CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Conversion and subjectivity
The making of an Oazowicz and social change in Poland

by Esther Peperkamp, Amsterdam School of Social Science Research
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


In Poland, every year tens of thousands of people participate in retreats organized by Oaza. Oaza is the popular name of the religious movement within the Catholic Church in Poland officially called "Light-Life Movement". The first retreats took place in the fifties and were meant for altar boys. Later groups for girls were added and there developed a structure of age-groups. There is now Oaza for children, for youngsters, and for married couples. Oaza was the first catholic movement that started operating during communism, after all other catholic groups -such as Catholic Action- had been liquidated by the communist government.

            The goal of the movement is to help people transform themselves into so-called "authentic christians", i.e. christians that would have a personal relationship with God and that would live according to the truths of catholic faith. In this regard, one can speak about the aim of Oaza being conversion, conversion to a new kind of religion rather than to a new religion. The conversion occurs within the Catholic faith and involves a restyling of one's faith and way of life, which is thought eventually to lead to social change as well as being saved oneself. Although the word conversion is seldomly used by the members of Oaza to describe their experiences, this word most aptly describes the processes of change taking place within the Oaza-movement. This is a deliberate process. Members actively seek conversion, they seek to change their faith, their relation to God, their religious practices as well as their lives and the lives of other people by becoming "authentic christians". In this regard, conversion differs from its popular understanding of radical change, caused by a moment of sudden insight and leading to the acceptance of a new religion.

            I will argue in this paper that in the case of conversion in Oaza can be understood as a particular technology of the self, that has been defined by Foucault as "technologies [..], which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality" (Luther H. Martin e.a., 1988: p. 18).

            I also will suggest that the impact of Oaza and similar religious groups on changes in contemporary society lies exactly in their technology of the self, in the way and kind of subject they constitute.

1. Conversion

The main characteristic of Oaza is that it offers its members a very strict program with which they can work on their religion and on themselves. This is called formation (formacja). Oaza is probably the biggest religious movement in Poland that places such a heavy accent on formation of its members. Other movements that emphasize formation and also have degrees of initiation (wtajemniczenia), like Opus Dei or Neokatechumenat, are much smaller.

            The technology of the self, the mechanisms of self-examination and self-improvement I want to talk about in this paper are especially relevant in the age group which is called Oaza Nowego Życia, Oaza of New Life. Contrary to the other sections of the movement already the name of this particular section carries the implication of conversion. The other sections are simply called according to their age-group Oaza Rodzin - Family Oaza and Oaza Dzieci Bożych - Oaza of God's Children. This should not be surprising. In Oaza conversion as a process is strikingly similar to cultural rites of passage. In all cultures, the most intense initiations take place in this age-group. In this paper therefore I will concentrate on this age-group, which comprises youth between 14 and 22 years old. Members are allowed to enter Oaza of New Life when they finish the school called gimnazjum usually at the age of 15. The period of formation stricte comprises the 4-5 years of secondary school, effectively preventing its young members from other engagements, like hanging around with friends in pubs and effectively taking advantage of the fact that people this age are looking for their own life-style/way of life. Many members stay in the group during their studies, becoming in turn leaders of groups of younger members, after which most of them drop out.

            The program for every age-group consists of three levels of formation. Every level comprises a retreat as well as meetings in the parish preceding and following up the retreat. The central point of the first level in Oaza of New Life is to accept Jesus Christ as ones Personal Lord and Saviour. The second level introduces a ten-step plan with which to reach mature christianity (dojrzałość chrześcijańska). The ten steps involve not only the acceptance of religious truths (about Jesus, Mary, Holy Ghost, Church) and practices supposed to lead to spiritual growth (Prayer, Lithurgy, Bible) but also involve the changing of ones attitudes towards the world outside: Testimony, New Culture, Agape (which is translated as "disinterested love"). The theme of the third level is the Church and is meant to result in concrete engagement in the Church especially at the level of the parish.

            The question in Oaza then is not "to believe or not to believe" but concerns the quality of ones beliefs as well as the quality of the believer himself. The process of conversion therefore involves a continuous effort of the self to improve one's faith and oneself. In Oaza, often the Greek word for conversion -metanoia- is used to denote the permanent effort of converting. One of the manuals states explicitly that "A Christian and New Man is only that person, that undertakes the permanent effort of living according to the Word every single day anew" (Podręcznik ONŻ I°, p. 23). The Oaza-concept of conversion corresponds to the idea of holiness that has been several times explicitly formulated by Pope John Paul II. "At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit" (JPII from sermon to young people in Toronto). Members themselves also often refer to their being called to be holy. Obviously, true holiness can never be obtained during life-time and always remains an ideal. In consequence, conversion in Oaza, which is about becoming holy, is a life-long process and involves a considerable personal engagement and even self-renunciation. Or, in Oaza language, in order for the New Man to come about, one should first kill the Old Man in oneself.[1]

            Formation is expected to lead to a perfection not only of religious knowledge and practices, but also to a perfection of the self. Indeed, when talking about their participation in Oaza, members often start telling how imperfect they were before they started to participate, how they have changed already and what still remains to be done.

