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The Mariavite Church is a Christian church that emerged from the Polish Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the 19th century. Firstly it was an internal movement leading to a reform of the Polish clergy, but after a conflict with Polish bishops it became a separate denomination. Currently two Mariavite denominations have around 28,000 believers in Poland and 5,000 abroad - mostly in France.
The Mariavite Church is one of very few religious movements that developed in Poland or among Polish communities abroad after the beginning of Protestant Reformation. The other example is the Polish National Catholic Church that was founded in the United States. The reasons behind the establishment of these two churches are different. The leaders of the Polish National Church fought for the equal treatment of each nationality in the multiethnic Catholic Church in the U.S.. The leaders of Mariavite movement were trying to reform the clergy and Catholic communities spiritually in Poland, which at this time was divided into three countries (see: partitions of Poland). Although at the beginning it had no connection with them, there are a lot of traces similar with Protestantism that will be pointed out later.
Situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland under Russian Empire
The history of the Mariavite movement dates back to the second half of the 19th century. In 1887 Feliksa Kozłowska established the religious order for women according to the Rule of Saint Clare. This order would be later called the Order of the Mariavite Sisters, but at the time it was one of many Roman Catholic religious communities. Feliksa had earlier been in another Roman Catholic order since 1883, one established by a Capuchin monk, Blessed Honorat Koźmiński. All these religious organisations were illegal according to the laws of the Russian Empire. In this part of Poland, divided between three neighbouring countries, the situation of Roman Catholic Church was the worst. After the January Uprising in 1863 tsarist authorities forbade the establishment of Polish-national organisations, including religious ones. Many cloisters were dissolved. The Catholic clergy in the Russian-dominated area, in contrast to the priests in Austrian and Prussian partitions, was not well educated. The only theological academy was in Saint Petersburg. The priests were often criticised for their inappropriate behaviour and exploitation of the peasants. In this difficult situation the Mariavite movement emerged.
Revelation of Feliksa Kozłowska - 1893-1903
In 1893 Feliksa Kozłowska, also known by her convent name, Maria Franciszka, had had her first vision. The date of 2nd August 1893 is now said to be the date of founding the new religious movement of "Mariavitism", which later became a separate church. The name "Mariavite" comes from Latin words: Mariae vitam (imitans) – '(following) the life of Mary'. Several visions of Kozłowska between 1893 and 1918 were gathered in 1922 in the volume entitled Dzieło Wielkiego Miłosierdzia – The Opus of the Great Mercy, which is now the most important religious source for the Mariavites besides the Bible. In her revelation Kozłowska received an order to fight with the moral decline of the world, especially with the sins of the clergy. In her first vision she was told to organise the order of the priests-Mariavites. The aim of this order was to promote the renewal of the clergy life. The most important idea was to spread the constant adoration of the Holy Sacrament and the cult of the Perpetual Succour of the Holy Virgin Mary. In their everyday life they went back to the Franciscan tradition of ascetic life – fasting, modesty and simplicity in clothes and life. They recommended frequent confession and communion for the people. It has to be underlined that they represented the elite of Polish clergy of this time – they were young priests who had finished theology studies at the Saint Petersburg academy; they were often professors and lecturers at the seminary schools.
Attempt to legalise the movement - 1903-1906
For Kozłowska and Mariavite priests the newly established movement was to be a tool for internal mission and reform in the Church. The initial aim was not to create a different denomination. Polish bishops tried to maintain that they were ignorant of the Mariavites' activities, mostly out of fear of punishment by the Russian authorities. Until 1903 the existence of the movement was not officially recognised by the Roman Catholic authorities. It was in this year that the provincials of the Mariavite order decided to present the texts of the revelation and the history of the movement to the bishops of three concerned dioceses: Płock (where Feliksa Kozłowska lived), Warsaw and Lublin. The latter two refused to accept these documents. Only the bishop of Płock, afraid of the rapid and spontaneous development of the movement, accepted them and started the canonical process. The leaders of the movement were interviewed and the documents were sent to the Holy See. One month later the delegation of the Mariavites went to Rome to convince the pope to recognise the order. They had to wait for the conclave and the choice of a new pope. During this time they chose the minister generalis of the order - Jan Maria Michał Kowalski , who was then the most important person of the movement. Finally, after two weeks of waiting, they presented their case to Pope Pius X.
