Conversations with God

Multilingualism among the Catholics in Belarus in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries. Sociolinguistic study

by Ewa Golachowska (Author)
©2020 Monographs 244 Pages
Open Access


The book discusses the sociolinguistic status and prestige of the Polish language and the changes in the national identity of Catholics in Belarus due to the switch from Polish to Belarusian in the Catholic Church. The research shows that the national identification of Catholics in Belarus is changing. The oldest generations most often self-identify as Polish. For those from the middle and youngest generations, the link between nationality and their religion is not obvious as being a Catholic does not exclude a Belarusian self-identity. Belonging to the Catholic Church results from being baptized in the Catholic rite, while national identity can be defined in many ways and re-defined by various life experiences. Catholicism has proven to be a less debated and more durable category than nationality.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface to the English Edition
  • Acknowledgements
  • I Multilingualism among the Catholic Population in Belarus in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries. Report on Fieldwork from 2009 to 2012
  • Introduction
  • Research Objective and Fieldwork Methods
  • Linguistic Problems of the Catholic Church in Belarus in the Twentieth Century in Secondary Sources
  • 1 The Functioning of Polish in Catholic Communities in Belarus
  • Eastern Belarus
  • Western Belarus
  • The Symbolic Importance of Belarusian
  • 2 Multilingualism of the Sacred Sphere
  • Languages in the Sacred Sphere and Their Communicative Function
  • Changes since the Second Vatican Council
  • Polish and Belarusian in the Practice of the Catholic Church in Belarus in the Twenty-First Century
  • Language of Catechesis
  • Language of Sermons
  • Language of the Liturgy
  • Language of Prayer
  • The Function of Russian
  • 3 The National Identity of Catholics in Belarus at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century
  • Conclusions
  • II Multilingualism among the Catholic Population in Belarus in the Accounts of Witnesses of History
  • Texts
  • Polish Texts
  • Minsk
  • Mohilev
  • Grodno
  • Rubiazhevichi
  • Eastern Slavic Texts
  • Bezchynne (Mohilev District)
  • Prodvino
  • Fashchivka
  • Bezchynne
  • Grodno
  • Quoted Interviewees
  • P϶зюм϶
  • Bibliography
  • Photographs
  • Series Index

Preface to the English Edition

The book “Conversations with God. Multilingualism among the Catholics in Belarus in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries” is a description and interpretation of phenomena that accompanied the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus in its transition from Polish to the Belarusian language. This change was accompanied by a high amount of tension of a social and ethnic character. In addition, it may be assumed that for many young Catholics in Belarus the linguistic transformations in the sacred sphere have become a catalyst for change or a reason for verifying their own national identity. However, it is not just a description of the specific situation that is of significance here. By undertaking reflections on the relationships between religion, language and ethnicity, the book contributes to the discussion on this very issue in various Slavic countries and in Europe, particularly in the area of the former Soviet Union, where processes related to religiousness and national identity were latent for many years – it is only recently that they have come to be exceptionally dynamic. One may note that the transition of religion from the social to the private sphere is somewhat delayed here, while the significance of religion for national identity is gradually decreasing. These processes were hindered for many years as a result of atheisation, which in the 1990s was followed by the “release of faith”, as the residents of the former Soviet Union, that is my interlocutors, refer to the restoration of religious freedoms. Language as a so-called objective determinant of identity plays an important role in constructing both national and group identity.

In the case of the Polish minority in the former USSR, the Roman Catholic Church no longer serves to maintain national identity since these functions are now fulfilled by Polish organisations, Polish language schools and courses, Polish cultural associations and other forms of activity among the Polish diaspora that came into being after the 1990s. In this situation, the Roman Catholic Church has become multi-ethnic. Various examples illustrating this can be mentioned, such as the Catholics in Belarus using both Belarusian and Polish in church, the Catholics in Ukraine praying not only in Polish but also in Ukrainian and Russian, as well as those living in Wierszyna, a Polish village in Siberia, where Polish and Russian languages are used interchangeably in the sacred sphere.

As a result, the important universal issues described in this monograph include reflections on the relationships between religion and ethnicity, as well as on the significance of religion in contemporary processes of ethnic revival and the phenomenon of the interplay between religion and identity, which on the ←9 | 10→one hand results in the sacralisation of ethnicity and its language, and, on the other, in the ethnicisation of religion.

Analysis of the complex relationships between religion and language can only be made using an interdisciplinary approach. For this reason, this book written by a linguist also takes on social problems and those related to religious studies. It discusses such universal topics as sacral language as opposed to colloquial language, the cultural functions of sacral language, reflections on the existence of the language of religion in cultural, religious and linguistic borderlands, as well as the issues of the identity or identities of someone from the borderlands.

