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Estonia: Catholic cententary a chance to celebrate triumph of martyrs

As the Apostolic Administration of Estonia prepares to celebrate its centenary this year, Bishop Philippe Jourdan recalls the challenges his flock endured over several decades of Soviet rule and the hopes Catholics entertain for their Church’s future.

By Devin Watkins

“One hundred years may not seem like much for a 2,000-year-old Church, but in Estonia’s case, it was really a challenge.”

Bishop Philippe Jourdan, Apostolic Administrator of Estonia, offered that assessment in an interview with Vatican News as the local Church prepares for the 100th anniversary of its institution as an Apostolic Administration.

On November 1, 1924, Pope Pius XI created the Apostolic Administration of Estonia, splitting its territory off from the Archdiocese of Riga, in neighboring Latvia.

Estonia itself had only gained independence from Russia six years earlier, in 1918, and Catholics in Estonia sought a local Church of their own, even though Catholics have been present in what is now Estonia for many centuries.

A difficult past

However, the next several decades proved difficult for the fledging Church.

In 1931, Pope Pius XI entrusted the Apostolic Administration to Servant of God Eduard Profittlich, a German-born Jesuit missionary.

He worked to build up the local Catholic Church, most of whose adherents were foreign-born. Since Estonia has had a strong Lutheran presence since the Protestant Reformation, Archbishop Profittlich sought to build ecumenical ties, as well as explain the Catholic faith through frequent columns in newspapers.

Then, in 1940, Soviet troops invaded Estonia, deporting tens of thousands of people to the gulags in Siberia.

“My predecessor, Archbishop Profittlich, died in jail in the Soviet gulag,” said Bishop Jourdan. “His Vicar General spent 10 years in jail in Siberia, and came back in very, very poor health. Many priests were expelled.”

“It was a very hard time; we could say it was a time of martyrs,” said the Bishop.

Out of a population of 1.1 million in 1949, around 20 percent of Estonians were deported around the same time as Archbishop Profittlich.

“There is no family in Estonia without a victim of the gulag at that times,” noted Bishop Jourdan. “The life of Archbishop Profittlich was really a symbol of the life of the Estonian people in the 20th century.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Catholic Church was reborn in Estonia, leading to a renewal of Catholicism in the country. “I would say the suffering of all those Catholics in Estonia during the last 100 years are bearing fruit,” said Bishop Jourdan.

Archbishop Eduard Profittlich, SJ

Archbishop Eduard Profittlich, SJ

Events to celebrate centenary jubilee

To celebrate its rich history and centenary, the Church in Estonia has planned a series of events to take place on the weekend of November 2-3, 2024.

The main event will be the celebration of Holy Mass in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, in Tallinn.

“We have invited many people from abroad, especially from neighboring countries and Churches that had special importance for us during Soviet times,” noted Bishop Jourdan.

He gave the example of Bishop Raimo Ramón Goyarrola Belda, the bishop of Helsinki, in Finland, whose predecessors conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on Catholics in Estonia during Soviet times.

Another promient guest will likely be Archbishop Zbigņev Stankevičs, the Archbishop of Riga, Latvia, of which diocese Estonia historically formed part.

The centenary weekend will include conferences to explore the local Church’s history. In preparation for the anniversary, Catholics will make a pilgrimage in late August to the country’s oldest Marian shrine, St. Mary’s Chapel, built in the 13th century in Viru-Nigula.

Bishop Jourdan pointed out that chance would have it that Taize’s annual European Youth Meeting will take place in Tallinn in late December.

“It’s not strictly related to the Jubilee,” said Bishop Jourdan, “but of course we will take this opportunity to share more about this Jubilee with young people.”

Listen to the full interview

Looking to the saints as a model of heroic dedication

The centenary jubilee will offer the Church in Estonia the chance to highlight the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Profittlich, Bishop Jourdan’s predecessor.

The Servant of God’s cause for canonization is currently working its way through the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

“It is very important for us, because he would be the first saint of the Catholic Church in Estonia,” said Bishop Jourdan. “Whether or not he will be beatified, his cause has given us the possibility to explain who saints are, especially to our Lutheran brothers and sisters who may not understand the Catholic idea of a saint.”

As the centenary approaches, Catholics in Estonia look to their father in the faith, Archbishop Eduard Profittlich, as a source of inspiration.

“The saints are not people who take for themselves the love that we should give to Christ,” concluded Bishop Jourdan. “They are people who received the grace of God and became saints because they received the grace of God fully.”

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