By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)
Catholic believers have been seeing the Virgin Mary appear for centuries, especially at times of crisis and social and ecclesiastical upheaval. In her book, Agnieszka Halemba argues that what is remarkable about these visions is not that they occur, but how some of them are embraced by a Church organization while others are not. Her ethnographic study deals with apparitions of Mary to two girls in Dzhublyk in Transcarpathian Ukraine that began in 2002. As with many apparitions, the official investigation about these has not yet been concluded, but local Greek Catholic communities have embraced the site and made it into a pilgrimage destination. Rather than focusing on the visionaries or pilgrims, Halemba looks at the organizational agents and processes in relation to which the apparitions gain lasting meaning and renown. In so doing, she creates a fascinating institutional ethnography of the Greek Catholic Church and its place in wider Christendom.
Since her first appearance to two young women near a spring in Dzhublyk in western Ukraine, the Virgin has called for three things: restoring the authority of the priests, uniting people, and uniting the Church (2). Instead of analyzing the primary visions of the seers and secondary visions of the pilgrims at the site, Halemba focuses on unpacking these three areas of concern and situating them in the historical context of the Greek Catholic Church (followers of the Byzantine rite who recognize the authority of the Pope). The Greek Catholic Church was forcefully united with the Orthodox Church during the Soviet period and, the spring at Dzhublyk is connected for people with the names of well-known underground Catholic priests who served in the area. Priestly authority, Halemba shows based on her ethnographic work, is especially weak in those villages that had no underground Greek Catholic priest, but where Greek Catholic parishioners celebrated rituals on their own with minimal clerical support. National unity and ecclesial unity are equally difficult topics in a part of the world where borders have constantly shifted over the past century, and where religious organizations more than religious sensibilities have suffered from decades of socialist state-sponsored atheism.
Throughout her analysis, Halemba develops a distinction between religious institutions and religious organizations that is somewhat unusual in the literature. For her, religious institutions are rituals and habitual practices, while religious organizations are the structured human collectives (churches, congregations, etc.) within which such practices find their place, and which are often perceived as agents in their own right. An apparition becomes institutionalized through pilgrimages and popular veneration of the site; whether or not this will translate into “organizational embracement” (9) by a church or other organized religion is a separate question. While at first this distinction might seem a mere matter of terminology, it allows Halemba to make two noteworthy arguments. One relates to the complicated landscape of religious organizations on the border between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christendoms, the other to postsocialist religion.
Relating to the religious landscape of western Ukraine, Halemba argues against Vlad Naumescu’s (2007) notion of the “Orthodox Imaginary” that unites adherents of Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches independent of organizational affiliation. While acknowledging that such a shared imaginary might exist at the level of religious institutions (i.e., sacred sites or particular prayer practices), Halemba argues that organizational affiliation does matter for the way an unusual experience, such as a vision, becomes relevant to the lives of believers. Since the villages surrounding the Dzhublyk site are Greek Catholic, the apparitions become enfolded in an international Catholic imaginary that includes connections to other Marian sites across Europe and international prayer networks such as that of the Mothers’ Prayers (227-231). An intriguing, if underinterpreted, representation of this transnational imaginary is the row of confessional stalls at the Dzhublyk site. These were never used according to Halemba’s observations, but represent a western Catholic way of exercising priestly authority in contrast with Eastern church practices of confession in side chapels or behind icon screens.
With regard to the postsocialist situation, Halemba argues that it is not religious belief or institutionalized religiosity that was diminished by Soviet atheism and is now undergoing revival. She observes that the sacred is still very present in people’s lives and remained so throughout the Soviet period, but religious organizations have a severely reduced capacity to act in social life. In Halemba’s words:
The so-called “religious revival” following the collapse of the Soviet Union does not primarily involve the revival of belief, understood as a mental state, and not even the revival of certain religious practices […], but the revival of the public presence of religious organizations that had lost their grip on religious life in the Soviet Union and are now working toward regaining that control (178).
The idea that assumptions about the sacred survived the Soviet period relatively intact may be especially true for western Ukraine. This region was only incorporated into the Soviet Union in the wake of the Second World War, after some of the most violent repressions of believers were over. But the primacy of organizational revival is worth keeping in mind for post-Soviet space in general, where the renewed power of religious organizations often evokes more anxieties and uncertainties than newly visible participation in religious practices.
Ethnographically, Halemba’s interest in the organizational side of religious life resulted in an emphasis on interviewing priests, both about their attitudes toward the apparitions and their perspectives on the crisis of priestly authority which the Virgin refers to in her message. She rightly points out that ordained clergy are an underresearched population in the anthropology of Christianity. There is fascinating material in her interviews on how priests negotiate their positions between the hierarchy that appoints them and the villagers who can accept or reject their interventions. A telling case in point is the reminiscence of one priest on how the villagers ignored his decision to move the beginning of morning prayers forward half an hour, so that when he arrived to preside, the prayers were already well under way.
In general, Halemba’s observations complement but do not discount Naumescu’s ideas of the Orthodox Imaginary. Where he emphasizes overlaps between Orthodox and Greek Catholics at the level of popular devotion in regions of central Ukraine, Halemba argues that organizational affiliation with the Vatican and the worldwide Catholic Church also pulls these practices into a transnational orbit of lore about how to behave at a Marian site and how to recognize and acknowledge priestly authority. Both processes can happen simultaneously, and the transnational Catholic imaginary might be most present to those professionally connected to the Church, such as the priests who are invited to participate in seminars and learn new methods of outreach and evangelization. Through her organizational perspective, Halemba moves away from the common anthropological preference for popular, non-professional practice, and shows promising points of connection between ethnographies of Christianity and studies of professional expertise. As in this wider field, the ethnographic lens brings into focus the many different people whose encounters encounters and negotiations make an organization appear as a unitary actor with clear boundaries.
Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit.