Catholic Religious Minorities in the Times of Transformation

Comparative Studies of Religious Culture in Poland and Ukraine

by Magdalena Zowczak (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 428 Pages


In the diasporic communities of Roman Catholics in Ukraine (Murafa) and Greek Catholics in Poland (Biały Bór) religion and the local clergy play a dominant role in the process of constructing new identities. Because of the memory of their ancestors’ deportation trauma the Greek Catholics define their Ukrainianness in opposition to their environment. In Roman Catholics’ case, the change of the liturgy’s language is followed by the Polish tradition’s rejection: they feel Ukrainian. The break of the tradition’s transmission path divides the community and directs them towards (pop)cultural homogenization with the Orthodox. The Greek Catholics are also divided because of their new church; universal in the Christian sense, it proves the overcoming of divisions, not accepted by everyone.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Part I Religious Culture in a Comparative Perspective
  • Introduction. Comparative Studies on Religious Culture
  • The Term “Religious Culture” in Religious Studies Research in Poland
  • Comparison in Contemporary Anthropological Practice
  • Religion and Identity in the Post-socialist Landscape: A Comparative Perspective
  • Part II The Confessional Minorities of Murafa and Biały Bór. The Case Studies: In the Garden of Our Lady of Murafa
  • Через наше село ішла Божа Матір (the Virgin Mary walked through our village): Public Religion and enchantment of the world in Contemporary Ukraine. The Case of Murafa and Klekotyna Villages in Vinnytsia Oblast
  • Language and Identity: Murafa’s Catholic Population on Language Changes in the Church
  • Narratives about the Pole’s Card and Its Impact on the Identity of Murafa’s Residents
  • The Sounds of Chaos: The Liturgical Music Situation in Murafa’s Roman Catholic Community
  • Christian-Jewish Relations in the Antagonistic Tolerance Model: From Religious Communities to Communities of Memory1
  • A People Without a Homeland. “Mother of Exiles, Do Not Let Us Perish!”
  • Confessional Communities as Communities of Memory: The Greek Catholics of Biały Bór and the Orthodox of Włodawa1
  • The Role of Priests in Shaping the Religious Culture of the Uniate Parishes in Kostomłoty and Biały Bór
  • Jerzy Nowosielski’s Church in Biały Bór: Reception and Cultural Contexts
  • When “the Other” Becomes Someone Close… Ethnological Self-reflections on Functioning in a Ukrainian Community in Biały Bór
  • The Locals (Tutejsi) and the Exiles: The Modernisation of Religious Culture in an Ethnographic Collage
  • List of Photos
  • About the Authors

Magdalena Zowczak

Introduction. Comparative Studies on Religious Culture

Abstract: As the research project’s author, I present the context of the religious culture’s changes during the systemic transformation period in Poland and Ukraine against the setting of the Second Vatican Council’s resolutions. I discuss the project’s main theoretical assumptions and its phenomenological inspirations as well as the basic concepts applied in the analysis and the model of comparison of cultural forms. The paper explains the reasons and circumstances of the choice of the two Catholic confessional minorities living in the Ukrainian and Polish provinces and discusses their characteristics related to their history, heritage, systemic transformation changes’ impact on them as well as confessional and ethnic relations and identity construction processes. I also describe the nature of the ethnographic research conducted in 2012–2016, the monograph’s concept as well as introduce the participating researchers – authors of the presented texts.

Keywords: anthropology of religion, Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine, Catholic Church of the Byzantine-Ukrainian Rite in Poland, political transformation, ethnography, phenomenology, Murafa, Biały Bór

The Catholic minorities of Murafa (Ukr. Мурафа)1 and Biały Bór, which are the focus of our comparative research on religious culture, construct their identities on the basis of their professed religion, in close connection with the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Catholic Churche respectively. Although they differ in terms of their rites, liturgy is the main embodiment of religion for both communities, while musical expression is a particularly important aspect of their religious culture and a form of expression of their identity. Their religious lives are centred around their churches, which, with the benefit of hindsight, I see as metaphorical for both communities’ history and culture.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Murafa,2 a village in central Ukraine, is situated between two Orthodox churches and dominates the wave-like Podilia landscape. Along with the rectory, it comprises a late-Baroque style post-Dominican monastic complex, finished in 1786 and surrounded by a high wall, which was part of the town’s former fortification system. The church’s founder was a former Polish noble who owned the town of Murafa’s land, Joachim Karol Potocki.

