In Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1989-1991 marked a watershed. Political monopoly and planned economy were exchanged with political pluralism and capitalist economies. At the same time, from total suppression, or tight control and monitoring, a religious ‘marketplace’ appeared with the rewriting of constitutions and reinstating religious freedom, in which various traditional Churches wanted to strengthen their positions and influence. Religious organizations attained a larger role in public life. There was also a substantial increase in religious belief and affiliation among the population, which meant that many children also participated in some form of re-evangelization of behavior. Grandmothers and extended family played an important role in the transmission of religious beliefs in contexts where socialization was severely interrupted for at least one or two generations. The newly established schools associated with or provided by the Church also took part in these processes. The re-emerging, new norms, codes of conduct, rituals and forming relations between the state, Church and schools often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. The following memory stories give a little glimpse into children grappling with these new realities in their everyday life.

Tensed relations of Church and School

by Ivana Polić

Since her parents grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, religion was not something one was encouraged to express in the public sphere. Her grandma was the only religious person in her family. However, with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the awakening of the Croatian nationalism, political leaders contributed to the return of Catholicism into the public sphere by referring to the Croats’ historic alliance with the Catholic Church that was suppressed in communism. Hence, religious education entered official school curricula in the 1990s for the first time. The girl was enrolled in Religious Education class as well, even though her parents were not religious. However, they enrolled her partly because of the public pressure, and partly because they were hopeful about Croatian independence and also under the influence of the religious euphoria.

One spring Sunday morning in the early 2000s the girl (who was in the sixth, seventh, or eighth grade of elementary school) was about to attend the 10 or 11 o’clock mass in the Catholic church in her village. This Sunday resembled every other Sunday, and the girl was accustomed to attending church masses. In addition to attending Religious Education classes in school, it was expected from all students to attend a Sunday mass, especially those who were getting ready for their first communion or the confirmation sacraments, and her class was getting ready for the second one. Students needed to have enough signatures to be able to receive the sacraments, and the girl wanted to make sure she successfully fulfilled the requirement, even though she was unable to embrace religiosity in the spiritual sense, and was never given an explanation of higher purpose in attending religious education classes. Each time she would go to church, she would take her small white attendance register, where her teacher would put the signature and confirm the girl’s presence in church on that day. Even though the girl’s own parents were not religious and were not raised and educated in Catholic spirit, they still enrolled her in Religious Education class from the beginning of her schooling. 

Her teacher was a short, loud woman, whom she really loved because of her kindness, even though she was oftentimes pushy about the students’ mass attendance. For some reason (it might have been around Easter holiday or something, she remembers it was springtime), the teacher really insisted that students come to attend the mass that weekend. The girl did not feel like going (she actually rarely felt like spending Sunday mornings in church), and she was waiting for the last minute to enter the church because she did not want to be appointed as student reader (it was a common practice for a student to read the prayer for that day behind the microphone in front of the altar). Up until that point she was never appointed the reader, and she did not intend to become one because it was the kind of attention she didn’t want (she was quite a shy girl then, and she was terrified of public speaking).

However (and surprisingly), she was the only higher-grade student that showed up that day in church. Immediately upon seeing her, the teacher told her she was going to be a prayer reader that day. The girl doesn’t know if she tried to refuse, but there was no discussion anyways. When the moment came, she got up to the podium and started reading the passages the teacher specifically instructed her to. However, a few seconds later the priest suddenly came up to her, took the prayer book from her hands, pushed her back towards the seating area together with uttering worlds like “just go,” “just go.” It seems there was a misunderstanding between him and her teacher on what passages to read, but the priest’s abrupt and almost angry reaction made her feel really ashamed. 

The shock was even bigger when she tried to reconcile the always fatherly figure of the priest whom she loved and was a constant presence in her life (in the everyday rather than spiritual and deeply religious sense) to his dismissive way of treating her in that moment, in front of everyone. She bowed her head in shame and walked back to the seating area on the left side of the church, where she quickly sat in one of the squeaking first, second, or third row benches where she tried to be as invisible as possible. Her whole body was shrinking in shame. Despite being pushed away from the podium, she still did not know what she did wrong, and neither the teacher nor the priest commented on this confusing moment afterwards. She also knew one of her subject teachers was there in the crowd, and she was afraid the teacher would comment on this incident in their class at school (this teacher was known as being really gossipy).