In June 1904 the second delegation travelled to Rome to convince the Roman curia of the importance of their mission. The pope again blessed them and promised to fulfil their requests. The final decision was taken by the Congregation of the Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Inquisition). The decision, taken in August, one month after the Mariavites audience before the pope, and announced in December 1904, surprised the Mariavite community. The visions of Feliksa Kozłowska were referred to as hallucinations. It dissolved the movement and forbade any contact between the priests and Kozłowska. All modern writers agree that it was the Polish upper hierarchy that played the most important role in making this and not the alternative the final decision. They were strongly opposed to the Mariavite movement. The bishop of Płock was in Rome shortly before the decision of the Saint Officium was taken. After the announcement of the decision another two Mariavite delegations were sent to the Vatican. The first one, including the Mariavite priest Skolimowski, asked the pope to allow the Mariavites to gather once a month for their spiritual exercises. The second delegation of the "mariavite people" (the peasants from the parishes where Mariavites were priests) praised the values of the Mariavite priests and complained about the Roman Catholic clergy and their lack of concern for those living in poverty.
The attitudes of Mariavites changed over time. They switched from obeying the recommendations of the Holy See to rebelling against them. Feliksa decided to cut off all contact with other nuns and priests and obeyed all the decisions of the bishops and the pope. But the patience of the Mariavites was exhausted. They couldn't hide the loss of trust after many misleading promises. They blamed Polish bishops for the failure of their activities in Vatican City and felt helpless in reforming the structure. In February 1906 they informed the Holy See that they were breaking with the bishops, because they felt persecuted by them. During the meeting with pope they were reprimanded, and they promised again their obedience. The situation of the Mariavites was for a considerable time quite unclear. On one hand they had hope that their case would finish successfully in Rome; on the other hand the Roman Catholic authorities in the country started realisation of the Saint Officium decision. The conflict between Mariavite priests and the bishops was becoming more and more serious. The Mariavite priests decided to cut themselves off from the religious structure in Poland, but they were still expecting a decision from Vatican proving that the bishops in Poland were wrongfully supporting depraved clergy. The bishop of Płock for the first time called Mariavites heretics, though the Vatican did not share this opinion yet. This led to many anti-Mariavite events, including violence directed at the Mariavites and laughter at the Mariavites and their foundress Kozłowska. Many of their priests were suspended. Nevertheless many believers decided to support their priests and also cut themselves off from the Roman Catholic structure. Mariavites arranged to have frequent contacts among themselves again.
In the last letter to Warsaw archbishop in March 1906 the Mariavites asked for all of the decisions that had been made against them to be vacated. But the ultimate answer of the Rome was "no". In April 1906 Pope Pius X prepared the encyclical Tribus circiter (Around three years ago) where he sustained the decision of the Saint Officium. He criticised strongly Feliksa Kozłowska and the attitude of the priests toward her, seeing them as treating her as a saint and equal to Our Lady. This position of the Holy See was again a surprise for the Mariavites. This time they decided not to change their mind and not to obey the pope. In December, 1906 Feliksa Maria Franciszka Kozłowska and Jan Maria Franciszek Kowalski were excommunicated. All their followers, priests and faithful, were cursed and not regarded as members of the Divine Church anymore. Kozłowska was the first woman personally excommunicated by Vatican in the history of the Church.
The Mariavite Church - first period (1906-1921)
The Mariavite movement was legalised by Russian authorities as a "tolerated sect" in November 1906, when conflict with Roman Catholic hierarchy was at its most violent point. Six years later they were officially recognised as a separate church. In 1906 there were about 50-60 thousand Mariavites in 16 parishes. Five years later the historical sources mention the number of 160 thousand believers. It shows the movement's great popularity at the time, which had no precedent in the history of Polish Catholic Church. This mass conversion was also a result of a decision of the bishops, who sent many Mariavites to the villages which led to them reaching many believers. This was previously impossible when they were staying as professors in urban centres. It is because of this that the Mariavite Church is now so spread throughout much of Poland and has a lot of centres creating the Mariavite islands on the Roman Catholic sea.