←9 | 10→

The church towers over the village, shining from the top of the hill with its white slender steeples over the village’s thoroughfare and the Murafa River, which flows through the extensive valley. Until recently, it was the only building in the village that was lit at night and thus served as the village’s main orientation point. Several times a day the church bells’ chimes mark the time with traditional Polish Catholic songs’ melodies. The church’s light, high-walled interior is brightened by sun rays, which come in through colourful stained-glass windows. The church itself and the miraculous image of Our Lady of Murafa on its main altar are objects of pride for the local community. Catholicism in Murafa, despite being a minority’s confession, is deeply rooted and considered local (Pol. tutejszy).3

This can be confirmed by the account of a meeting between a Murafa local with an Orthodox priest (batiushka, Ukr. батюшка) from Zaporozhe and the ←10 | 11→←11 | 12→former’s unconstrained self-presentation. The way a member of Murafa’s Catholic parish introduces herself to an Orthodox priest, surprised by her Roman Catholic confession, as well as the mode in which the local women travelling to a market “chat” about the Bible present us with a good illustration of Murafa’s traditions.

And I was asked by an Orthodox batiushka; we were going to Kyiv with my sister and were taking my calf for sale, once in the autumn. And the batiushka [joined us – MZ]; we were chatting away with women regarding that I read the Bible a little; there were me and my sister and two other women. We were chatting away about the Bible and God and this and that. And a man joins us and listens, listens until the end, and finally asks me, where are you from? I say, from Murafa. What religion are you? I say, Catholic. And why not Orthodox? I say, because it is inherited in our family, passed from grandmother to grandmother to our fathers, so it is ancestral (потомственно). And there is no Orthodox church? I say, there are two Orthodox churches. Our Catholic church is between them, and two Orthodox churches are on either side (…).4

Meanwhile, the Greek Catholic Church of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Biały Bór5 in north-western Poland was built by the town’s Ukrainian population in the 1990s, away from the historic centre, on the opposite side from the town’s two Roman Catholic churches. The author of the church’s design and its icons was Jerzy Nowosielski, an Orthodox artist and mystic. It is a small, architecturally postmodern church, built in a style inspired by early Christian basilicas. Due to its unique character, one of the tourist guides referred to it as “a church of the future”. Built in the vicinity of new housing developments, it is hidden behind the Taras Shevchenko school complex. When riding a bus along the local thoroughfare, one ←12 | 13→←13 | 14→can just catch a glimpse of it, shortly before the bus arrives to the historic centre of Biały Bór, formerly known as Baldenburg.

Although the Drawsko Lake District’s landscape, where Biały Bór is located, is hilly, the church was built on flat and empty terrain. When we approach it from the side of the road, walking along Akacjowa Street, it suddenly emerges from behind a colony of small detached houses and shrubs. The simplicity of the church’s exterior is striking; the façade bloc is crowned by two asymmetrical domes and furnished with two rounded gables. The main nave is below the side naves’ level, where parishioners sit on low benches as if in an amphitheatre. It is relatively dark inside due to the walls’ and vaults’ emerald green, and the black columns that separate the naves. The central dome’s interior features a well-lit image of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Almighty). Two rows of small round and square windows let perpendicular rays of light in, bringing out the deep red of the royal and deacon’s gates and the tetrapod. The church is rather small, as a result, during larger celebrations, the public part of the liturgy moves to the outside terrace. The triple gates in the front wall repeat the church’s interior structure, and the icons painted between them create an external iconostasis.

The location of the Greek Catholic church on Biały Bór’s outskirts and the lack of typical onion domes (which has been an object of criticism on the part of traditionalists) was specifically commented on by one of my Ukrainian interviewees, a supporter of Nowosielski’s design project. “I’d say, honestly, one of the reasons is not to tease the eye. I mean, when someone passes it by, he cannot see onion domes, so he does not know what’s inside, right?”6

I was surprised by this parishioner’s wish that the church should not attract strangers’ attention, as well as the expressed need to hide it from unwelcome gazes. Especially that this interlocutor – one of the village’s well-known and respected local residents – claimed that as a Ukrainian in Biały Bór he had never experienced any harassment. This account is characteristic for the identity of Biały Bór’s Greek Catholics: the Ukrainians who, seventy years after being deported from their homes on the opposite side of the country in south-eastern Poland, still feel as exiles.

