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Conversations with God

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

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Ewa Golachowska

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.

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3 The National Identity of Catholics in Belarus at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century

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The question I asked myself at the beginning of the research was “Will the change in the language of the sacred sphere of Catholics in Belarus have an impact on their national identification?” The starting point was the situation described by anthropologists in the late twentieth century, whereby Catholics identified with Polishness because they always prayed in Polish and participated in the liturgy in this language. Catholicism functioned as the criterion of socio-cultural identification in a multilingual and multi-ethnic society, bearing not only religious content, but for many people also patriotic. Nevertheless, Polish was seldom the primary language for Catholics, and was often used only in the religious sphere. According to anthropologists, the words “Pole” and “Catholic” as well as the “Polish faith” and “Catholic faith” were frequently treated as synonyms. The concepts “Orthodox Christianity”–“Russian faith” and “Russian language”–“Orthodox language” operated in a similar symmetric synonymy. As an emphatic example showing that this type of thinking continues to prevail among the older generation, in one statement I recorded in 2011, an informer referred to the priest leading a church service in “the Orthodox language”. Younger people I interviewed between 2009 and 2012 also confirmed that they see religious divisions as continuing to overlap with national ones.

What decides if somebody is Polish today – language or religion?

Religion, religion, if someone is a Catholic, they’re probably a Pole. For example, I was in charge of a school, and only one girl said she...

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