A Multigenerational Story of Interfaith Identity in Yugoslavia

A historian of the Ottoman Balkans explores her connection to religion through her family’s mixed heritage

A Multigenerational Story of Interfaith Identity in Yugoslavia
A wedding is celebrated at the Cathedral of St. James in Sibenik, Croatia, on Sept. 11, 2021. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The heart of our home was our pantry. It was a large cupboard, whose contents and aromas captured the essence of our family: a faint smell of flour and a piece of stale chocolate that someone took a bite from and left in its open packaging, the scent of dried lavender from my mother’s garden as well as a row of wine and rakija — local fruit brandy — in plastic bottles. The pantry was flanked by two large doors, each of which featured a Catholic calendar on the inside.

The calendar is a familiar household item in Croatia. It features an image of a saint at the center — every year a different one — framed by the columns of weeks and months in black and red ink. It notes feasts of martyrs and saints, state holidays and lunar phases. It is as practical as it is comprehensive.

My mother always kept one calendar for the current year and one from the previous year. Together they functioned as a biennial inventory of our household life. Covered in her notes, the calendars chronicled our birthdays and bills, moon phases (important for gardening and scheduling haircuts), doctors’ appointments and all of the times that she got the kitchen gas cylinder refilled. Starting in December, you can pick up your calendar in a church or find it folded inside the local newspaper as a special promotional gift.

Where I come from, in northern Istria, shrines are plentiful. They are found everywhere from street corners to village crossroads and forest clearings. Made of stone or cement, they resemble miniature altars and contain an image or perhaps a statue of a saint to whom they are dedicated. One never knows what they are going to encounter inside; it can be anything from a bunch of wilted flowers to a handful of rusty change. Once, I found a pair of broken glasses, perhaps a token of gratitude from someone whose sight improved. Our pantry reminds me of a shrine of sorts, a space guarded by saints where my family left our hopes, plans and promises, both broken and fulfilled. But in 2019, this way of marking time in our house stopped: My mother died that spring. When I opened the pantry last summer, the calendars felt like relics.

The memories of my mother and the pantry came flooding back one day last December when the Croatian news website, Index, criticized mainstream newspapers for distributing the Catholic calendar. On the surface, the criticism seems valid: In an officially secular state, why are major news outlets promoting Catholic paraphernalia?

But one does not have to dig too deep to realize that it is a stretch to call Croatia a secular state. Since Croatian independence in 1991, the Catholic Church has become a major political player. The Vatican was among the first foreign entities to recognize Croatian independence in January 1992. Four years later, the government signed the (in)famous Vatican Agreements granting the Catholic Church access to education and significant state funds. Though Croatia is officially a secular state, the power amassed by the Catholic Church continues to be a source of controversy among its citizens.

Still, the critiques of the calendar struck me as smug and superficial.

Further online digging led me to other articles that mocked the Catholic calendar by implying that Catholics were stupid. In 2017, Index advertised a secular calendar, one that would instead feature “miracles of science, literature, history, knowledge and achievements.” According to these publications, Catholics believed in “ancient people who fly through the thunderous sky in chariots” and “the men who crouch inside whales,” referring, I presume, to St. Elijah and Jonah.

They were also a reminder that religious experiences have long been reduced to nationalistic discourses and crass generalizations. In academia, it is difficult to find a book about the Balkans that discusses religious phenomena outside of the political context. More often than not, discourses are binary and focus on the relationship between nationhood and faith as communists and religious institutions, Catholics and their support for the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) or the hegemony of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its implication in the genocidal actions of the 1990s. While the study of Islam and nation-making in Bosnia and Herzegovina is particularly popular, scholars have recently started exploring Bosnian Islam as a multilayered set of experiences through which various communities construct their material and moral worlds. David Henig, the author of “Remaking Muslim Lives: Everyday Islam in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina,” framed Bosnian Muslim experiences in the context of broader “vital exchanges.” Dzenita Karic’s new book, “Bosnian Hajj Literature: Multiple Paths to the Holy,” offers a long-term study of Bosnian hajj as an “embodied and lived experience.”

As someone who studies Bosnian Catholic history in the Ottoman Empire, I was helped by these works to reflect on my mother’s relationship to Catholic paraphernalia. I can see how my mother used pieces of religious tradition that she grew up with, such as the calendar, and see their impact on our family life. The calendar was part of the material repertoire through which religious identity and ordinary practices of belief play out. I started to understand that the outcry over mainstream newspapers distributing Catholic calendars was less about secularism and more about how Croatian society discusses religious faith and navigates interreligious practices.

The debate over the distribution of Catholic calendars felt deeply personal. Although I was baptized, I’m not a believer and, while my mother was Catholic, my dad has a Serbian Orthodox background. It is a relationship that comes with baggage. In the modern-day Balkans, the two churches are at odds with each other. Different liturgies, shibboleths (making a sign of the cross with a whole hand or three fingers; saying amen or amin) and calendars outline national boundaries as well as theological ones. It is a rivalry that goes as far back as the Ottoman, Venetian and Habsburg empires, which all overlapped in the region at different periods during the past 500 years. Throughout that time, the Catholic and Orthodox churches have competed for power, people and influence.

Families with mixed religious backgrounds have always been embroiled in notions of blame and betrayal. Interfaith marriage is often talked about in the context of socialist former Yugoslavia, but people in the region have been crossing religious lines for love, sex or some combination of both for a long time. Catholics with Orthodox or Muslim spouses routinely attracted the disapproving eye of Catholic clergy along the Ottoman-Habsburg borderlands, while couples crossing the Ottoman-Venetian frontier in Dalmatia were known to cause diplomatic scandals.

In Ottoman Bosnia, Franciscan friars closely monitored marriage not only as a sacrament, but also because marrying someone of another faith was seen as a path to conversion. Marrying a Muslim or marrying at the Islamic court was an excommunicable sin. The only way that one could hope to be delivered back to the communal fold was through paying a heavy penance. For women, that meant fasting and standing in the middle of the congregation with their heads covered with cloth and a heavy stone suspended around their necks.

Learning more about this history reminded me of my 9-year-old self just before my First Communion. The priest told us that our parents could partake in the Eucharist only if they had been married in a church. That was when I first fully considered that I might be a product of sin.

Unlike most of my peers, I had been baptized just one year before then, against the wishes of my father but to the delight of my mother and grandparents. It was my own decision, but I suspect that my desire to become a Catholic had something to do with not wanting to roam the school corridor while others sat in the classroom during religious education. When Catholic catechism returned to schools in the early 1990s, the state offered no alternatives to non-Catholics or those whose parents didn’t want them to attend. Who was in and who was out took a very literal form. So, I was baptized one afternoon in July, and even though the holy water poured on my forehead was supposed to wash away the original sin, it couldn’t remove the facts.

With my sister and me baptized, we outnumbered my father three to one. Going to church always felt like treading a thin line of loyalty. If I attend church, will my father think I don’t love him? Will he give me the silent treatment, like he did to my mother every time she went to church?

We tiptoed around holidays. As if in a minefield, words and dates were potentially treacherous. How and when do you say Merry Christmas when the two Christmases are 13 days apart? How do you respond to well-wishers, and what were the implications of doing so? I associate festivities from early childhood with fear.

To keep confusion and embarrassment at bay, our house was devoid of any signs of religion or ritual, with the exception of the calendars in the pantry. Our family unity was predicated on erasing our religious traditions, a logic that seemed to have been adopted from the first phase of the Second Yugoslavia. As work by the historian Fedja Buric explains, from the end of World War II to the early 1960s, the state sought to create a new Yugoslav identity by erasing the other ones, which included sidelining religious institutions and their control over family affairs. Civil marriage was imposed in 1946, and the state even seized baptismal and other records from the clerical offices. Religion remained a taboo until the ’60s, when the relationship between religious institutions and the state thawed and the authorities gave up their denationalizing aspirations.

By the time my parents got married in the late 1980s, the relationship between the state and religion changed dramatically yet again. To publicly partake in religious rituals was not only a display of loyalty to the emerging states but was also quickly becoming a requirement. When the Croatian Parliament proclaimed the multiparty system in 1990, the Catholic clergy inaugurated it with a Mass; there was an exodus of people from the Communist Party to the Catholic pews. On the other side of my family’s religious divide was the Serbian Orthodox Church; this too gained traction throughout the 1980s as it embraced war and genocide in the name of uniting the Serbs under its religious and political authority.

Over the years, things also changed in our household. I stopped going to church and started studying religion instead. My father and mother started finding their own ways to coexist. In addition to celebrating Catholic Christmas on Dec. 25, which they would usually do by joining my mother’s family, they started marking the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 as well. They also began celebrating “slava” — a tradition of marking a saint’s day associated with the family. Recently, I read that slava is something that an 18th-century Catholic bishop strictly forbade his Bosnian congregation from celebrating with their Orthodox neighbors. One thing you learn as a historian, though, is that when something is being enforced as law, the opposite usually happens.