Quite differently, Murafa’s Roman Catholics are predominately Ukrainians “of Polish descent.” The settled community, culturally close to their Orthodox neighbours, the faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate Church, first and foremost are the tutejsi, local Ukrainians. Their religious life has been shaped by the wall of the local church, present in the village for the past three centuries. Biały Bór’s ←14 | 15→Greek Catholics, in turn, have just recently built their church, giving it a shape that surpasses traditional tastes. The churches’ location and design can be seen as the expression of both religious minorities’ conditions as well as their relations with their neighbours: the Orthodox in Murafa and Roman Catholics in Biały Bór.

Catholics of the Two Rites during a Time of Systemic Transformation

Conflicts and social divisions, both in Poland and central-western Ukraine, are manifested in various forms of religious or para-religious expressions. The Christian tradition’s language of symbols, even when removed from religion, remains a means of social communication, as well as a main source of moral discourse.7 In Ukraine, the 2014 Euromaidan events in Kyiv and subsequent war with Russia have strengthened the link between religion and politics, intertwined with national discourse, in particular in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s case. On the other hand, confessional divisions vis-à-vis the faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church, often running within families, have deepened. In Poland, the link between politics and Roman Catholicism, the religion of the majority, has also been recently growing stronger, in particular after the electoral victory of the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, also known as PiS) in 2015. As a result, inter-confessional conflicts, in particular those underpinned by ethnic divisions, have become more pronounced.

These changes were taking place during our research, and we present the results in this book. Our goal is to describe the current state of religious culture in the context of political transformations, as well as the anthropological interpretation of religion’s role in selected Catholic communities in Ukraine and Poland. We also discuss its role in constructing a contemporary, expressive agency as well as the sorts of context in which it promotes or hampers democratic changes’ permeation into the lives of local provincial communities.

←15 | 16→

Considerable differences in terms of the Catholic church’s status and social position already existed between the post-war Poland, where despite an ideological fight against it, the church organisation remained active and continued catechisation, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, where there was a full ban on the young generation’s catechisation or even contact with the church organisation. In the latter case, while the construction of “political religion”8 relied on Christianity’s organisational patterns and sometimes symbolic structures, it also aimed to monopolise life and completely eliminate any religious or ideological competition. However, since the identity of the majority of the Ukrainian population was closely linked with religion, this aim was hard to reach. This fight resulted in the domestication9 of religion in Ukraine, the withdrawal of its practices from the public sphere and its takeover by the laity. As time went by, new hybrid forms appeared, based on a crosspollination between “political religion” state practices that often presented communism as an ideology associated with early Christianity, and traditional religiosity. As a rule, a higher level of education among Soviet citizens was associated with a higher level of atheisation. Religions, which were “domesticated” in rural areas, with the help of political ideology, became to a large extent associated with ignorance and superstition.

The atheisation policy was alternately intensifying and weakening to the point of complete disappearance in somewhat dissimilar rhythms in the Polish People’s Republic, where the Catholic Church of the Latin rite remained the only mainstream organisation that counted in the public life, otherwise controlled by the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). In the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s organisational structures were almost completely destroyed. Although the Catholic Church of the Eastern rite (the Greek Catholic Church) was not formally liquidated in the Soviet Union, thanks to a campaign aimed at uniting it with the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate after the so called Lviv Council of 1946, it existed in practice only in clandestine forms within a climate of increased repression. As a result, Greek Catholics’ religious life took place either within the Orthodox Church (many Greek Catholic priests became Orthodox), or underground in the privacy of the faithful’s homes. The residents of Lviv and other big cities took part in liturgies celebrated at Roman rite Catholic churches’, while the remaining few faced repressions and limitations against their practices.

←16 | 17→

In Ukrainian Podilia, the region at the focus of our research, situated east of the Greek Catholics’ main area of activity, the Uniate Church, created as a result of the Union of Brest (pol. Brześć) in 1596 during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,10 was abolished as a result of its “voluntary unification” with the Russian Orthodox Church. In Soviet times, during the 1930s in particular, repressions against Roman Catholic Church priests and believers were particularly drastic. After the Second World War, these were similar to the repressions experienced by Greek Catholics in Western Ukraine. In the Vinnytsia Oblast (located within Podilia), in 1951, only one priest performed pastoral duties among 63,111 Roman Catholics, according to official statistics; the number of registered active churches was 13.11

Meanwhile, in the post-war Polish People’s Republic, communist authorities implemented minority assimilation policies, as was the case in the whole Eastern bloc. Lemkos, Boykos and Ukrainians, Greek Catholic and Orthodox populations from south-eastern Poland, were resettled to the Soviet Union in 1944–46.12 Those who remained were deported from their homes to the so called “Recovered Territories”, while its native German population had been resettled to Germany, in its turn. Greek Catholicism was rightly perceived by the authorities to be a Ukrainian identity stronghold; for this reason they attempted to eliminate it altogether immediately after the deportations. The abandoned churches were devastated; some of them were given to Orthodox or Roman Catholic communities.

