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March 2009

Heroic Catholics in Estonia


I never thought I would be invited to speak in Estonia on Orthodox/Catholic Dialogue but when I received an invitation to do so by the Trialogos Festival to be held from September 28-October 4, 2008, in the capital city of Tallinn, I was delighted.

Tallinn is the oldest capital in Northern Europe, and one of the loveliest with many of its old medieval buildings preserved in the Old Town Quarter of the city which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The citadel, Toompea Castle, sits on a craggy hill peering down on a fascinating amalgam of medieval rooftops and winding cobbled streets marked by graceful spires and turreted towers. Here one also finds the ruins of churches, convents, passageways and courtyards, marketplaces, street cafes, restaurants, and art galleries and museums.

There will be seen some remarkable churches built in the 13th century and reminiscent of a Catholic past when Crusader knights and military orders  integrated Estonia’s inhabitants into the Christian world. By 1227, the territory of present day Estonia was Christianized, and since 1215 bore the name ‘Land of Mary’ given by Pope Innocent III.

The Monastic orders of Cistercians and Dominicans played a leading role in the Christianization of Estonia, and it was at the ruin of St. Catharine’s church, a 13th century Dominican church,  that the 10th Trialogos Conference dealing with the East-West political and religious divide was held. The Reformation and later centuries’ persecution under the Czars, the Nazis and the Soviets would lead to suffocating restrictions and the veritable suppression of Catholicism. Today after a harsh and brutal Soviet occupation religious freedom now exists together with widespread religious ignorance and indifference.

As the attractive booklet for St. Peter and St. Paul’s Catholic Cathedral in Tallinn (the seat of the Apostolic Administrator in Estonia, Bishop Phillipe Jourdan) has noted: “Many people who live in Tallinn do not know that there is a Catholic Church in Tallinn and likewise many Estonians do not know that there are Catholics in Estonia. Catholicism seems to belong to the distant past, to the romantic Middle Ages; after all Lutheranism has been the dominant religion in Estonia for centuries!”

Today, in an Estonian population of nearly one-and-a-half million (caught between the ideological conflicts between East and West)  there are also a large number of Russian Orthodox and Estonian Orthodox, and less than 6,000 Catholics.

Trialogos Festival

Among these few Catholics there is a remarkable group of convert Catholic families led by Trialogos’ chief organizer, Taivo Nitvagi, who for ten years has worked indefatigably to make possible  the “Trialogos Festival” to promote “dialogue between East and West; dialogue between art, science and religion; dialogue between the past, present and hereafter.”

“Trialogos 10, 2008,” featured not only a number of speakers to discuss theological, philosophical, and literary matters but also comprised other cultural components - too often artificially separated - music, theatre, poetry, fine arts, and scholarship.

Bishop Philippe Jourdan opened the series of lectures with a superb address on “The Notion and Role of the Papacy in the Past and Today”. He noted that it is hard to see God in visible things but the Mystery of the Papacy must be regarded as part of the Incarnational economy wherein God has intrinsically united Himself to humanity. It is the Papacy which saves the Church from radical errors which seek to so spiritualize the Church that its very visibility will be lost.

Metropolitan Stephanos, head of the Estonian Orthodox Church under the Ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, spoke on “The Churches of East and West: rich in their diversity”. In the question and answer period he noted with some distress the conflict between Constantinople and Moscow over the control of Estonian Orthodox parishes. Upon my returning home, news stories have appeared revealing that on October 13  the Russian Orthodox Church suspended its membership in the Conference of European Churches over its dispute with Constantinople over the Estonian Orthodox Church.

American speakers were Prof. Jeffrey Langan of Holy Cross College who spoke on St. Augustine’s “City of God”; Robert Sungenis who dealt with “The Religion of Scientism” and the “Decadent Effects of Secular Philosophy on Art, Architecture and Music”; Prof. John Rao on “Seeing All Things in Christ”; James Larson who gave a touching account of his conversion to Catholicism and spoke on “Thomistic Thought on God and Eastern Orthodoxy”; E. Mike Jones, editor of Culture Wars who made some brilliant interventions in discussions. Among other speakers was the Jewish convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Israel Shamir who spoke on Jewish Messianism; the Russian Orthodox pianist/composer Vladimir Martynov, who gave a presentation of the marvellous Mosaics and Frescoes of the church of Karic Dzham which he interpreted according to 14th century Palamite theology of uncreated divine light and energies; and the Russian Orthodox Elena Smorgunova who spoke on 19th century Russian thinkers dealing with prospects of Church Reunion between East and West (N. Gallitzin, I. Gagarin, I. Marynov, and N. Muraviev). Fr. Ivo Ounpuu, one of three native Estonian priests, spoke on “The Problem of Christian Unity according to the Magisterium of the Church”.

