BAPTISM IN UKRAINIAN CULTURE: Ukrainians Speak of Significance of Baptism in Their Lives
Being born and raised in a very religious Ukrainian family, having a father who is a priest in Ukrainian Catholic Church, I always knew that religion was very important in every Ukrainian person's life. Being still a child, I was not very much sure about the significance of religion in one's life; however, I from a very youth I always knew that Baptism in our religion is the most important religious event in every person's life. In Ukraine, it is believed that every Christian individual has to be baptized in order to be considered a religious person. Growing up, I realized that baptism in Ukrainian culture is not considered to be only a religious tradition in Ukrainian culture, but it is also a spiritual sacrifice of one's life to the divine power of God.
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In Ukrainian culture, it is considered very important that the baby is baptized soon after its birth. People arrange baptism for their children as soon as the mother returns home with the baby from the hospital. It is also assumed that until the baby is baptized, no strangers, meaning the people who are not a part of the family, should see the baby. Ukrainians believe that until the baby is baptized, its spirit is very vulnerable to the evil power and bad luck because it is not protected by the divine power of God. Therefore, early baptism is very important for the baby as well as for its parents.
Spending my childhood years in Ukraine, the significance of baptism grew into my consciousness, and I know about the importance of baptism in our culture. However, having an opportunity to move from Ukraine to the United States of America, I was able to explore the role of religion in Ukrainian society living in the United States. Living near the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Philadelphia for the last ten years, I was able to explore the Ukrainian society and the role of religion in Ukrainian people's lives, while living thousands of miles away from their motherland. I decided to perform a research about the role of religion in Ukrainian people's lives both domestically and internationally, and the lateral interested me even more, because it was something I haven't had a chance to get a better understanding of yet. The religious aspect that interested me the most while performing my study was, again, the baptism of the newborn children in Ukrainian society, seas across from their homeland. The question that I intend to raise in this paper is concerning the differences in religion in Ukrainian culture both domestically and internationally. How and why is the baptism in Ukrainian culture important to the people living in Ukraine? Is it still as important to the younger generation living in Ukraine as is was to their parents and grandparents, or does this importance tend to fade over the years? Do Ukrainians living in the United States, Philadelphia region in particular, tend to keep the religious traditions and cultural values, that they brought with them to this country, over the years of living away from their motherland, or are they more likely to move slightly away from their culture as the years go by? Are the older generations of Ukrainians living in Philadelphia, meaning the initial immigrants from Ukraine, more likely to keep up with their cultural values and traditions than the generations that were born into Ukrainian society living in the United States?
In order to get a better picture and better understanding of the role of baptism in Ukrainian culture both domestically and internationally I decided to perform my study by exploring and witnessing the baptism ritual in one of Ukrainian Churches and in Philadelphia, called Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church, learning the history of religion and baptism from historical literature, and by interviewing Ukrainian people and hearing to their stories and opinions about the role of baptism in their lives. By witnessing the baptism ceremony I mean my ability to see and explore the actual baptism ceremony as well as the ability of participating in this sacred ritual. And by hearing to people's stories I mean my ability to talk to the Ukrainians of different generations, living both in the Ukraine and in Philadelphia, about the role of baptism in Ukrainian culture.
HISTORY OF RELIGION IN UKRAINE
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In order to further explain my study about the role of baptism in Ukrainian culture, I would like to say a few words about the history of religion in Ukraine. Until 1991 Ukraine was known as one of the Soviet Union Republics, and was not considered to be an independent country as we know it today. Only after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence and became a separate country, with the ability of self-government, and the right to exercise its own religions. During the Soviet Union era, the only religion considered legitimate in Ukraine was Orthodox. Only with the end of Communist Regime, the Orthodox Church was able to separate, forming three major churches in Ukraine - Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic. However, throughout the history the Orthodox Church in Ukraine experienced numerous attacks, violent suppressions, and secularization from the Communist regime.
The Communist regime's pressure on clergy and religious institutions was extremely intensive. The Communist Party was violent in its actions towards Soviet people, including Ukrainians, as its main concern was the legal secularization of society, including the reformation of family law, and the arrest and punishment of clergy who advocated resistance to the Communist regime. Clergy were often persecuted by the Communists and were deprived of citizenship rights.
After the end of Civil War, the Orthodox Church faced another assault. Soviet Communist Party initiated an intensive attack on the goods, which belonged to Orthodox Church. The Communists were violently confiscating church goods under the pretext that the goods were necessary for use in combating the food crisis of 1920s. When clergy tried to resist and refused to give away the mostly sacred church vessels, the government turned to violence and terror: the priests, nuns, and other clergy officials were executed. The Communists Party was trying to create an alternative to the Orthodox Church Christian institution, where the clergy would be willing to cooperate with the Communists. In other words, the Communist Party was not only trying to forcibly reshape the soviet society, but also completely restructure the religious institution in favor of Communism. Although people were deprived of choice to practice their religion, and were forced to cooperate with the Communist regime in order to survive, there were still people who strongly opposed the regime regulations.
During the World War II, when Stalin came to power, he allowed the Orthodox Church to expand all over the Soviet Union and to elect a patriarch, whose seat has been empty since 1920s. However, to allow church expansion, Stalin regime required support of the government in war and the foreign relations with other nations. So, again, the church was used as a tool for manipulation of the Soviet people.
This relatively relaxed Stalin's stance toward church in Soviet Union continued until the mid 1950s, before Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1955. During Khrushchev era, the church faced another attack by the government. Khrushchev regime, calling for renewed idealism in all spheres in Soviet Union, suppressed the religious institution by severely cutting the number of monasteries, seminaries, churches, and parishes.
Although the religious institution in Ukraine during the times of Soviet Era faced many attacks throughout history, the Khrushchev era was the last stage in church suppression in the former USSR. This religious cleansing came to an end with the dismissal of Khrushchev, and thereafter the regime limited its persecution of the church, clergy and religious individuals. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine celebrated its revival as the new generation of people, who were born after the Communism Era, turned to religion for spiritual guidance and the renovation of their national culture. The Orthodox church in Ukraine has separated forming three primary churches - Orthodox, Greek catholic, and Roman Catholic. This was the time when after a long struggle, the Ukrainians were allowed to practice the religion of their choice without the fear of persecution by the corrupt government.
Regardless of the long struggle of religion in Ukraine, it has always played a very important role in Ukrainian people's lives. At time of Communism, despite violent prosecution, risking their lives, people were secretly practicing religion and attending churches. One of the religious rituals considered to be the most important in Ukraine is the Baptism, or the christening of the newborn children. Although practicing religion was strictly regulated and suppressed by the Communist Party in the 1920-1960s, despite any regulations people were still baptizing their newborns. It was also very important for the people to have their babies baptized soon after the baby was born. Whenever the baptism was impossible to be performed at the church by the priest, the ritual was held secretly at home, with or without the priest being present at the ceremony.
UKRAINIANS SPEAK ABOUT THE ROLE OF BAPTISM IN THEIR LIVES
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Why was it so important for the people to have their babies baptized as soon as possible after the babies were born? In order to further explore this question, I decided to talk to the older generation of Ukrainians and listen to their opinions and personal histories. I have interviewed two Ukrainian women - Olga, 71, living in Ukraine, and Anastasia, 85, who has been living in Philadelphia for over 50 years. It was important to me to listen to the stories of these two women, because it could give me a better picture of history of baptism in Ukrainian culture and would help me to get a better understanding about the subject of my interest.
In my interview with Olga over the phone, I asked her some general questions, like what was her personal history of baptism, was or was it not important to her, how does she feel about it, did she have her children baptized and at what age. Olga seemed to be very open in her interview with me, and I felt like she was very pleased by the fact that I was interested to hear her story. "Back when I was young, the child was to be baptized soon after its birth, about a day or two after. It was not like today, when people have their children baptized in about a week or two or even a month after their birth. People were afraid that until the baby is baptized, its soul is exposed to the evil power. Therefore, baptism was seen as a spiritual protection of the baby's soul from the evil power. However, thing have changed over the years. I have had my son baptized in about a week after his birth, and my daughter was baptized about two weeks after she was born, because she was very weak after birth, and I had to stay in hospital with her for a few days. But as soon as she started feeling better, the first thing on my mind upon my return home was having her baptized."
Anastasia, 85, in my interview with her also seemed to be very pleased by the fact that I am doing my research on baptism in Ukrainian culture. Once again, as in my interview with Olga, I asked similar question to Anastasia, and here is her response: "Oh, there is no doubt that baptism is the most important event in every Ukrainian person's life! This is like the bond between you and the God. You have to be baptized if you consider yourself to be Christian, and there is no other option. According to what my mother told me, I was baptized few days after my birth. Ukraine was at war at that time, so my mother was afraid that if anything happens to me and I am not baptized yet, my soul would never go to haven. However, I have had my daughter baptized when she was five years old. It was so because she was born soon after my husband and I came to the United States in 1950s, and at that time, we did not have as many Ukrainian churches in Philadelphia as we have today. So, we had no choice back then, because we were aliens to this country. My daughter and my grand-daughter have had their children baptized when they were a few months old. For them, it was more important to have everything planned out nicely."
From my interview with these Ukrainian women I got an impression that baptism is considered to be the most important event in Ukrainian people's lives. Ukrainians view it as a spiritual bond between the person and the God, which guides the person throughout their life. It also seemed to me that these women were very pleased to hear that a young person such as myself is interested to learn more about this sacred ritual in Ukrainian culture. However, what I also noticed from my interviews with these Ukrainian women is that the younger generation of Ukrainians is now more likely to have their babies baptized a little later than their parents did. They prefer to take some time and plan out this important event. They do not have the similar feeling of rush for their baby's baptism as their parents did. I assume that the reason for this is that throughout the years the religious situation in Ukrainian culture became more stable, and they do not have that fear of losing their right to practice religion as their parents did. I assume that the younger generation of Ukrainians feels much calmer and assured in the future of their religion, and therefore tend to postpone the baptism of their children.