←17 | 18→

The religiosity of Catholics from both rites, Latin and Greek, was dominated by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s “political religion”, and survived mainly thanks to direct transmission, often in the form of clandestine resistance practices. Children and youth were banned from churches. Religious education became the domain of retired people, the pensioners (Ukr. пенсіонери), who did not have to fall into line vis-à-vis party authorities out of the fear of losing their jobs. The domestication of religion pushed the Ukrainian Catholicism, rooted in tradition, to the peripheries, strengthening selected religious cultural elements and promoting their persistence,13 as well as adjustment to ←18 | 19→the local life’s conditions and context. The sacred sphere (sacrum) was losing its social and public character. Forbidden practices, such as christenings, first communions and weddings, which took place in secrecy and often away from one’s home town, family and neighbours, changed their meaning. From being a social and public initiation they turned into secret mysteries experienced within an atmosphere of anxiety and fear. The religious life of Ukrainian Roman rite Catholics often took place in cemeteries, which became the religious communities’ only remaining possessions after the disappearance of churches, which were destroyed or transformed into warehouses, sports halls or clubs. In the absence of priests, their roles were often taken over by organ players, who conducted liturgies without sacraments.

The beginnings of the religious revival were associated with the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland in 1966 and the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Russ in 1988,14 which the communist authorities decided to politically exploit, giving these events an international dimension. Another factor contributing to the religious revival was the election of a Pole, Karol Wojtyła, as Pope in 1978. He proclaimed the Lviv Council to be canonically invalid, and emphasised the continuity of the Brest Union tradition in his work. These events contributed to the liberalisation of social life through the promotion of individual autonomy as well as community practices which shaped social collaboration capabilities. They were also ahead of the political change and systemic transformation that occurred in Poland in 1989 and in Ukraine in 1991, the year in which Ukraine gained its independence. This was the time of the so called “Autumn of Nations” in Central and Eastern Europe, the time of jumping over walls and tearing them down. During 1989–1991, the partial legalisation of the Catholic Church of the Ukrainian-Byzantine rite took place in Ukraine, which made the return of Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky15 to Lviv and his embracing of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s leader’s position possible. As a result of the political breakthrough, churches and religions were granted full public rights and started to gradually introduce changes to their faithful’s domesticated religious culture in order to give it a more canonical character. In Poland, it was the period of carnival which saw the evolution of the “Church of the People” to the “Church of Choice.”16

←19 | 20→

The revived Greek Catholic Church’s first bishop’s synod met in Lviv in 1992. Pope John Paul II, a participant and co-creator of the Second Vatican Council, cleared the way for the modernisation of religious life. The religious services he delivered in Warsaw in 1979 and Lviv in 2000 gathered crowds of faithful and became ground-breaking events in their religious lives. Post-Second Council Catholic Church teaching, which reached not only Ukraine but also Poland with delay, could finally be transplanted to the local ground, integrated into the small communities’ religious lives. In this context, the ideas of aggiornamento as well as sensus fidelium, adjusted to local community life and believers’ subjectivity, as well as liturgy reforms and openness towards ecumenical dialogue, were able to be applied. Has that happened? We will attempt to answer that question here.