The retreat [..] is a holy time, in which I realised how much pride, egoism, love of myself there is in me. I understood, how much I should change in myself, improve so that my life would become one big testimony… (Oaza, 59, p. 28).

Conversion in Oaza then is a technology of the self in that it is a deliberate and guided process of changing oneself, changing ones thoughts, conduct way of being and in the end ones soul in order to reach a higher goal: salvation. Now how does this technology work? How does it manifest itself? In this paper I will concentrate on one aspect of conversion as proposed by Oaza, which I think is important, namely verbality.

2. Talking about conversion, converting by talking

Conversion is supported in the first place by regular group meetings, in which members are expected to participate actively. Secondly by witnessing, in which members are expected to relate to others their private experiences with God and their inner changes. Thirdly by confession, in which members are expected to report on the progresses they have made. Communicative ability is one of the elements often mentioned by members when they were asked about the impact of Oaza on their lives, as is illustrated by the following fragment:

Through this movement I learned how to talk, how to be with another human being [..]. Because once, before I was in the movement, it would be hard to have a conservation with me. An interview like this would be a disaster [..]. Through this movement I learned to open myself and even though I prefer to listen instead of talking, I learned how to talk, I learned how to express my feelings…(021204 boy, 19 years old).

A remark that was often repeated in interviews was that "once, I wouldn't be able to SAY this, now I'm able". Members never said that once they didn't BELIEVE like this. This points to the centrality of speaking.

            Members are constantly expected to open up their inner selves in front of other people, in front of their peers and in front of a priest, who functions as the ultimate touchstone. Paradoxically, this permanent flow of communication is not meant to communicate. On the contrary, it is meant to incline the speaker to reflexivity and self-examination. The importance of the act of speaking also has been noted by Harding in the case of fundamental Baptism conversion (Harding, 1987). Her conclusion that members not only talk about conversion, but convert by talking, also holds true for members of Oaza. Members convert themselves and they convert themselves largely by talking.

            The act of speaking is stressed from the very beginning, especially during retreats. Great efforts are made within Oaza to get people to speak, for example on the occasion of accepting Jesus as ones Personal Lord and Saviour.

The fourth day there was this renewal of the acceptance of Lord Jesus as our Personal Lord and Saviour, and we were like "cool, great, than we'll say that, just in our heart". But the priest said "no, you will go with a candle and you will come forward to the microphone and you will…you should feel, that you're talking to Jesus, who is He for you?" (…)

So here I had to come forward and say not something like "Lord Jesus, I accept You as my Personal Lord and Saviour", but I had to say -for example- "Lord Jesus, I love You", or "Lord Jesus, I want you to guide my life". It had to be from the heart. It had to be that this Lord Jesus is personal (021219, girl, 19 years old).

This speaking out loud often involves an involvement of the self, of ones person, by using for example the first person and by demanding from the members to speak "from the heart". Note also the presence of microphones: there is nowhere to hide. As a result, people have to overcome their fears and shyness.

            Every act, every further initiation is accompanied by the act of speaking out loud. With every step forward, every new initiation, it is expected from the participants that they express their will to continue out loud in front of ones peers. Members are asked to declare themselves over and over again and the presence of witnesses make them feel obliged. Starting from a simple "yes, I want to" the act of speaking evolves throughout the formation. A specific occasion of speaking out loud is giving testimony. In the beginning, it suffices to say that Jesus is important to you, but the further one gets, the more sophisticated and thorough the testimony is expected to be. Hence it becomes more troublesome as well.

Once it wasn't that I liked to give testimony, but I often gave testimony. But after some time, I started... that's something inside of me that I'm not able to tell everything about myself. There is not a single person, that I tell everything, really no one, I always keep something for myself. And the further one is in ones formation and the later one witnesses…the more private areas of…of the self one touches. You know, talking about your private problems, private experiences, that's very hard. And sometimes I wouldn't be able to manage. And that's why recently I don't feel like giving testimony. (030217 girl, 18 years old)

This fragment illustrates how troublesome a testimony can become and therefore to what extent testimony is bound up with the self and the truth about oneself.

            Sometimes speaking is a voluntary act and somebody is asked to give testimony, but in other situations there is no choice, such as the sharing ritual (dzielenie), in which one shares ones most recent experiences, feelings or insights with the rest of the group. Usually, people sit in a circle and a candle is passed through. When one receives the candle, one is expected to say something about oneself.