Now, my father is present at the Catholic Mass at least once a year. He attends memorial liturgies for my mother, which he organizes with her sisters. I have never been.

If Catholicism drew a fault line through our home, it was what kept my grandparents’ house together. My maternal grandparents were devout in all the ways that one could never observe, given the official state discourse on religion.

There were hardly any images on the walls of the house I grew up in. My mother’s anxiety of standing out extended to any type of visual representation (remember, she kept the calendars on the inner side of the pantry door). But in my grandparents’ house, one was always under a saintly gaze of some kind. There was a large, mass-produced image of the Nativity scene over the bed where I slept. The edges of unframed mirrors and bed frames were decorated with rosaries collected on many Marian pilgrimages, and a variety of wooden and plastic crucifixes hung above doorways. I would routinely rummage through my grandmother’s dresser. Instead of finding jewelry, perfumes or lace — none of which she possessed — I’d find only a statuette of the Virgin Mary. It was small but substantial. I can still feel its weight in my hands.

For the most part, their devotional paraphernalia were not acknowledged by my other family members. Even my father, who usually associated Catholic rituals with expressions of Croat nationalism, largely ignored them.

It was clear to everyone that they weren’t nationalist and that is because they lived through an entirely different period of history. Born in Italian Istria in the 1930s, they attended Italian school for four years before they found themselves in Yugoslavia, after the borders were redrawn following the end of the Second World War. During their lifetime, the country’s identity evolved yet again, this time into the Republic of Croatia, but my grandfather still referred to everything beyond the Ucka mountain range as “Yugoslavia” until the day he died. Even in their village, beyond the hills and the rail tracks, my grandparents remained on the edges of regional and local life. Going to church and the change of seasons were the constant of their lives. Going to Mass was a reason to go to town (for the most part, they were self-sufficient) and their main exposure to standard Croatian (they spoke a unique dialect). Even on days when the electricity, TV and phone signals (which they got in the mid-’70s and late ’90s, respectively) could barely reach them, the winds carried the light but reliable ring of the distant church bells at noon and 6 p.m.

Everyone saw my grandparents as cut off from the modern world. Their love of images and plastic devotional objects made them look naive, as if someone forced it on them. They appeared old-fashioned and perhaps duped, by a priest or a persistent salesperson.

Now that they’re both dead, I would give everything to go back in time and pay more attention to their tales and objects. I’d wonder who made all the rosaries and statues and how they got them. Most of all, I’d ask them what they felt and thought when they looked at them. I’d ask how their weight felt in their hands and whether holding them lifted some weight from their shoulders.

Because now I know better than to equate belief with backwardness or to understand religious objects, even the mass-produced ones, as worthless or meaningless. I came to this realization only by reading scholarship on religion and religious materiality. The mission statement of Material Religion, a journal that has been published since 2005, asserts “just how deeply dependent religious identity and experience are on the material stuff and ordinary practices of belief.” Religion is, the article goes on, “not regarded as something one does with speech or reason alone, but with the body and the spaces it inhabits.”

I became fully aware of this scholarship and its effect on my understanding of my own family’s past while doing archival work in Bosnian Franciscan monasteries. I went into the archive to read Ottoman court documents, accounts and property transactions, to write the history of the community and its place in the Ottoman world. Over time, though, I learned that I had to start paying attention to the items and stories that glued the community together. I tried to figure out how faded paintings and devotional statues, archives and scriptures, as well as stones and sacred trees all came together to create the texture of Catholic identity at one point in time.

St. Elijah, for example, is a patron saint of the Bosnian Catholics. He’s that same guy riding through the sky on a fiery chariot that a Croatian news portal once mocked. Funnily enough, understanding St. Elijah and his traces found on the local mountains, on long-gone altars and in local scriptural lore is one of the few ways of understanding the way that identity and communal politics formed in that rich religious landscape. Whether in Bosnia or in my grandmother’s house, understanding the past is about how people tell their stories and how they imagine boundaries between this and the otherworldly. Sometimes, saints are the archive. In the words of Catholic studies scholar Robert Orsi, to study what we call religion and belief is to think about “discipline, practice, materiality, embodiment, authority, memory, performance and power.” It’s everything, really.