Handing the book over to an English-speaking reader, I hope the monograph “Conversations with God? Multilingualism among the Catholics in Belarus in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries” will allow readers to gain a better understanding of how religious language functions in various specific circumstances as well as in diverse social and cultural contexts, and that this will provide inspiration for further studies into this complex yet extremely interesting and important subject matter.


This book is the result of fieldwork. This means that it is the interviewees who are its most important element, while my role is confined to listening to and interpreting their words. I would thus like to express my gratitude to them for finding time for me, allowing me to get so close to their lives and sharing their very personal accounts. In Belarus, hospitality is not limited to just setting aside time and sharing one’s story with the visitor. I thank my interlocutors for their unconditional and spontaneous kindness, and for their care for my comfort and safety.

My particular thanks go to my colleagues from Minsk, Dr Olga Gushcheva from the Belarusian State University and Dr Julia Gurskaya from the Minsk State Linguistic University, who helped to organise the research and were always ready to advise. I would like to thank the parish priest of St Nicholas Church in Svir, Father Bogusław Modrzejewski, whose organisational assistance and spiritual support were invaluable to me. I am also grateful to Dr Małgorzata Ostrówka for accompanying me on my travels in Eastern Belarus.

The inspiration for my research came from discussions with colleagues from the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Dr Anna Engelking and Dr hab. Anna Zielinska, as well as Dr hab. Zofia Sawaniewska-Mochowa. We are all students of Professor Elżbieta Smułkowa, who taught us to look not only at language, but also at its social and cultural contexts. My heartfelt thanks, therefore, to Professor Smułkowa, for her interest in my research and offering constructive advice.

I am grateful to the book’s reviewers, Dr hab. Ewa Dzięgiel and Dr Anna Engelking, for their careful reading of it and detailed suggestions. The discussions I shared with them on various subjects were very inspiring.

I was fortunate to benefit from consultations in the field of Belarusian studies with Dr Anna Żebrowska, who has a unique capacity to combine the competences of a linguist and a user of Kresy Polish – the form characteristic of the Eastern Borderlands – as well as the Belarusian dialect, and I owe her my gratitude. I also thank Gabriela Augustyniak-Żmuda, MA, for her help in putting the recordings in order.

Finally, I wish to thank my family. They have all borne the consequences of my lengthy absences. Special thanks to my husband Krzysztof for all his support, and to my children Julia, Jan and Feliks for their patience.


Research Objective and Fieldwork Methods

Between 2009 and 2012, I conducted research among the Catholic population in Western and Eastern Belarus. My investigation in Western Belarus took place in the Grodno Region.1 There, I spoke to residents of Grodno itself, Lida and Poreche, as well as of smaller settlements: Radunia, Advernik, Navahrudek, Chadziloni, Zablocha, Prevozhy, Korgovdy, Klaysh, Yeziorov, Putryshek, Verchelishek, Stryovky, Vavyorky and Hantseviche. I spent many weeks (six trips lasting between five days and two weeks) in Minsk. In the region surrounding the capital, I carried out research in Radashkovichy, Lukavets, Nyasvizh and Svir. In the Vitebsk region, I participated in a research trip together with Dr Olga Gushcheva from the Belarusian State University. We were accompanied by students from Minsk and several Polish academic institutions, and were therefore able to conduct a number of interviews with the area’s Catholic population.2 This took place in the villages and towns of Postavy, Lyntupy, Romanishky, Porozowo, Komaje, Tsaibuty and Ignacishky. I travelled to Eastern Belarus with Dr Małgorzata Ostrówka from the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, visiting Mohilev and Babruisk, as well as Bezchynne, Chavusy, Fashchivka and Prodvino.

The main objective of my research was to answer the question of whether the increasingly widespread use of the Belarusian language in the liturgy of the Catholic Church is changing the status and range in which Polish functions in Catholic communities in Belarus, and if so, what impact this has on the national identification of Catholics living in the country.3 My motivation for tackling this ←15 | 16→subject was also connected to the research carried out by ethnologists among Catholics in Belarus around two decades ago.4 This led to many studies and showed the relations between Catholicism and Polish identification, although this Polishness could be understood in many ways, and often indicated more an affiliation to the Catholic Church than national identification.

In the dynamic situation of the young Belarusian Church, almost twenty years is a very long period. It is therefore worth looking at the changes that have taken place during this time.