Translators were available to translate the various talks and discussions into Estonian, Russian, and English for those in attendance.

Behind 1054

This brief article does not permit an analysis of all the riches contained in the above addresses. I will confine myself to a brief account of the three talks I gave which touched directly on the doctrinal issues which keep Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches from full communion. 

My first lecture was on “The Patriarch Michael Cerularius and 1054: What Really Happened?” It noted how the Patriarch Michael Cerularius of the Imperial City deepened the growing political, cultural, and theological estrangement between the sees of Rome and Constantinople by having his surrogate, Leo, the Bulgarian bishop of Achrida, launch some liturgical attacks on the Latin Church which spread anti-Latin sentiments among the Byzantines in South Italy. The attack on the Latin use of unleavened bread (Azymes) for the Eucharist would also lead to the patriarch’s closing of Latin churches in Constantinople itself.

Cerularius’ actions must be understood in the context of Byzantine political theory of Church-State relations and the mentality of the Byzantines who regarded themselves as the only true Romans and also as the “New Israel” whose Imperial Patriarch sought to establish supremacy over the other three Eastern patriarchs. His attack on the “Azymites” led to the embassy of Roman legates to Constantinople that was led by Cardinal Humbert (almost as intolerant as Cerularius himself) and to the dramatic mutual excommunications of 1054.

Though not involving the Churches in a formal schism, the seeds were sown for the further ruptures that took place with the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the rejection of the Reunion Council of Lyons of 1274. It is astonishing to note that in 1054 the dispute over Azymes was a far more serious doctrinal issue than the famous “Filioque” controversy or the later dispute over the Roman Primacy.

The Russian Newman

In my lecture “Vladimir Soloviev, the Russian Newman and Pioneer of Ecumenism,” it was observed that the greatest of Russian philosophers, Vladimir Soloviev, has been praised by Pope John Paul II for his establishing “a fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God” and by the distinguished Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar as “perhaps second only to Thomas Aquinas as the greatest artist of order and organization in the history of thought.”

As a Christian philosopher of “Godmanhood” and critic of Naturalism and atheistic humanism, Soloviev would form a theocratic theology of politics and a social gospel which led him to break with the ultra-nationalist Slavophiles and brought on harassment by Czarist censors. His growing sympathies towards Catholicism resulted in a deep study of the history of the Schism between Rome and Byzantine Orthodoxy, and the writing of what has heen termed a “masterpiece of ecclesiology”, his Russia and the Universal Church.

In that work Soloviev excoriated the “anti-Catholic Orthodox” who supported the continuance of the Schism by detesting anything Western, and professed his faith in the Papacy as essential to the apostolic nature of the Church. He never recanted this belief. Thus, many of his admirers have seen great similarities between Soloviev and his English contemporary John Henry Cardinal Newman, and especially in their understanding of the development of Christian doctrine.

Healing the schism?

My third lecture was “What are the actual Doctrinal Impediments to the Reunion of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches?” I noted the various answers given to that fascinating question by Catholic and Orthodox theologians and writers:

1) There are but two dogmatic issues which keep the Churches apart, namely the doctrines of the Primacy of universal authority and jurisdiction of the Pope and the Procession of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the famous “Filioque” clause.

2) There are many dogmatic and doctrinal issues between Catholics and Orthodox which serve as obstacles to the Unity of faith that must characterize the true Church. (In addition to the Primacy and Procession, there are the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, the Particular Judgment, the Palamite denial of the Beatific Vision of the Essence of God, the validity of Catholic sacraments, the moral issues of contraception and divorce- and re-marriage, not to mention yet other issues.)

