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« Tuna 4 / 2020

A Jesuit Professor between East and West. 130 Years since the Birth of Eduard Profittlich

This year, 11 September marked the passing of 130 years since the day on which Eduard Profittlich was born in Birresdorf in the Rhineland. He was the first catholic bishop in Estonia after the Reformation. He was only able to perform the duties of a bishop for barely five years – from 27 December 1936 until his imprisonment on 27 June 1941. Eduard Profittlich died on 22 February 1942 in the Kirov prison in Russia.

The future bishop completed his matriculation exam in 1912 at the Royal Gymnasium in Linz and one year later, he joined the Jesuit Order regardless of the opposition of his parents. Profittlich began his noviciate on 1 April 1913 at the seminary in the small Dutch town of Heerenberg located at the German border, but World War I interrupted his studies. Profittlich worked as a physician’s assistant in a German military hospital in Denaine in Northern France near the Belgian border until the end of the war. After the war, Profittlich continued his studies in Valkenburg. He was ordained as a deacon in Cologne Cathedral in March of 1922, and he was ordained a priest in August of the same year. By that time, he had most likely already made the decision that determined the rest of his life, joining the Jesuit Order’s planned Russian Mission in September. Profittlich prepared for his missionary work at the University of Cracow, where he defended his Doctor of Philosophy degree cum laude in June of 1923, and his Doctor of Theology degree in July of the following year. After university, Profittlich worked in Opole in Southern Poland, and as the curate for the Polish congregation at the Church of St. Ansgar in Hamburg.

Jesuit missionary work was admittedly not possible in Soviet Russia, but dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church who had emigrated was possible. This prompted the interest of the Mission’s main ideologist Michel d’Herbigny in Lutheran Estonia, where there admittedly were few Catholics, but there was a considerable Russian Orthodox congregation. It was on his proposal that the German Jesuit Eduard Profittlich, who had joined the Russian Mission, was sent to Estonia. He already had considerable experience for this work from his work with the Polish congregation. On 4 December 1930, the government granted Profittlich permission to work as the priest for Tallinn’s Catholic Peter-Paul congregation.

Estonia’s Catholics belonged to the Mogilev Archdiocese, which was established in 1782, until Estonia gained its independence. Starting on 22 September 1918, they belonged to the Riga Catholic Diocese. The congregations that consisted mostly of Poles, Lithuanians and Germans were small. The number of Catholics in Estonia barely extended to 2,500. The Estonian congregations that belonged to the Riga Diocese did not have a clear church organisation, a common liturgy, and in some cases, also elementary knowledge of Christianity. The revival of Estonia’s Catholic Church began in 1922, when Pope Pius XI appointed the Jesuit Antonio Zecchini as Estonia’s apostolic visitator.

Eduard Profittlich not only took over the leadership of Tallinn’s congregation, but also that of the entire Catholic Church in Estonia. Profittlich was appointed Estonia’s apostolic administrator in June of 1931. The Catholic Church was officially registered in Estonia on 6 May 1932. Estonia’s ambassador to the Holy See was appointed to office in July of 1933. In addition to the Jesuit priests who were already operating in Estonia, Capuchins from the Bavarian Ordensprovinz (province of a religious order), who were similarly associated with the Russian Mission, came to Estonia.

The greatest change was making the Catholic Church visible in Estonian society in the 1930s. Priests were obligated to learn Estonian and church services were carried out in Estonian. The catholic prayer and song book Au olgu Jumalale [Glory be to God] was published in Estonian in 1932. The monthly periodical Kiriku Elu [Church Life], the publication of which began in 1933, explained the viewpoints of the Catholic Church to Estonian intellectuals. Profittlich analysed relations between confessions in several articles that appeared in this periodical. Admittedly without denying the need for a reunification of the Western Christian church, he found that the current situation at that time primarily required solidarity between confessions. The Russian Mission was no longer topical. Profittlich devoted himself to strengthening the Catholic Church in Estonia.

The Vatican recognised Eduard Profittlich’s efforts in building the Estonian Catholic Church by appointing him bishop on 27 November 1936. A number of tasks that required discretion and diplomatic skill lay before the newly ordained Catholic Church bishop. On Christmas Eve of 1934, Estonia’s riigivanem (prime minister with the representative functions of head of state) approved the Kirikute ja usuühingute seadus [Act concerning churches and religious societies], which was to go into effect the following year and would strengthen the position in society of both the Lutheran and the Apostolic Orthodox churches. The bishop had to convince the Capuchins, who wanted to leave Estonia due to the citizenship requirement prescribed in the act, to continue their work, and to apply for work permits for priests of foreign origin.

He himself was a citizen of the Republic of Estonia, but he was aware that as a German national, remaining in Estonia after the military bases agreement signed by the Soviet Union and the Republic of Estonia on 28 September 1939 was a threat to his life. Profittlich was prepared to leave Estonia, but not without the approval of the Holy See. Pope Pius XII left him the freedom to decide on his own but recommended that he do what is best for his congregation. A good shepherd does not leave his flock, at least not voluntarily. On the night before 27 June 1941, Eduard Profittlich was arrested. A 2,000-kilometre-long journey to Kirov prison and night-time interrogations followed. Eduard Profittlich was sentenced to death on the basis of fabricated charges on 21 November 1941, yet the Soviets did not manage to execute him – he died on 22 February 1942 due to hunger and cold in the inhuman conditions of a Russian prison.