Jean-François Thiry: «I am a Catholic who genuinely loves the Orthodox Church»
Vladimir Legoyda
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This new Parsuna episode is about a Catholic’s view of the Orthodox Religion. Having come from Belgium, Jean-François Thiry has been living in Russia since 1991. What keeps him here and what is the hardest thing for him to endure in Russia? Does he have a favorite Russian saint? What does he feel about Martin Luther? And why did he take a vow of celibacy but not become a monk?

Hello, our dear friends. We continue to paint parsunas of our contemporaries. Today we are joined by Jean-François Thiry. Jean-Francois, hello.


I welcome you here wholeheartedly. You’ve seen our program, I know.

Yes, sure.

Just in case, let me remind you and our esteemed viewers that we have five sections, i.e. Faith, Hope, Patience, Forgiveness, and Love. But before we start, in keeping with our tradition, I would like to ask you to introduce yourself, but instead of telling about your title, I would like to ask you to tell us something you deem important, fundamental to say about yourself.

If I have to come up with some words that define me, I would say, That I am still a Catholic who genuinely loves the Orthodox Church, perhaps because of being an ecumenical Christian. That’s who I would like to be, at least.

I see. You have protected yourself against all possible attacks from the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, thank you. The first section is Faith.



You are a Catholic who has lived in an Orthodox country for many years. And in one of your interviews you said that Orthodoxy gave you back a feeling of mystery. First of all, I would like to go in detail about this subject. What does it mean “brought back a feeling of mystery”? Secondly, what has Orthodoxy taught you over the years, or maybe it has made you realize something, besides this feeling of mystery.

It really has. I’ve suddenly discovered that I go to the mass quite regularly and that I already know everything that’s going to happen there. That is, I sort of master the mass and master the Christian life, and I was getting bored with it. It’s probably a little bit like when I was a kid, when I used to go to church because my parents told me, and I didn’t understand why. And then I quit, of course. That’s the routine, when you already know everything that’s going to be there, all of a sudden, I realize that there’s some risk here. At this point, I attend the Orthodox liturgy quite regularly, when I have time. And suddenly I saw how much bigger it was than everything that I already know about Christianity.

Did the worship service give you this feeling?

Yes, it came exactly from the worship service, I was participating as... maybe as a spectator, but with prayer. Clearly, I can’t be part of the sacraments. First of all, when you don’t understand all the language, you need to stay more focused. You stand there for at least an hour and a half or two hours, so, you make already a physical effort to do it. Main things happen behind the iconostasis, and trying to listen closely, you don’t understand everything. In short, it was all more than what I already knew, and so I went back—I never quit—but I went back then to the mass keeping this desire that everything happening would always be more than what I already knew about Christianity. I am therefore very grateful when I need to go back to that state, I often take great pleasure in going to the liturgy.

You attended liturgy several times, does this feeling of mystery go away? You probably understand the service? Doesn’t it go away?

Right. I sing along whenever I can. No, it doesn’t go away. I don’t know why, perhaps the reason is that I still don’t understand all the words. (Both laughing.)

You have seen The Young Pope if I am not mistaken?

Yes, I have.

Is it about faith?

I would say this film is about a religious feeling. Same is about The Island. That’s where I see the great danger posed by those two films. They use the image of the Church. And at the end of the day, this content for me, these two films first and foremost refer to man’s relationship with God, with the mystery. It’s the danger of what can happen when it all comes down to some structure, maybe to one’s sins, for example.

You mean the danger posed by the film?

No, it emphasizes what... The main... No, I’m sorry. The danger I see here is that they use the image of the Church in order to convey the message that man is by nature a relationship with God.

So, you mean as if we don’t need the Church at all?

Yes, that’s where I see the danger.

It’s just that I know a lot of Orthodox people, moreover, naturally, they are Orthodox, who like this TV show very much. I mean The Young Pope. They see it as the most successful Catholic missionary project ever, that the Vatican almost intentionally ordered it, and so on.

But it’s not a project of the Church, it was a film director who decided to shoot it... Maybe it was a success, because he realized that there was a niche. But that’s where I also see the danger.

But do you consider it a successful missionary project?

I do not know.

What I mean is that people who don’t care about religion, about faith, about the Catholic Church they watch this movie. And they take an interest in the Church, maybe they start going to church. They realize that the Church is an institution with a human face. Don’t you see it like that?

To me it’s a misguided approach. We start on the wrong side. In my opinion, faith is not generated through culture, it is generated through a personal encounter with the living God. All these vibes that appear afterwards—the Church, the Cultural Center, and the Foma magazine—are all wonderful, but if they are not generated through this real event, an encounter, to me, similar to that happened two thousand years ago, they are illusions, and we don’t get to the point of this, when God became human and meets you now, in this moment. So, there is this danger to see some kind of vibe, and to see the Church as a vibe, but to miss the source of these vibes

Yes, I know that, indeed, the encounter with the living Christ is central to the congregation where you belong, and it’s very interesting what you said, you already answered my next question: what is it? You experience something similar to what happened to the apostles two thousand years ago. But can’t a movie become... Not necessarily this one, but any movie, you said that culture is a superstructure. But for the viewer, can’t a film be such a stepping stone to this encounter, or can’t the viewer have the encounter through watching a movie?

Yes, anything can happen. It might be a movie, it might even be a book. I found such an interesting book in your dressing room, How to Inherit the Kingdom of God? It’s a rule guiding through what I have to do to... It might be books like this one, it might be a movie, it might be a cultural activity, it might be a magazine. But sooner or later you have to get to the essence. Because if we don’t get to that point, these intermediate tools will prove insufficient and flawed. After all, probably, your magazine contains some mistakes doesn’t it?

No, well, I’m not the Pope.

The Pope makes mistakes, too.

Let’s speak about it further. Do you have your favorite Russian saint?

I would say that my favorite Russian saint is Dr. Friedrich Joseph Haass.


This is a man who left his homeland, came here, gave his life for Christ, helped people and became a Russian. Fyodor Petrovich Gaaz. He got patronimic Petrovich, and he built a relationship with then Metropolitan Philaret. That’s the person I look up to.

That’s a beautiful answer, but if we talk about Orthodox Russian saints who were canonized by the Church, is there anyone who you’re particularly interested in, in whom, perhaps, you see this mystery that you felt in Orthodoxy?

I see it in all of them, of course.

Jean-François, I am asking this not because I want you to confess, I’m just curious, whether you are going to name a highly revered saint or maybe someone completely unexpected.

I’m probably most of all interested at these 20th saints.

New martyrs?

New martyrs, yes. Because it remains such a huge challenge for me: How would I have behaved, would I have been able to remain loyal to my faith under such circumstances? Would I go along with my own conscience? So for me, these are the people I look up to and who inspire me.

Let’s change the subject. How do you feel about Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism?

Currently—because my attitude to Martin Luther drastically changed over time; I used to see him as, let’s say, an enemy, a destroyer of the Church—now I see him more as a man who made the Church change. That’s the way I see all these challenges that the world is facing right now, I don’t think there are bad things or good things. I think that everything that is happening, even such a painful phenomenon as Martin Luther, made the Church realize where the essence is, what needs to be changed, and this became one of the sources of the Counter-Reformation, of changes within the Church itself. That’s why I look at thing this way now. It wasn’t always like that.