3) There are NO real dogmatic and doctrinal issues which prevent the Reunion of the Churches for past doctrinal quarrels are the result more of political, cultural, and linguistic estrangement and misunderstanding. Moreover, none of the dogmatic or doctrinal negations insisted upon by the Orthodox to justify the continuation of their Schism can be said to have the sanction of an Ecumenical Council which alone possesses authority to bind the consciences of the Christian faithful.

Each of the above theses were examined with particular emphasis on the thought of Vladimir Soloviev who opted for thesis no. 3, a thesis which holds out great hope for the holding of a future Ecumenical Council where both Catholic and Orthodox bishops will meet in true collegiality to heal the division which has brought so much tragedy to Christian peoples.

There were a few interesting sharp exchanges among the participants regarding whether the Collegial Consecration for the conversion of Russia had indeed taken place in 1984, over the tendency in Russian Orthodox thought to distance itself from any “Western contamination”, and over the Palamite doctrine of “uncreated divine energies” held by the Estonian Bishop Stephanos and the Russian Vladimir Martynov, one of the founders of the Festival. 

Culture and liturgy

It was a wonderful week in Tallinn which has a growing reputation of becoming the cultural and tourist Prague of the North. The musical events that took place in “Trialogos 10” were simply outstanding. There were the superb children and youth choirs from St. Michael’s school who sang for St. Michael’s Feast Day; the superb Sirin chorale from Moscow singing Russian liturgical music and a medieval mystery play “The Play of Herod”; the medieval French play “Aucassin and Nicolette” presented by Estonian students; a Latin Requiem Mass with male singers from the groups “Linnamuusikud” and “Vox Clamantis” presented in the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin Dome Church (Lutheran); poetry readings (in Estonian) by talented young people; and a beautiful session of Evening Prayer with singing in Greek, Slavic and Latin, jointly presided by the Catholic Bishop Philippe Jourdan and the Estonian Orthodox Bishop Stephanos.

One of the highlights of the morning Tridentine Masses was the chant utilized from an ancient Cistercian Missal with improvisation and embellishment sung by cantor Marcel Peres from France, who has specialized in making known the Ancient Roman Chant found in a few medieval manuscripts.

There were other unforgettable sights and sounds.

There was the beautiful Sunday liturgy in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and the viewing of the magnificent high altar and medieval Church art and vestments in the 13th century St. Nicholas church (Neguliste), one of the most remarkable examples of Estonian architecture (and now a Museum). Destroyed by Nazi bombers, the Soviets had reconstructed the medieval church to make it an atheistic showplace.

There was the walk-through of St. Michael’s Collegium in Tallin which is a school established by Catholic converts but which provides a broad Christian formation to a 1200 student body (elementary and high school), most of the students non-Catholics. The school is remarkable for its emphasis on individual tutoring and instruction in hand-crafts, its stress on music and art, and its providing facilities for young mothers to continue their studies on the secondary level.

The St. Michael Society has recently formed an Institute for the Culture of Life to combat the Culture of Death in Estonia. Since abortion was legalized by the Soviet Union in 1956, more than 1.5 million unborn children have been killed, far more than this tiny nation’s current population (1.3 million). Depopulation is perhaps the most serious social problem facing Estonia as well as other European nations.

Catholic witness

What was most impressive in my short visit was noting the vibrant activities of such remarkable couples as Taivo and Dina Nitvagi, and Varro and Helena Vooglaid and the others I met who gave vivid expression to the renewal of Catholic life in Estonia and who  proved so hospitable to all their visitors. Varro, who is a law student at the University of Helsinki, spoke excellent English and was invaluable as a guide to the various events taking place.

It was a pleasure to meet also the monk Seraphim who came from his Norwegian hermitage to participate in the liturgical singing and the question and answer sessions.

When Pope John Paul II visited Tallinn in September 1993 and held a solemn papal Mass at the Town Square, he may be said to have given a new impetus to the re-evangelization of Estonia concerning which the Trialogos Festival events play an indispensable role.

 May Our Lady of Estonia bless and assist the heroic Catholics of Tallinn to continue to  reach out ecumenically to their fellow Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants to cement the bonds of  friendship and fellowship that flow from the love of Christ.

The author is president emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith.



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