The interviews recorded during the research confirmed the validity of this topic, showing that the national identification of Catholics in Belarus has transformed, even on the western border, and that only the oldest generation of Catholics now identifies with Polishness. For people from the middle and younger generation, the link between nationality and confession is no longer obvious, since being a Catholic does not preclude Belarusian national identity.5 Affiliation to the Catholic Church is determined by baptism in the Catholic rite, while national identification can be defined in many ways and redefined on the basis of various life experiences. Catholicism turns out to be a less controversial and more constant category than nationality. In this book I use the term “Catholics” rather than Poles, as it is a broader category, encompassing both Catholics identifying with Polishness and those who speak only about Polish roots; those with dual identification – Polish and Belarusian, which frequently occurs in the younger generation – as well as people identifying unequivocally as Belarusian.

←16 | 17→

The research was conducted using open and non-standard interviews. I tried to reach both the leaders of local Catholic communities and local priests as well as those from Poland, in addition to other believers. My conversations with the latter often confirmed, but sometimes verified the information obtained from activists. Each of these interviews was structured differently, adapted to the nature of the contact and the informer’s expectations. Since my most important task was to obtain the interlocutor’s trust and ensure comfort in the interaction with the researcher, I did not record all the conversations, because not all participants gave their consent. On many occasions, careful listening, observation and analysis of the contexts of their utterances had to suffice. This was a useful practice for slowly gaining an authentic insight into what I was studying.

An extremely important method for verifying the information given to me in the interviews and contained in my informers’ declarations was participant observation, which meant entering their natural environment. Based on the conversations I shared in my hosts’ homes but did not record, exchanges of jokes showing increasing familiarity, and the observation of how the participants spoke to their children and grandchildren or the language they used when speaking on the telephone or to a shop assistant, I was able to evaluate the actual functional distribution of the various languages in the Belarusian Catholic community.

During my stays in Belarus, I endeavoured to participate in all religious events and ceremonies. I attended Mass and other church services, as well as taking part in young people’s religious meetings, the pilgrimage to the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius that passes through the Diocese of Grodno, and prayers in people’s homes. Participation in the religious lives of Catholic communities entailed a number of methodological and ethical dilemmas. A certain contradiction came to the fore during my research. Owing to my extensive engagement in academic, religious and national issues, I was often very emotional in my response to my informers’ statements. This engagement proved to be both a help and a trap. It aided me because I was able to identify with the point of view of my interviewees, especially those declaring a profound attachment to Polishness, but was also a hindrance since this empathy could make it difficult to treat the problems in question objectively. The dowry and burden that I brought to the research was my religiosity and my family’s past, members of whom had spent many years in exile in the Soviet Union. The interviewee’s biographical accounts often turned out to be remarkably similar to the family stories on which I was raised, and the melody of their language conjured up memories of my grandmother, who used the Polish dialect of the Eastern Borderlands to her dying day.

I introduced myself to my interlocutors as a researcher from the Polish Academy of Sciences interested in the transformation process of the language ←17 | 18→of Catholics (which for many simply meant “the language of Poles”). This fact signified that many people identifying as Poles perceived me as a natural ally regarding the Polish language in the Church. My active participation in religious life built mutual trust and closeness. On the one hand, this was convenient for me, but – on the other – it raised doubts of an ethical nature. As Anna Wyka writes:

Questions of the researcher’s ethics assume precedence. Of course, it is on us that particular moral responsibility lies, since we are the ones that initiate the contact. One could say that the ethics of the researcher and the ethics of the procedure of his or her gathering of knowledge becomes an essential condition for the substantive success of the studies.6

What caused me the biggest problem was the instrumental treatment of my own piety. I am a religious person, but during the research my religiosity also functioned as a tool for building bonds with my interviewees, rather than as simply an autonomous value. In my value system, faith has a higher status than science, which was why a certain biblical quotation reverberated in my mind:

And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.7

Yet the need to be credible and to forge contacts often led me into religious practices “at the street corners”.

I was also aided in constructing a good image and trust in conservative communities and among the clergy by my family situation – a long-term marriage and three children. This acted as a kind of “costume” that facilitated contacts. My interlocutors therefore accepted me quite quickly. My presence did not disrupt the normal functioning of the group, and I found it easy to establish a place for myself in the community. The interpretation of informers’ utterances and attitudes, however, does not always go hand in hand with their intentions. As a researcher, I draw my own conclusions, which are often very different from those that were being insinuated.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (March)
Catholic church in Belarus Polish in Belarus language of religion national identification sociolinguistics
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 244 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Ewa Golachowska (Author)

Ewa Golachowska is a linguist and Professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences. Her research interests include sociolinguistics and the relations among religion, languages and identity. She is the author of numerous sociolinguistic articles.


Title: Conversations with God
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