The Time of Carnival

For Catholics, the period of John Paul II’s pontificate was an epoch when the intelligentsia’s or small social groups’ earlier spiritual searches17 started spreading among the “people” or the majority of believers. The churches’ return to public life meant that revitalisation, evangelisation and religious revival was taking place as a backlash against the earlier impairment and marginalisation of religion. During this communal period of mass services and joyous enthusiasm, Catholics could freely draw inspiration from various sources, construct their identities in an atmosphere of social liberalisation, including the selectiveness and subjectification of the religious self-construction.18 An interest in other religions, folk religiosity and/or Christian apocrypha was strengthened and soon dominated by Western popular cultural influences. As a result, religiosity was liberalised and became yet another source of consumption. Young Polish priests going to work in Ukraine represented that liberal, expressive religious cultural type, which collided with local domesticated pre-Council provincial traditions.19 The older generation associated the practices they were introducing with the practices of Shtundas or Protestant groups, and could not understand why a Catholic priest would address them in broken Ukrainian. Even if they did not speak Polish, until then they had used it as the language of the sacrum, of home prayer and liturgy and communication with the priest. Some rejected the new style and abandoned the newly regained ←20 | 21→and rebuilt Church. However, they, unlike children and youth, were not the main catechisation target group anyway.

Meanwhile in Poland, after a period of openness and liberalisation of religious life, and the resulting acceptance or even enthusiasm for changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, at the end of the 1990s, local Church representatives’ critical attitudes, strivings to purify the faith, became more prominent.

The process of progressive subjectification began to slip out from under the Church, transforming religion into an individually and ad hoc constructed spirituality, tailored to its own design. This resulted in the particularisation and polarisation of religious life, manifested not only in laity movements within the Church, but also in the clergy’s progressive differentiation. A good example of this process could be the half-joking division between the traditionalist Toruń Church, and the progressive Łagiewniki Church,20 popularised by the media.

←21 | 22→

The Return of Traditionalism and Ethnic Religion

In this atmosphere, 2010 marked the start of a period of Lent, manifested in a retreat from the ecumenical opening and progressive integrationist tendencies. This process could be observed both within the Church’s organisational global level as well as in the local religious life’s atmosphere. The removal of the anathema from Lefebrist leaders (2009), who question the Second Vatican Council’s decisions, calling it a Freemason success, and consider ecumenism a sin, seems symptomatic here. Other signs of recent changes include the return to pre-Council traditions in papal and liturgical rituals (as part of so-called continuity hermeneutics), and apocalyptic attitudes gaining more prominence among believers and some of the clergy, accompanied by exorcism fads, the rejection of cultural innovations (crowned in Poland by the “war on gender”) and spiritual consumerism (believed to be inspired by the unholy powers). The period of Lent, the time of asceticism and stigmatising sinners, as well as demonising New Age practices and popular culture products such as horoscopes, fortune-telling and amulets, has arrived. In the spirit of national Messianism, the war against magic, manifested, for instance, in the Harry Potter saga or Hello Kitty children’s gadgets, has been proclaimed.

In Ukraine, the Catholic Church’s purifying catechesis predominantly targeted domesticated religious folk practices accused of magic ritualism (e.g. healing by prayer) or against the inclusion of alcohol as a permanent element of religious practices (e.g. during night wakes at the deceased’s home). In both countries, reform activities unleashed traditionalists’ resistance: as their first step, they rejected ecumenism, proclaiming war against “church freemasonry” and returning to pre-Council religious practices. In its extreme form, the “church of the people” means the revival of national Messianism (e.g. the worship of Christ as “the King of Poland”), which also translates into “confessional nationalism” also known as “ethnic religion.”21

Backlash movements, forming in protest to modernisation or generally towards changes in the official Churches, came to the fore in the early 2010s. The Polish branch of the Lefebrists started collaborating with the so called Pidhirtsi fathers, a group of priests excommunicated in 2008, who established the Ukrainian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in 200922 and have been functioning outside of the official structures. This community, also known as Dohnalivtsi, named after its Czech founder, Antonin Dohnal, has become famous for organising manifestations ←22 | 23→and processions in Ukraine’s largest cities. In Poland, the return of pre-Council religiosity, coupled with national martyrdom symbols and Messianism, can be observed in the activities aimed at crowning Jesus as king of Poland. One of the most prominent examples here is a community which already exists outside the Church’s structures, Niepokalanów Hermitage, established in Grzechynia in southern Poland by the charismatic Father Piotr Natanek. He was suspended in 2011,23 but has not stopped his activities, and his popularity has only grown since. He uses internet television to proselytise,24 and has gained support from Poles living in Western Europe and the United States. Similarly to the Pidhirtsi fathers, this movement organises spectacular street actions in various Polish cities, ←23 | 24→in cooperation with communities active within Church structures. Processions of the faithful dressed in long red coats with Christ the King and cross patterns, carrying holy images, feretories and pennants have even reached the European Parliament.25 Some community members’ attires, modelled on the Old Polish nobility’s dress, coupled with sabres on their sides, demonstrate the disappearing border between religious practices and historical reconstruction, taking the form of public spectacle. It can be interpreted as a manifestation of cultural fundamentalism,26 rather than ethnic religion.

