ROME — French Bishop Philippe Jean-Charles Jourdan has some big shoes to fill: At the age of 45, in 2005, he was appointed as the apostolic administrator of the Church in Estonia and became only the second bishop in Estonia since the Protestant Reformation.
The Catholic Church in Estonia, a country Pope Francis visited last year, is a small minority where those who belong to an institutional church are a small minority themselves: an estimated 80 percent of the population describes themselves as non-believers.
When some foreigners visit, Jourdan told Crux they say that they feel like “God has disappeared,” from this nation that was under Soviet rule from the Second World War until 1991.
The Soviet Union saw Archbishop Eduard Profittlich, Jourdan’s predecessor and second Catholic bishop since the Reformation, as a threat. He was arrested during World War II and accused of spying for the Germans and inciting hatred against the USSR by appealing to the religious feelings of the masses. He was sentenced to execution by firing squad, but he died in a Gulag in Kirov, in the northeast of European Russia.
Today, Jourdan is leading the cause for his predecessor to be declared a martyr, as he was sentenced to death due to his faith.
Crux caught up with the bishop, a member of Opus Dei, while he was in Rome last week to ordain 29 new deacons to the personal prelature. Among other things, he discussed the rapid secularization in some quarters of western Europe, saying “it is true that our experience of the religious situation in Estonia could be, and with some probability will be, the experience of western Europe in the next generation.”
Jourdan also said that he doesn’t agree with the proposal from some circles calling for Christians to live in small communities isolated from the dangers of a post-Christian society, saying instead that a “dedicated presence in the world is necessary, based on a realistic, but also hopeful vision of the society, even of a secularized society.”
“I find that, perhaps because of difficult circumstances, there is a latent pessimism among Christians nowadays, sometimes leading to apathy and resignation, sometimes on the contrary to an activism mixed with bitterness, the so-called ‘bitter zeal’ of the spiritual literature,” he said.
Crux: A year ago, Pope Francis visited Estonia. What would you say was the impact, if any, of the visit to the country?
Jourdan: Certainly, the visit of Pope Francis had a great impact in our country. Firstly, for the local Catholic Church. We saw a greater number of persons asking to know better the Church and eventually being baptized and received in the Catholic Church.
But it had an impact in society at large too. Before, for the people of our country, the Catholic Church was something very far away, in space or in time. I would say that now the average Estonian perceives the Catholic Church, and especially the Holy Father, as something much closer.
We are much more a part of the religious and social landscape. For the future of the Church in Estonia, which is slowly but steadily growing, it is very important.
You minster in a country where a majority of the population – 50 percent – describe themselves as non-believers. What is this like?
I would be happy if I could say that half of the Estonian population are believers. But in fact, all the surveys made about religion in Estonia indicate far less, between 20 and 25 percent, 75 to 80 percent being without religion. For that reason, sometimes foreigners visiting Estonia said to me that, by comparison to other places, our country looks like as if God had disappeared, was nowhere to be seen.
Of course, it is also due to the fact that a foreigner never knows very well the country he is visiting and tends to judge only on some appearances. But there is certainly a truth in that. Nevertheless, you find also good people everywhere, looking for a sense in their life.
For instance, I was recently in Santiago of Compostela and was told that since the beginning of the year hundreds of Estonians have come as pilgrims to Santiago, the great majority of them being probably non-Catholics or non-Christians.
In some circles of the Church, there’s a lot of concern over growing secularization, but you’re in a country where, due to its history, this has been the case for a long time. What would your advice be for those who minister in some of these places, like for instance, most of western Europe?
If I had a recipe against secularization, I would have published it, and of course used it long ago! It is true that our experience of the religious situation in Estonia could be, and with some probability will be, the experience of western Europe in the next generation.
But I don’t agree with an idea present in some Church circles that due to the growing secularization living as a Christian in the society becomes virtually impossible, and Christians should retire in small communities, a little bit like the monasteries of the first millennium, which were like well protected sources of light in a dark age.
I don’t think this would be a solution. Certainly, each one of us needs, more than ever, the support of a fervent community of Christians where people help each other, on the material as well as spiritual level. It is especially clear in a situation like ours, where every Catholic is usually the only Catholic in his or her family, and often the only Christian.
But a dedicated presence in the world is necessary, based on a realistic, but also hopeful vision of the society, even of a secularized society. I find that, perhaps because of difficult circumstances, there is a latent pessimism among Christians nowadays, sometimes leading to apathy and resignation, sometimes on the contrary to an activism mixed with bitterness, the so called “bitter zeal” of the spiritual literature.
Both should be avoided.
We should find our model in the first Christians, not in a new utopia fueled by fear. Despite obvious attacks against the sanctity of life and family, a secularized world is not like a new Moloch, swallowing small children.
But living in a secularized world will be certainly a purifying experience, where our former Christian society and way of life will probably be reduced to the “one necessary thing” Jesus spoke of in Bethania. I think that Pope Francis, thanks to the divine Providence, is preparing us to such an experience. And in the purification are already the seeds of the resurrection!
So, we should not live in a nostalgia of better times. Our time is the time prepared for us by God, and it will also reveal the fruitfulness of the grace of God.
Earlier this year, you were in Rome to deliver to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints the documents of the diocesan phase of the process of beatification for your predecessor, Archbishop Eduard Profittlich, the first bishop of Estonia after the Lutheran Reformation. He could become Estonia’s first saint, a martyr. What impact could this official recognition have in the country´s small Catholic community? Have you heard anything about the cause, or have you been given a possible date for his beatification?
Of course, I have heard about the cause of Archbishop Profittlich: I have been and I am very directly involved in it! The first phase, the diocesan phase, is finished, and the cause is now in Rome and advancing well. We were given a founded hope that, if things go on well, the Beatification could take place when we celebrate the 80 years of the death of Archbishop Profittlich, in 2022.
But of course, sometimes things in Rome take a lot of time, and we cannot for sure give a date with certainty. It is of course important for our small Catholic community, but also for the whole Estonian society, because it will be also, in a certain way, a recognition by the universal Church of the tragic fate of the whole Estonian people in that dark period of our history.
In any case, I recommend to the readers of this article to ask many things through the intercession of Eduard Profittlich, who is helping many people!
What brought you to Rome this time around?
I am now in Rome to ordain deacons, more than 29 members of the Prelature of Opus Dei. It is certainly for me a great joy, both personally as a member of the Work, and as a bishop, [I am] happy to bring new workers to the vineyard of the Lord.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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