and also to enable a priest to visit." 

What about people struggling with their faith, either as a result of the pandemic, or aside from that? 

"I would say that first, faith is also very related to confidence – in Estonian the two words are even close together: Usk and usaldus. So if you want to find faith you have to speak in confidence, with somebody, with the church; you cannot expect to find the faith in the church if you don't have confidence in it." 

"Pope Francis sums it up very nicely – he speaks a lot about discerning, this personal compact, which is the only way to obtain faith. So for a person struggling with their faith, try to set up a personal contact with someone in the faith in that way. Even though I'm from a Catholic background in France, I would not be here as a bishop or have become a priest, without such a compact." 

Pandemic a unifying experience

Does the international dimension to the Catholic Church make it in that sense even more vital, in what is after all an international pandemic which doesn't pay much attention to national borders even as restrictions are in place?

"It seems to have united us – as with a papal encyclical sent around a month ago, Fratelli tutti, where Pope Francis noted that all the advances in communications, social media etc. Have divided us, more than brought us together."

"However the pandemic has given us all something common to refer to – whereas someone in Estonia, say, might have had little concept of what someone in Africa, or Latin America, or New Zealand, thought of something, now they automatically have something in common, with this pandemic."

"Suffering does also have a purifying effect. For instance in Estonia, the rift between the two communities, Estonian and Russian, has long been in place but the pandemic and its effects have helped to heal that wound – after all, one of the most prominent speakers during the pandemic has been Dr. Arkadi Popov, which is of course a Russian name, but here he has been speaking on our televisions throughout."

And as for France rugby, will the once-mighty national team be able to build on the second place it took in the coronavirus-delayed 2020 six nations contest, which wrapped up at the end of October? 

"Well, we hope so. This is a transitional team, a young team, so who knows; certainly we can build for the future between now and when the next tournament starts in February," the Bishop concludes. As with so much else, a lot could happen between now and then of course.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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