A similar phenomenon in Western Ukraine has been described by Vlad Naumescu,27 who discussed the example of Father Vasyl Kovpak’s community. Father Kovpak is the former administrator of St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Lviv; he is also a Lefebrist and founder and prior of the Priestly Society of Saint Josaphat Kuncewicz. Father Kovpak was excommunicated in 2007.28 The brotherhood can be characterised, according to Naumescu, as a nostalgic concentration in the Underground Church tradition. This translates into a refusal to respect liturgical reforms that order abandoning such popular practices like the Way of the Cross and rosaries, the removal of monstrance from liturgy (typical elements of Latin rite Catholicism), and the change of the liturgical language from Old Church Slavonic to Ukrainian (similarly to the return of Latin in traditionalist Roman Catholic movements).

What is characteristic of these communities, apart from attachment to the old rituals and liturgical language, is the rejection of ecumenism as contemporary heresy, hostility towards “Moscow’s” Orthodox Patriarchate and proselytising attitudes towards its faithful. Although these groups are relatively marginal, their activities ←24 | 25→have a divisive character and are dangerous for both Churches, which fail to properly limit these groups’ influence. Integrist tendencies have intensified in the face of increasingly liberal marriage and/or abortion laws in the West, as well as the current migration tendencies as well as thegrowing Islamophobia after the WTC attack on September 11th, 2001. (This event is widely interpreted by many Podilia Orthodox and Catholics alike as punishment for the above-mentioned liberal innovations).

One could identify rough caesuras defining the turning points of the epoch of the Carnival and “patchwork” identity and the current religious culture’s Lent and sanation (moral purification) in the local Polish sphere. These have been Poles’ two collective experiences, the breakthrough moments of the post-Soviet transformation period’s social drama. The first one, which I consider to be a consolidating one in the sense of Turner’s communitas, was the period of John Paul II’s dying days. This was the so called Vigil Weak (April 1st–8th, 2005).29 The second was the ←25 | 26→period of collective trauma associated with the Smolensk plane crash of April 19th, 2010, interpreted from the “people’s church” perspective as yet another Polish historical sacrifice placed within the old Messianic myth structure. Moreover, these dramatic national events have fitted into the global processes taking place within the Church.

In this context, the research project analysing the religious cultures of the two Catholic minorities has focused on the attitude towards tradition in the framework of three tendencies: the globalisation of religious transmission and the prevailence of popular culture; the individualisation and diversification of religious expression, also related to believers’ emancipation; and the nationalisation of religion and its entanglement in national politics of history. In Poland, the initial period of the transformation, marked by the enthusiasm inspired by the immediate post-Soviet tide of change, saw the prevalence of the first two tendencies, accompanied by ecumenical attitudes inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s decisions. During the last decade, however, we have been able to observe the development of various forms of ethnic religion, including martyrology practices related to the sacralisation of the nation and collective traumas, reconstruction of historic events, the multiplication of memory sites and memorials and militarist discourse, strongly present e.g. in Father Natanek’s homilies. The progressive overlapping of religious and national ideology discourses and the forms of expression typical for them in the public sphere have also been notable. In Ukraine, particularly in its western part, similar phenomena can be observed since its independence. However, these were confronted with opposing tendencies, dominant in the country’s centre and east, where they were rather negatively perceived. In Kyiv, during independence day celebrations, groups of Stepan Bandera and UPA supporters and their opponents, who accused them of fascism, used to demonstrate side by side. However, ethnic religion forms have intensified and spilt over during the Euromaidan events, the so called Revolution of Dignity, and in particular in response to the Russian invasion of early 2014.

As a result, religion appears to be giving way to the already discussed cultural fundamentalism. In both Polish and Ukrainian traditions, it is constructed on the basis of the Biblical notion of one’s nation as the chosen people. The effect of these processes has been aptly referred to in a Polish ethnology classic written by Jan Stanisław Bystroń as national megalomania.30

Religious Culture Studies – Aims and Methodology

The study of religious culture represents a complementary approach to religious studies. It concentrates on the believers’ religious lives and aims to grasp their religious experiences “from within”, while scholars of religion instead focus on canonical religion and theology from a historical perspective, which often go beyond ←26 | 27→ordinary believers’ knowledge and interests. For this reason, the collaboration of scholars observing religion from both sides appears to be indispensable. In order to clarify the project’s key concepts, I asked religious studies scholar Elżbieta Przybył-Sadowska to provide a commentary on the term “religious culture” and its usefulness.31 In what follows, I will present my own anthropological interpretation of its meaning.

