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Parish Priest of Enlightenment

In the 18th century, a new concept of religiosity was introduced, the aim of which was to comply with all the rational provisions of the Age of Enlightenment. The changes in ecclesiastical life were to a large extent influenced by Pope Benedict XIV (1675–1758), known for having launched the reforms of confessional and spiritual life. The latter reforms exerted an influence on the Bishops of Samogitia and Vilnius, who initiated structural reforms in their respective dioceses. As a result of the aforementioned changes, the Bishops were expected to more successfully administer their dioceses, whereas the congregation was believed to have a better access to the heads of the Church.  Such an arrangement gave rise to a new quality of interaction between the priests in question and their congregation, resulting in a respectful, appreciative and trusting relationship. The ones who preached the word of God were no longer remote and inaccessible. Furthermore, the sermons delivered by parish priests ceased to be cold, austere and incomprehensible.

A parish priest was supposed to come close to the believer, enjoy the highest authority among the congregation members, take the role of a counsellor on many issues and be looked upon as an organizer and guardian of the parish life.

In this way, the foundations were laid for the formation of the Catholic Enlightenment parish priest, expected to be actively engaged in the agrarian Polish-Lithuanian society and act as a trustworthy Bishop’s curate in order to take good care of the souls in the rural parishes. Thus, a parish became the lowest link not only in the ecclesiastical domain but to a certain extent in the state administration as well.

The axis of a new community

“I did my best to facilitate the process of education so that it spreads the ideas of true Enlightenment in my parish,” – wrote Józef Kazimierz Korwin Kossakowski (1738–1794). Having introduced significant changes in Jonava, he was a perfect representative of the parish priest in the period of Enlightenment. Under his patronage, a tract was laid from Skaruliai to Jonava; education was entrusted to Marian priests, and a church was erected in Jonava. Having been appointed Bishop of Livonia, he claimed the following: “a good parish priest is like an angel on Earth; it is more important that this person has wisdom rather than proper education; greediness and laziness […] should not be his attributes; in a nutshell, a parish priest should be regarded as a father, a friend and a teacher in the part of the country he resides in.” This is what Józef Kazimierz Korwin Kossakowski wrote in his novel Ksiązdz Pleban (“Parish Priest”), which served as a literary form of highlighting the role of a parish priest in the Age of Enlightenment, both as an organizer of religious and social life in the parish, and as an educator of the parish community.

The activities of Paweł Ksawery Brzostowski (1739–1827) conducted in his Republic of Pavlov are similar in nature. A canon of Vilnius chapter and a referendary of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Brzostowski created a microstate on the basis of a private estate, unprecedented in the entire Central and Eastern Europe and executed different political, social, agrarian and military reforms in it. He also built a special house for the local peasants and dedicated a lot of attention to sharing of ideas of ideas and reading books together for the sake of their enlightenment.

In 1764, the Vilnius Bishop Ignacy Jakub Massalski (1729–1794) issued an order to the diocesan clergy to make a detailed inventory of their parish property. With that purpose in mind, special questionnaires were developed and sent out to the parishes in question. The 33 items included in the questionnaires covered ecclesiastical buildings, parish funds, hospitals, philia and the number of peasants in a certain parish. Furthermore, some topographic information was also requested to be presented. Both parish priests and deans had to submit such information on a yearly basis. However, such a requirement should not be regarded as a severe interference of the Church hierarchy into the parish affairs or strict control exerted by the Bishop. Instead, it was an attempt to develop a new diocesan management system. The results of a “questionnaire-based stock-taking” helped to establish the inventory of parish holdings. The data submitted by the parishes contributed to developing a clear and undistorted picture of the life characteristic of the lowest ecclesiastical tier.

The Enlightenment wearing cassock

The new arrangements in the Vilnius diocese resulted in the restructuring of confessional and community life of the diocese, establishment of the key authorities and rationalization of joint work. Other Lithuanian and Polish bishops soon followed suit. Such forms of diocese management, based on common sense and simple book-keeping, were in line with the propaganda of a new secular life model, launched in the 60-ies, and the innovations of administrative thought in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of those days.

The attempts to introduce simultaneous reforms both in ecclesiastical and secular spheres of life testifies of the common source of their origin, which is the state elite of the Age of Enlightenment. Having matured in Western Europe, this intellectual elite started spreading the new ideology, which lasted for a long time and was targeted at other layers of society.

In this intellectual discourse, an invisible lead was temporarily gained by the polity of the traditionally strong ecclesiastical organization, even though Catholic clergy accounted only for 0,43 percent of the society in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Such superiority of the Catholic clergy was more related to the intellectual factors rather than to political aspects or geographical parameters. The Church representatives were men of distinction, more skilled, disciplined and educated. It goes without saying that both civil service and the Court of the King Stanisław August Poniatowski also abounded in broad-minded and enlightened personalities. However, in this context the focus is placed on the theoretical thought and principles rather than on facts. This explains a significant contribution of the Church representatives in the upcoming political events, which took place during the last quarter of the 18th century. The ecclesiastical figures were also actively involved in developing various legal and educational documents, establishing new public institutions and drafting major reform projects during the period in question.

In 1763, the process of restructuring the priest seminary of the Vilnius diocese was launched. It should be noted that, quoting Józef Kazimierz Korwin Kossakowski, “the number of clerics in the seminary was far too small to satisfy the needs of our wide diocese, the living quarters are too tight, and the very teaching of theology and the rituals observed are subject to criticism.” In 1765, missionary monks, known as outstanding and zealous educators of the young clerics, took over the running of the Seminary. It is not without reason that as many as 18 out of 34 seminaries in Lithuania and Poland were run by missionaries. The structural changes introduced in the priest training establishment were followed by new teaching ideas, thus encouraging the development of independent skills of the Seminary students and the promoting a new trend in thinking, which matched the cannons of the modern times.

Therefore, it can be said that a parish priest of the Age of Enlightenment became the main actor of cultural and social life in Lithuania.

Eligijus Raila