Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Father Ignace Lepp
By John Janaro
Father Ignace Lepp (1909–1966) was well known as a prolific, sometimes provocative French commentator on various important issues in his time. His studies on atheism were particularly insightful because he was a convert to Christ and the Catholic Church after ten years as an influential member of the Communist Party. In the mid-1950s Lepp published From Karl Marx to Jesus Christ. His autobiographical reflections were rightly appreciated for their clarity, sincerity, and insider’s view of Communism from 1925 to 1934—the years of Lepp’s activism, which coincided with both the rising influence of the international Communist Party and Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union. The book’s vivid personal style flows well, even though—as Lepp informs us from the beginning—he can’t tell us everything. He was writing about people still living and ongoing situations during the height of the Cold War and wanted to avoid putting anyone in danger.
Nevertheless, much of Lepp’s story is straightforward. A brilliant youth from a non-religious middle-class background, he was drawn to Communism amidst the chaos of post-World War I Europe. Lepp wanted to live for a great ideal, and rebelled against working for the family shipping business. The fervor of the Communist movement in the 1920s—invigorated by the “triumph” of the Soviet Union—captivated him along with many others. From age fifteen he threw himself into Party activism, and rose rapidly to leadership as a propagandist. Nevertheless, increasingly frequent visits to the Soviet Union made it clear that Communism was not realizing his ideals of justice; rather, it was taking shape in the horrific brutality of Stalin’s totalitarian state.
By 1934, Lepp was thoroughly disillusioned by Communism. He was nearly in despair when he discovered the figure of Jesus Christ, first in literature, then in critical and revisionist authors who—far from making him skeptical—caused him to be more attracted to Jesus, for they testified to the greatness of Jesus’ humanity even as they denied Christian doctrines about him.
Lepp began to seek out different Christian groups, without satisfaction, until one day he met a Catholic priest.
His encounter and ensuing friendship with this “famous Jesuit theologian” are beautifully recounted. The priest’s “very modest little cell” was home to a man of stunningly vast knowledge but also unusual holiness and charity. As Lepp raised religious questions, the priest guided him patiently, following the workings of grace that were drawing Lepp to the realization that Jesus is God Incarnate, who calls the whole human race to a communion infinitely more profound than anything Marxist materialism might offer.
This led Lepp to conversion, baptism, and the decision to explore consecrated life by traveling through Belgium and France. The book ends without telling us the name of his famous Jesuit, nor precisely where he became Catholic. We know Lepp was protecting people’s identities and avoiding dangerous situations.
But his silence went deeper than it appears at first glance. Lepp never revealed that, though he had been in France for many years, he was born in Estonia. He was an active Communist in France and Germany but then returned to Estonia in 1934. The famous Jesuit, on the other hand, remained anonymous because Lepp presumed he was a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. Estonian independence in 1991 opened records revealing that the remarkable Jesuit bishop Eduard Profittlich had died in prison in 1942. Profittlich’s beatification is now advancing, and he may soon become the “protomartyr” of the Catholic Church in Estonia.
Ignace Lepp’s conversion is all the more remarkable for giving us a rare glimpse into the personality of the heroic priest who led him to the fullness of faith in Christ.