The organisation of the Mariavite community very much resembles Protestant communities, where each of its members has a right to speak about its problems. Mariavites were not only active on religious grounds, but they ran many cultural, educational and social activities. They were soon organising their own schools, kindergartens, libraries, kitchens for the poor, shops, printing houses, poorhouses, orphanages and factories. Very quickly they built a lot of new churches, which made the Roman Catholic Church look at them with heightened suspicion. In 1911 they finished their main church in Płock called the Temple of Mercy and Charity. They bought also 5 km² of land near Płock that they named after Kozłowska – Felicjanów . Another thing that took them closer to the Protestant tradition was the language of the liturgy, which was since 1906 Polish. Separated from the Roman Catholic Church, they desired reintergration into the historic apostolic succession and their own legitimate bishop. They got into contact with the Old Catholic Church in Utrecht. In 1909 the first Mariavite bishop was ingressed in Utrecht. In 1919 they changed officially the group's name to the Old Catholic Mariavite Church.
The death of Feliksa Kowalska in 1921 closed the first era of the Mariavite movement, when the internal reformation movement changed, involuntarily at first, into the creation of a new denomination. This period was the most successful time for the Mariavites. They developed a lot of activities for the believers. However, gradually the number of the adherents was decreasing and in 1921 there was officially 43 thousand Mariavites. Nevertheless, the number of institutions they created, the buildings they constructed and magazines and books they published were very impressive.
Under the rules of Archbishop Kowalski (1921-1935)
After the death of its foundress the head of the Mariavite Church became Bishop Kowalski (later he called himself the Archbishop). He was the closest associate of Kozłowska, staying under her strong influence until her death. The respect for "Mateczka" passed on Kowalski and very quickly he became the one and only authority of the Mariavites. He initiated a lot of changes within the church, which aimed to make it differ from Catholicism. His innovations were called far-reaching theological and dogmatical modernism. However, these innovations were very controversial, not only to the Roman Catholics, but for Mariavites themselves. Introduction of the marriages between priests and nuns (1924) and the priesthood of women (1929) were disputed most. Kowaliski's changes disrupted the contact with Old Catholics. In the 1920s and 1930s Kowalski was searching for an ecumenical dialogue with other churches. He first proposed union with the Polish National Catholic Church, then to deepen contacts with Orthodox Church and other Eastern-tradition churches. In the early 1930s he sent letters to Roman Catholic bishops with proposals of reconciliation. None of these attempts succeeded.
The opposition against "the dictatorship" of Archbishop Kowalski arose in the Mariavite Church in the 1930s. In October 1934 the bishops and priests demanded changes in the teachings and rules of administration in the Church, but Kowalski refused to do so. In January 1935 the General Assembly of the Mariavite Priests decided to remove Kowalski from his position. The Archbishop still had some supporters and didn't accept the Assembly decision. It led to the division of the Church that was to be the completion of Kozłowska's prophecy that Mariavite Church was to experience a schism as Christianity had earlier in its history. During this time around 30 per cent of believers left the Mariavite Church and converted back to Catholicism.
After the division in 1935
Archbishop Kowalski left Płock to Felicjanów with his followers. This village is now the headquarters of the Catholic Mariavite Church with around perhaps 3000 believers. This denomination confirmed all the decisions of Archbishop Kowalski and introduced the public cult of Feliksa Kozłowska, the Mateczka, the Christ Spouse and new Salvator of the world. Its doctrine is far from the original Roman Catholic doctrine of the foundress. It is more insular and does not take part in the ecumenical movement. Archbishop Kowalski died during World War II in the concentration camp at Dachau. His successor was his wife, Bishop Izabela Wiłucka . Since 1946 the head of this Church has been Bishop Józef Maria Rafael Wojciechowski .