           Why is this speaking out loud so important? Why does Oaza offer so many occasions on which members are expected, invited or compelled to speak out loud? I suggest that this is because through speaking out loud helps to objectify oneself, it allows to see oneself through the eyes of a third person and judge oneself accordingly. The goal of this profound self-examination is to find out the truth about oneself (in this regard it matters little if this truth is "true" and to what extent this "truth" is suggested by the movement). To hear oneself speak the truth about oneself is confronting and provides a sufficiently strong impulse to change and improve oneself.

Not only through group-meetings members are encouraged to talk about themselves, to unravel their emotions. A specific institution that is concerned with the Truth, discovering and verifying it, is confession.

3. Confession

Truth is a key-concept. This word is usually used in relation to religious Truth, namely that Jesus is our Saviour. But secondly, it is often used in relation to the Self. It is equally important to know the Truth about oneself (stanąć w prawdzie wobec siebie) as it is to know the religious truth. A particular institution that helps to discover the Truth about oneself is confession, which is usually described by Oaza members as a way of working on the self (praca nad sobą). Conversion as propagated by Oaza is not a spontaneous change, but a constantly guided and continuously checked upon/verified process of change. Confession is one of the main institutions in which the conversion is constantly verified. Priests -because of their authority- are the ultimate touchstone for verifying the truth and acting upon it.

            The importance of confession, although not present in the axis of formation, which is the ten-step plan to mature christianity, is stressed at several occasions: in small group meetings, during lectures, at retreats, sermons. It is a permanent element of every retreat. As a red thread the issue of confession runs throughout the whole period of formation and surpasses/extends beyond the minimum requirements of confessing ones sins against the ten commandments. The manual of level zero suggests about confession that one should "also think about guilt, that doesn't come directly from the ten commandments (..), your guilt opposes your vocation/calling of being a New Man in a consciouss and free way aspiring to reach full development through disinterested service of God and brethren".

            It is suggested to look for a permanent confessor, because only a permanent confessor can check on your development regarding matters of faith and personality. Indeed, many members of Oaza do have a permanent confessor. The practice of having a permanent confessor already in itself then points to the importance of working at your self.

            Confession again stresses the importance of speaking. By formulating ones sins and speaking them out loud, one enters into a confrontation with oneself. Even without the confessor saying anything, the confession fulfills its role of objectifying the truth about oneself.

I remember that it was hard sometimes, it was hard for me to confess, because that's like taking a look at one's life. You make up your state of mind and sometimes you conclude, that you're a bad person. For a human being that's a heavy thing, because… you think you're ideal, super. And here you look [at yourself] and you've done that, and that and that. For me that's…. hard in a way. It gives stress, when you discover the truth about yourself. She is not always beautiful, sometimes…(020819, girl, 23 years old).

For most members, confession provides an occasion to get to know oneself and as a result of this, to change oneself. There is a sharp contrast between this approach to confession and the approach of people not identyfying themselves fully with the church:

Now I could again go to confession, if that would be important to me. But it isn't, because… Confession doesn't help me much. I don't feel better [afterwards]. To me it is like… alright, I mention all my sins and then I will have some sort of consciousness…(021113, girl, 17 years old)

4. Subjectivity

The technology of the self I described above, consists of producing the truth about oneself, especially by talking. This technology of the self is nothing else than the way human beings turn themselves into subjects (Foucault, 1994, 327). Through the practice of verbalizing ones feelings, thoughts, inner self, which prompts for improvement, Oaza members create a new subjectivity.[2] This new subjectivity consists of a new way of relating to other people and to God, not by changing the other, but by changing oneself (as a result of which the other inevitable changes as well). When speaking about the self, one actually speaks about the self in relation to others, in relation to God and in relation to the church. And when examining the self one is actually examining the relationship of the self to others. When improving the self, one is improving ones relationships to others.

Besides, through Oaza I learned how to control my emotions, my feelings, physical desire as well as my temper, agression, everything… I learned how to control all of this, because I stated that this bothers, bothers interhuman contacts, bothers in reaching salvation, going to heaven. (021204, boy, 19 years old)

This fragment nicely illustrates how self-improvement, relationships with other people and with God and the ultimate goal, salvation are connected to one another. These relationships are established according to a certain model, that has been given beforehand and which validity has been accepted. This is the program Oaza offers to its members and which the members make themselves familiar with.