Besides interviewing these Ukrainian women while working on my research, I have also had a great opportunity to actually witness the baptism ritual in one of the Ukrainian churches in Philadelphia as my friend has had her daughter baptized during the time I was working on my project. Although I did not literally participate in this sacred ritual, I have had an opportunity to attend it and do my observation. I have also had a chance to ask a few questions to the mother of the baby that was to be baptized that day.
When I was preparing to attend the baptism of my friend's daughter, I thought that I was one of the friends that were invited to attend to this event. However, when I entered the church on that special Saturday, I realized that I was the only friend invited to attend this special event. I realized that my friend decided to have her daughter baptized in a very close family circle, and it was a great honor for me to be invited regardless of the fact that I am not in any way related to that family. As I realized a little later, my friend considered this event to be a very intimate, family-concerning event, where only the family members and the god-parents were invited.
The daughter of my friend Alexa, who was to be baptized that day, is not a baby any more. She is already sixteen months old. Her mother, Ellena, has always wanted to have her daughter baptized, but because of the personal matters in her family (Ellena asked me not to include this information in my project), she was not able to have it done any time sooner. However, she decided to have her daughter baptized now regardless of the still present personal matters in her family, because she believes that it is her duty both as a mother and as religious person and she wants to raise her daughter to be religious as well.
When Ellena was preparing for the baptism of her daughter, she was very accurate in choosing the right god-parents for her daughter. She even spoke to the priest, father Mark, about this matter and asked him to help her in selecting the right god-parents. Ellena was looking for the very religious couple; people, to whom religion was as important as it is to her. She was looking for the people who, should anything happen to herself, would be able to become the loving parents for her daughter. Ellena even had to postpone the baptism of her daughter for one week, because she couldn't find the qualifying god-parents. Father Mark assisted her in choosing the right people, and finally Ellena was able to have her daughter baptized.
After the baby was baptized, Ellena invited the people who attended the event to get together for lunch. As we were enjoying our lunch, I was able to ask Ellena about her feelings for having her daughter baptized. She said, "I was so nervous about this, I couldn't even sleep last night. I was worried about everything, especially about how Alexa would behave herself, considering the fact that she is so attached to me, and doesn't usually get around with other people. But now, when I found the right people and we finally were able to have my daughter baptized, I feel so much relief, I cannot even explain it. I am so happy it finally happened!"
What I noticed while observing baptismal event of my friend's daughter is that in the beginning everyone, including my friend Ellena seemed to be somewhat unspoken, showing no emotional expressions. I assume that the fact that Alexa was about to be baptized was very important to them. And as soon as Alexa was baptized, I could see the difference in their behavior immediately. Everyone seemed to be very excited about the fact that their baby is now baptized and therefore is considered to be a part of the religious community. People were smiling and talking to each other about how happy they are fort Alexa's baptism and how important it is that her soul is now protected by the power of the Almighty.
As I was working on my study about the role of religion in Ukrainian people's lives, I was expecting to explore the role of religion in Ukrainian culture both domestically and internationally. In my study, I was primarily concentrating on the role of baptism in Ukrainian culture. In order to better understand the subject that I was about to study, I turned to the historical literature, and performed a research on the history of religion in Ukraine. I was able to interview the older generation of Ukrainian women as well as the younger generation, and listen to their stories and opinions about this matter. I was also able to explore the baptismal ritual, which was held at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Philadelphia.
What I was able to explore as far as I performed my study was that religion seems to play an important role for every generation of Ukrainians. However, I assume that the significance of religion in Ukrainian people's lives tend to fade from one generation to the other. Older generation of Ukrainians, facing the oppression of religion during the Communism Era, have a somewhat stronger feeling of importance of religion in their lives that the generation born after the times of oppression. For present generation, the feeling of fear of losing their right to practice their religion is somewhat alien, and they feel more secure about their future that their ancestors did.
What I was not able to explore in my study was whether there are any significant differences in the role of religion in Ukrainian culture domestically and internationally. In order to do so, I would have to travel to Ukraine and speak to the Ukrainians residing in Ukraine about this matter, and listen to their stories. Only then I would be able to draw some connections, and possibly see some distinctions. Or, maybe I would not be able to find any. However, I assume that I have no right to make such conclusion as of now, as my subject needs to be further explored in a much more detailed way, unlike what I was able to accomplish at this time.
- Nielsen, Michael E., Ph.D. "Social Psychology and Religion on a Trip to Ukraine". Web. March 8, 2010
- "The Soviet Era". InterKnowlege Corp. Geographia Official Site. Web. March 15, 2010
- Personal Interview with Ukrainian People.