The opposition led by bishop Feldman gathered the majority of the Mariavites. They decided to remove all of the innovations Kowalski had made and return to the original ideas and rules from before the death of Kozłowska. This branch of the Mariavite Church is the larger one and has now around 25,000 believers in Poland and 5,000 in France (mostly Paris). A major problem shared by both churches is the lack of clergy, as the most of the priests are aged. The Old Catholic Mariavite Church started many activities in the post-war ecumenical movement. Together with other Churches it has established the Polish Ecumenical Council . It renewed its contacts with other Old Catholic churches.
Relations between Mariavites and Roman Catholics
Since the 1970s one can observe the reconciliation process between the Roman Catholic and Old Catholic Mariavite churches. The Polish bishops apologised for the problems which occurred in the beginnings of the Mariavite movement. Also their attitude toward Kozłowska changed and they affirmed she was a woman of the great piety and religiosity. In 1972 the Jesuit priest Stanisław Bajko, the secretary of the Episcopate Commission for the Ecumenism, made theological research on the visions of Kozłowska. He didn't find any traces of theological discordance with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The Mariavites wanted also to use the fact that the Holy See recognised as true the revelation of Faustyna Kowalska about the Lord's Grace, and that nota bene took place in Płock, which was for the Mariavites a clear sign that God has repeated this message to the people.
The change in the attitude of the Polish Roman Catholic Church was connected with the reforms of the Vatican II. This time the Church became more open and recognised some of its mistakes from the past. Some authors claim that what happened with the Mariavite movement in the beginnings of the 20th century would not have been possible after Vatican II. Earlier, the Roman Catholic Church was a very conservative structure. Reforms could not be made from "beneath", proposed by the believers and simple priests or nuns, but only from above. Thus, it was the upper hierarchy and the pope that were the sole authorities and decision-makers about any reform. Anyone else that was trying to do something on his own was perceived to be overbearing and insubordinate. Making any criticisms of the bishops or the pope was regarded as totally unacceptable. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland did not like the idea of the internal movement leading to the reform of the church. Though nowadays it is hard to understand many of the upper hierarchy decisions made in the first decade of the 20th century, we should take into account the situation of Poland in this time. Bishops were pushed and limited by the Russians. But the insufficient educational system for the clergy and the insecuirty this caused in many priests was also an important factor in this hostile approach.
Many commentators see also a reason for the hostile attitude toward the Mariavite movement in the role that was played Feliksa Kozłowska. It was a consequence of the perceived role of women in then-contemporary society and the Church, where it was thought they should be modest and subordinate to the men leading the community. The influence of Kozłowska was seen to be too strong; this is was why she was usually the victim of the harsh attacks (called often the incarnation of a devil, as in the satiric article "When devil cannot help, he will send a woman" from 1906). Her activities had begun to be criticised by the bishop of Płock as early as 1897. The strongest point of this accusation was that she was treated by many Mariavites as a living saint. This accusation is not totally groundless, as she was treated by Mariavites as a very good and pious person even before the curse of the pope, but this situation was far from unique in the annals of Christianity. It is also true that her biography was shaped into a hagiographical style by archbishop Kowalski, when finally he called her the incarnation of the Holy Spirit on Earth.
The first activities against the movement and its development were taken in 1903, after an official presentation of its existence. The archbishop of the Warsaw diocese had forbidden the observance of some otherwise approved cults of the Roman Catholic rite (e.g. the Adoration of the Holy Sacrament and the Perpetual Succour of Our Lady) that were perceived as the most important for the Mariavite faction, whose devotion to them was found to be excessive.
After coming into view the movement was very quickly a target for many attacks. The newspapers were publishing some satiric articles and the cabarets were laughing at the Mariavites in their songs and plays. This led to the more violent acts against the Mariavite churches and chapels. The most difficult year was 1906, when in a few places riots took place. They were generally connected with problem of ownership, because in many places Mariavite priests with the majority of believers of the parishes wanted to take over the churches, while according to the law they still belonged to Roman Catholic Church.