I can’t take what I learned back to my grandparents and apply my historical method to examine what they left behind. Last summer, I went to their house and found that other family members had cleared it out. The back wall of the garage was lined with black garbage bags. To most people, that’s what plastic crosses and rosaries appear to be — trash. The same idea plagues the study of Catholicism in the Ottoman Empire, including Bosnia. For a long time, devotional objects and religious materiality have been the domain of art historians who focus on masterpieces and tend to reduce religious images to “historical or aesthetic artifacts, failing to account for their role in the living tradition of a community’s life,” to quote the editors of Material Religion again. This approach has a profound effect on places like Bosnia, which has traditionally been seen as hostile to non-Muslims, where the Ottomans prevented religious art from flourishing. Although the material conditions of the monasteries were often dire, friars and local Catholics routinely found creative ways to furnish their churches and produce objects (from paintings to statues and metal objects) to facilitate liturgy and devotion. The problem is not an absence of Catholic material infrastructure but that its existence is deemed artistically unworthy and thus meaningless.

But as I suspect even my grandmother understood, ritual objects of all kinds mediate prayers, absorb pain and allow people to become part of something bigger. They produce meaning for individuals and communities, whether they were made by Michelangelo or Marko from Fojnica.

Now, wherever I go, I pay attention to images and objects, be they plastic madonnas or “barbaric images,” which is how Sir Arthur Evans described what he saw as inferior images in a Bosnian sanctuary in Komušina in 1875.

I spent two years of the COVID-19 pandemic in Florence. The city was mostly empty, and I could stand on the street corners and examine the altars and their saintly repertoires without clashing with the tourist crowds. At every turn, there was a new saint, a new iconographic symbol to learn. I treated it like a school exercise. I popped in and out of churches carrying a small notebook, a manual I acquired from the Uffizi and my phone with my favorite guide to Christian iconography at the ready.

I scoured the back walls of churches and shrines and marveled at the ex-votos left by the faithful and the afflicted. I even got an ex-voto for myself in one of the Florentine vintage shops: a beautiful piece of metal in the shape of a flaming heart and covered in patina. The seller assured me that it was “real,” and I’m still trying to figure out what that actually means and why I bought a piece of metal meant to represent a hope for divine intervention. They’re meant for God, not for me.

My frequent visits to church were becoming a project of the brain, not the heart, let alone the flaming one. The things — the sacred and devotional stuff that Florence is awash in — gave me a reason to go to church and to shield me from the implications of those visits. I was there as a scholar, as a wannabe connoisseur, even as a tourist … as long as it wasn’t as a believer.

During that time, I also visited my father back in Istria. Frequent visits to churches must have done something for me, because even though it had been years since I’d been in our town church, I decided to visit. I went on a weekday afternoon to avoid seeing anyone else. I toured around, examining the evangelists in the four corners of the main nave and practicing the scenes of the 14 stations of the cross — an iconographic repertoire now found spread across the walls of many Catholic churches.

The church appeared much smaller than I remembered it. I’d last been there as a teenager, confused about my place in it. I sat in one of the pews and looked up at a fresco showing St. Mark and the lion. In my youth, it was the image I chose to stare at during the liturgical service as I worried about why I could never memorize all the prayers and why I wasn’t hearing God’s voice as everyone around me seemed to. I went to church against the wishes of my father, mostly because I wanted to fit in. I also yearned for a spiritual awakening, but I never felt it in the pews. Instead, I fretted over why I couldn’t be like my fellow congregants. Together, they appeared like one, sailing through hymns and recitals, their eyes closed, bodies swaying and knees bending in unison. But all I could do was wonder, with a thought that would not abandon me, why God chose to speak to them and not me.

I examined the building that once intimidated me so much. I admired its baroque characteristics and peeked behind the side altars. I discovered that what I thought was marble was actually painted wood. Behind the altars were names of local families who financed the restoration of the church in the 1920s.

I saw something else too. On the back of the pews, there were multiple carvings: hearts, dates and initials. Ivas and Kikis and other children who apparently did not hear God’s voice during Mass. I wasn’t the only one bored and confused.

The church struck me as chipped, perhaps even a little cheap. There was a sense of disenchantment with the grandeur but also a new understanding of its materiality, which brought me closer to it. Its frescoes and fake marble allowed me to see it as a communal place where people left their marks — whether it was their dreams, their boredom or their beliefs. I remembered being told about the two meanings of the church in catechism classes: the edifice and the people. I fully saw them together there; neither one perfect, but that’s not the point.

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