The invitation for Pope Francis to visit Estonia today, Sept. 25, 2018, was made jointly by the highest Catholic and Lutheran authorities in Estonia. And given that the Catholic cathedral is too small to welcome the Pope, and given the crowd of young people expected, the Lutheran church will lend one of its churches to host the event.
The Most Reverend Urmas Viilma is the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the largest Christian denomination of that country. Catholics comprise less than 1%. In this interview with Zenit, Reverend Viilma reflects on the good climate of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation in Estonia and on the “spiritual emptiness of Estonian society, deeper today than 30 years ago, before the collapse of the Communist system, despite the high standard of living being achieved today.
He warns, “on matters of religion, new generations of Estonians are almost illiterate. Connection to God has been interrupted, the Church can get contact to young people only when we interact with them personally.”
Here is our interview. Zenit’s Deborah Castellano Lubov is following the Baltics Trip from the Papal Flight and is in Tallinn today.
ZENIT: Reverend Viilma, the Lutheran Church will participate in the Pope’s trip by lending one of its own churches for the meeting with the young people… Why is this necessary?
Yes, the meeting with His Holiness will take place in Charles Church, one of the largest Lutheran Church in Tallinn. Since the Catholic Cathedral accommodates only a few hundred people, Lutherans were asked to help with finding a suitable church. In the same church, we had Lutheran-Catholic common prayer last year to commemorate Reformation 500-year anniversary.
ZENIT: How would you define the climate of ecumenical relations in Estonia?
In Estonia, no Church has a dominant majority among the population. According to the 2011 census, only one third, 29 percent, of the total adult population of Estonia consider themselves to be believers. This number includes members of all denominations. The largest denomination among Estonians is Lutheranism with 150,000 members and [there is] a similarly large group of Orthodox with 160,000, who tend to be the Russian-speaking minority national group. There are approximately 8,000 Baptists and 6,000 Catholics.
ZENIT: And what about the others?
The majority, or almost 70%, of the population according to the census 2011, are religiously undefined. As Christians are a minority, there is no obligation nor right on part of the Churches to adapt their proclamation according to the expectations of the majority of people and of society. At the same time, the position of the largest minority in society contributes to the ecumenical cooperation between Churches.
ZENIT: In which way?
Churches are trying to jointly shape a message to society. This explains why no church nor denomination in Estonia differentiates from other churches in ethical and moral issues and why the Churches attempt to speak with one voice in the traditional language. If even one Church were to leave the ecumenical coalition, the whole voice of Christianity in Estonian society would be dispersed.
ZENIT: What does the Pope and his visit mean to you, as a Lutheran?
I am pleased to note that the invitation to Pope Francis was sent from Estonia with two signatures – one from Archbishop of Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Urmas Viilma and another from the Roman-Catholic Church of Estonia Bishop Philippe Jourdan. I had the opportunity to meet the Pope earlier in person as Vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation last December. During the Pope’s visit next week, I will welcome the Pope in Charles’ Church and will also have the opportunity to give my own message. Such ecumenical cooperation allows Estonian society and the world to see that Christians are looking for opportunities for cooperation, at the same time when the world is polarized.
ZENIT: During the last 30 years, what has changed in the country? How would you describe the many changes that have occurred there?
Estonia is a very innovative and rapidly developing country. We have quickly achieved a fairly high standard of living and the country’s economy is good. But addition to this, the inner and spiritual emptiness of people has deepened. Estonia is probably the only country in Europe where children have religious studies in a public school. This means that Estonian children achieve maximum results in PISA tests in science, but in the issues related to religion, the new generations of Estonia are almost illiterate.
ZENIT: Let’s speak about young people nowadays … When they were young, for their parents and grandparents, religion was precious because it was forbidden. It was a furnace of resistance. Today, there is freedom. How can one make the young understand the importance of faith?
Estonia is a society, where personal connection to God or Church has been interrupted in families and where there is no education of children on these issues at school. Young people will only come to church when they encounter personal existential questions. There are few such young people, but their inner motivation is then deeper and devotion to faith as well. The Church can reach young people only when we interact with them personally.
ZENIT: What are your expectations from this youth meeting?
Christian Churches have in a polarized society a common positive opportunity to show an example of mutual love. Pope’s visit will be a good expression of that one voice and mutual love. That is a positive example of the true ecumenism what is a positive way of life instead of polarization. I hope young people will notice it and want to follow the same example in their lives.