The situation of the Church in inter-war period was still troublesome, especially if we consider the relations with the dominant religious group of Roman Catholics. Mariavites were still the victims of many prejudices. Even some so-called "Mariavite pogroms" happened. In these days the leaders of the Mariavite Church were very often sued in court, in large purpose to discredit them as a religious organisation. Archbishop Kowalski had to appear in front of the tribunal in 20 cases; among them he was accused for blasphemies against God, the Bible, the Church, and theSacraments, betrayal of the country (implicit treason), of socialism, communism, theft, frauds, lies, etc. In the most important process, he was blamed for sexual abuses that had taken place in the Płock cloister. In 1931 he was found guilty and finally sent for two years to prison between 1936 and 1938. There were many articles in the press demanding the criminalisation of the Mariavite Church.
Very often Mariavites were said to be pro-Russian and pro-socialist. Their legalisation by the tsarist authorities was for their accusers an evident proof that they were collaborating with occupiers, even though it was the only way the organisation could function normally and legally. (There is no evidence that the group received special privileges, beyond the right to exist as a legal religious organization, from the tsarist authorites.) It is true that the very early Mariavites became aware of the problems among the workers and they were leading many social activities. But the feelings that this aroused were connected with their religious doctrine rather than any particular political ideology or agenda. From the beginning they had to fight with the popular image that they betrayed their homeland. For many Poles, "Polishness" was strongly connected with the Roman Catholic faith. Rejection of the faith was equivalent with rejection of the nationality. Of course, the Mariavites felt very strongly attached to Poland, though they were victims of many violent acts. The reason they decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church was that they had very strong conviction what they were doing was really good and right. The charismatic personality of Kozłowska helped them in taking this decision and resisting the hardest moments. They were very disappointed about the Roman Catholic hierarchy's attitude toward their mission. Both sides stayed on their position and eventually became almost totally inflexible. The deep belief of the Mariavites became much stronger than their fear they would be insulted and accused as traitors. Later the movement lost much of its initial enthusiasm and some of the believers left it – many of them during the crisis in 1935.
The history of relations between the Mariavites and Roman Catholics could be divided into two periods. The first was when the Mariavite Church was emerging and forming its institutional shape. This period was full of mutual distrust, suspicions and insults. The worst time was between 1906 and 1911, shortly after separation of the Mariavites, and between 1923 and 1937, when Polish nationalism was very ardent. The second was the post-war period, which was affected by two events: the difficult situations of all churches in communist Poland and the decisions of Vatican II. Those circumstances led to the opening of the dialogue and closer connections between Christian denominations. The progress in ecumenical reconciliation between the Old Catholic Mariavite Church and Roman Catholic Church in Poland is now an indisputable fact. (However, the Felicjanów denomination stays intransigent and rejects any possibility of the rapprochement with Catholics.) Nevertheles,s the attitudes of the believers from both sides are still constructed on the basis of stereotypes and prejudices. And the Mariavites are still full of distrust and suspicion. They perceive the Roman Catholic documents as a meaningless gestures that do not actually change anything, as there are still some unpleasant incidents, as when in the recently published Catholic Encyclopaedia the Mariavites were called "the only Polish heresy". Much remains to be done to reconcile the two churches.
Structure of the Mariavite Churches
Old Catholic Mariavite Church
- Jan Maria Michał Kowalski (1907-1935)
- Klemens Maria Filip Feldman (1935-1942)
- Roman Maria Jakub Próchniewski (1945-1953)
- Wacław Maria Bartłomiej Przysiecki (1953-1957)
- Jan Maria Michał Sitek (1957-1965)
- Wacław Maria Innocenty Gołębiowski (1965-1972)
- Stanisław Maria Tymoteusz Kowalski (1972- )
- 3 dioceses with 38 parishes:
Catholic Mariavite Church
- Jan Maria Michał Kowalski (1935-1940)
- Antonina Maria Izabella Wiłucka-Kowalska (1940-1946)
- Józef Maria Rafael Wojciechowski (1946- )
- two custodies with 16 parishes
- Peterkiewicz J., 1975, The third Adam, London: Oxford University Press.
- Official site of the Old Catholic Mariavite Church (in Polish, English, German and French)
- The French province of the Old Catholic Mariavite Church (in French and English)
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