Money from the Church’s donation box

by Teona Goderdzishvili

I find your story Ivana very interesting. We also had classes at school called “Religion”. Even though it had such a neutral name we only studied Orthodox Christian ideas (85% of the Georgian population is Orthodox Christian) and part of Greek mythology. We had crosses hanging in the classroom and some icons of the saints. We usually had normal school-style desks for the other classes, but in the religion classroom, everything looked like a church – pretty and always cleaned curtains, chairs that one can usually find in non-Orthodox churches, and a church imitation at one of the walls. One was lucky if the person was suggested to read the prayers and stand next to the priest. In Orthodox Church women do not play that much role in church life and rituals are also a bit different. Here is my story.

It is a hot summer day. The girl is visiting her aunt in the countryside. The days are long. Nothing happens during the boring afternoons, and other kids are probably at home, sleeping or eating. Only the shining sun is outside, almost burning her and her ginger cousin’s white pale skin. Not a very common situation, though. This countryside, Kazbegi, located in the northern part of the republic of Georgia, is known for its unendingly cool climate. Temperatures can be as low as five degrees even on summer days.

Home yard in Kazbegi from Teona Goderdzishvili’s family archive

One hundred meters from the aunt’s house is a gate to the schoolyard, a former graveyard. Behind the school building is the current graveyard. The schoolyard unites a football field and a 19th-century former graveyard, a spot for older guys to play cards or smoke cigarettes and drink wine. Older girls also gather here and play volleyball. Some of them seem to be talented and strong, some are not. The girl thinks she is not big enough to talk or play with them. In the same field, there is a kindergarten and behind it is a church. A high, rocky mountain borders the southern part of the field. Everything is so familiar here, everything is so relatable and dear.

Attending the Sunday prayer is a regular part of the girl’s life during her summertime of staying at her aunt. This is not a common practice in her city life. The girl and her cousin play in the churchyard for a while and then move to cover themselves in the shadow of the building. She has been in the church many times before, but visiting there alone with her cousin was a whole new experience.

They go to the altar, even though in the Orthodox Christian church it is strictly forbidden for women to go there. They open the divine color curtains covering the altar from the rest of the building, go inside and observe every single icon from a very close distance. After investigating the altar they check the rest of the church. On the right side of the entrance, a very short table covered with a grey table-cloth is standing with a wooden box placed on top.

Candles, some coin money and a five lari bill (Georgian currency) are inside the box. The girl and her cousin are amazed to discover such a treasure. They collect it all from the table and are excited about handing it to aunt Maja. The happy smiles on their face are replaced by confusion and disappointment as they listen to the aunt’s reaction upon seeing the money: “Why did you take my money without asking me?!” The children, who still felt innocent explain from where they took the treasure. They would have never thought that a good and helpful action could cause such trouble for them. Aunt Maja gets even angrier once she hears the money was taken from the church. It seems like not a smart idea to get the money from there, giving it to the adult and saying where it came from.

The girl always loved staying with her overnight during the summer, but this time she was very glad Maja wasn’t her mom and didn’t have much right to punish her because her father was there. As such, she raised her voice only in front of her own son. It was not for the girl. There was her father to take care of that. She felt ashamed, as what had appeared to be a good idea had unexpectedly turned out to be wrong, and she could not anticipate how her strict father would react to it. He did not seem as nervous and angry as her aunt was. It was his first serious adult talk with her. He probably explained that this behaviour was not acceptable and taking someone’s money was not something a good child would do. The girl did not know that this was sinful behavior. She was ready to return back others’ things, so she held a hand to her father, went back to the church and left the money there.

Later on, as the years passed, she kept attending Sunday prayers in the Church. Mom insisted and she also realized, breaking the rules was something to confess about, presumably. She went to the priest and told her the story of taking the money from the box. The priest asked if she felt sorry. She said “yes”, but since then she always thought that she was lucky to enter the altar in her childhood because she would not dare to do it as an adult. She has never thought of taking someone else’s money ever since!