Religious culture is a term introduced in the 1930s by a Polish sociologist closely associated with the French sociology school, Stefan Czarnowski;32 and it refers to the way religion is adjusted to a concrete community’s life and how it functions within it. Every religion, in a particular time and place, has corresponding practices which are specific for a given community and adjusted to its way of life. These include the community’s common-sense knowledge, heritage and historical memory, which define its values orientation. The term religious culture combines a structural aspect (the history of the longue durée33 meaningful elements) with its functional current meaning. Currently it may appear to be too static and limiting particularly at the times when anthropologists, following Lila Abu-Lughod, write “against culture” appropriated by political scientists, the likes of Samuel Huntington,34 while cognitivists perceive “religion” as a more intuitive rather than scientific term.35 Many scholars would see “spirituality studies” as a more attractive term, due to their coinciding with cultures’ individualisation. However, they do not exhaust the spectre of the phenomena we are interested in. Declarations of the end of religion have been premature, similarly to the statements about the end of nation-states. Despite Francis Fukuyama’s globalist thesis, history did not come to its end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charles Taylor’s diagnosis appears to be much more accurate; he predicted the persistence of “neo-Durkheimian identities”, the intermingling of confessional identity with the sense of belonging to a group, when collective history’s moral issues are phrased in religious categories. Neo-Durkheimian identities compete with the new post-Durkheimian order that frees the stifled identity from the social frames of faith.36

In our observations and conversations about the religious life of the two selected Catholic minorities, we tried to understand how the political transformation ←27 | 28→processes have impacted local communities and caused internal divisions and conflicts; as well as how these processes break down or intensify in the context of the local community’s religious culture. Has their religious culture become saturated with national ideology, heading towards ethnic religion? Has the increasing individualisation of culture and its associated divisions been accompanied by the progressive “disenchantment with the world”, the fall of ritualism and the final disintegration of domesticated religion’s symbolic microcosm in which Biblical history is mixed with local mythology?37 Or rather, do traditional forms of expression and their symbolism co-exist with new ones, creating more complex, global types of religious culture?

As our ethnographic research’s guiding principle, we adopted reflexivity, which assumes the exchangeability of the researcher’s perspective, and that of the researched community members, and a dialogue between them. This “reciprocal reflection” is associated with the unavoidable relativisation of cognition, which enables cultural distance formation, essential in ethnographic research. This relativism has defined boundaries, as it is impossible to avoid some forms of metanarratives. After the postmodernist turn, an anthropologist’s task appears to be to reconsider epistemic perspective’s meaning and construction, which enables the juxtaposition of ethnographic research results from various cultural contexts. While I fully embrace the voices critical of the categories in question, I adhere to the religious culture concept, which I understand not so much as an organised “system”, but rather as interconnected longue durée cultural institutions in the process of change resulting from the clash between the state’s and Church’s organisational strategies and the believers’ tactics. In my description of the phenomena belonging to the religious culture concept, I would like to avoid the static connotations of the term “system”, since it belongs to the Catholic Church organisation that also undergoes changes. I would like to demonstrate the tendencies that can be observed in religious culture as diversified and often conflicting. They may exist in opposition to the dominant cultural trend, or to popular culture, or even be in permanent confrontation with it in order to simultaneously fit into it in some respects. All too often a form into which we try to force the described phenomena, after closer observation, may turn out to be hiding something new, just as, for instance, Easter mysteries may turn out to be a certain performance, a popular historical reconstruction.38 The love for historical reconstructions and the theatralisation of life is an unquestionable feature of contemporary Poles and Ukrainians, the communities we describe in this book.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
constructing identity religious changes aesthetics social memory diasporas ethnography
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 428 pp., 104 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Magdalena Zowczak (Volume editor)

Magdalena Zowczak is ethnographer, anthropologist and professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. Her areas of interest are anthropology of religion, the Apocrypha and sacred art; contemporary religious expression and its connections to identity in various milieus and social groups.


Title: Catholic Religious Minorities in the Times of Transformation
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430 pages