            The new subjectivity proposed by Oaza is not a marginal phenomenon, but should be seen as being at the core of recent changes within the Catholic church. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged and instigated a new kind of subjectivity of the members of the Catholic Church. This New Church implies a new subjectivity, aptly formulated by an Oaza-member as follows:

This new Church is a very open one, that continually stresses that the Church that's us, people; we decide, we pray; everything depends on us. It's [church] warm, cordial, open to life, in which the priest is only a sort of spiritual guide, who prompts us. He's not the one who rules, he's one of us, and not the one who decides, who says "we do like this" and then everybody obeys. (030206, girl, 21 years old)

This subjectivity entails a new relation between the self and the church, a new way of relating to the church. In this case, the question is not to belong or not to belong to the Church, but how to belong to the church, changing the Church in the process. What changes are the power relations between institution and individual believer.[3] There is more room for individual initiative and engagement. On the other hand, initiative and engagement are being expected from church members. Oaza is a place where this new consciousness is installed in young Catholics.

They [retreats] taught me how important the parish is I work in. Commitment to church affairs, that I not only take from the church, but that I also have to give it a lot (boy, 19 years old).

Now one can ask the question what kind of subjectivity this is, since it is provided from above in the form of a program of formation and directed towards full acceptance of the church. One could ask "what is new in all this?" What is new is the way in which members are compelled to accept church dogmas and teachings. This is a compellment based on seducion rather than force, of achievement rather than ascription. And while the conditions to be a member of Oaza are very strict, members are always left the choice to leave[4]. The point is, that membership doesn't rely upon force, but upon rather subtle mechanisms and techniques of persuasion. The technigue of verbalizing oneself is one of them and one of the strongest, I would like to suggest.

            Its attraction also lies in the fact that it fits the needs of people in contemporary society and as such it is not without significance to society. The impulse to know and form oneself is both compelling and convincing because it so well fits the requirements of contemporary society. And although the tools and arguments for conversion are provided from above, eventually members convert themselves.

            The struggle for a new kind of subjectivity is not new, neither is it confined to Oaza or religious groups in general. The state, especially the modern state aiming democracy and the establishment of a civil society like the church is also an entity, that not only developes above individuals, but also builds on individuals, provided that this individuality takes a particular form, other than the form it assumed during communism. A new order demands a new subject and new subjects demand a new order. I agree with Ireland, who argues that it might be not the fact of conversion, but the kind of conversion, i.e. the kind of technology of the self, that decides about the larger social significance of conversion. Instead of directly converting other people or being politically active members of Oaza foremost want to be an example for other people through their own life-style. As Ireland argues for Latin-American Pentecostals, ‘the Pentecostal challenge to the political economic status quo might come not so much from immediate, overt political behaviour, but over time, in the nurturing of a Pentecostal counter-culture and the practices of a distinctive Pentecostal way of life’ (Ireland, 1995: 135). The same goes for Oaza. 


In this paper I've tried to show that Oaza offers a certain technology of the self, in which truth, the telling of the truth and acting upon the truth play a central role. Confession and testifying can be said to be truth mechanisms. I've tried to show that these truth-procedures, self-examination and self-improvement lead to a new kind of subjectivity, i.e. a new way of understanding the self and the way the self relates to others. This subjectivity is especially relevant to the Catholic Church and the way Church and believers relate to one another.

            I also suggest however that the impact of Oaza and similar religious movements on contemporary society lies in the way they create subjects and the kind of subject they create. The technology of the self one finds in Oaza and the new subjectivity of its members do not exist in isolation of society at large. They constitute society as much as they are a product of it. Although groups like Oaza, like other clearly defined groups or institutions, provide the most privileged point of observation of technologies of the self, the fundamental point of anchorage of these mechanisms is to be found outside the institution. Institutions like Oaza provide the occasion to look at these procedures, methods and technologies through a magnifying glass, they are privileged places of observation, but they are by no means the only ones and the breeding ground for this new subjectivity should be sought in general social processes.


Faubion, James D. (ed.)

            1994 Michel Foucault: Power, essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 3. London:           Penguin Books

Foucault, Michel

            1984 [1976] De Wil tot Weten [La volonté de savoir]. Nijmegen: SUN

Harding, Susan

            1987 Convicted by the Holy Spirit: the rhetoric of fundamental Baptist conversion.             American Ethnologist 14 (1): 167-182

Ireland, Rowan

            1995 Pentecostalism, Conversions and Politics in Brazil. Religion 25, 135-145

Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman & Patrick M. Hutton (eds.)

            1988 Technologies of the Self: a Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock             Publications

[1] Like most other Oaza-concepts, the idea of the Old Man, who has to die, and the New Man one should become is taken from the bible. "This I say therefore and testifie in the Lord, that yee henceforth walke not as other Gentiles walke in the vanitie of their minde. Hauing the vnderstanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindnesse of their heart: Who being past feeling, haue giuen themselues ouer vnto lasciuiousnesse, to worke all vncleannesse with greedinesse. But ye haue not so learned Christ: If so be that ye haue heard him, and haue bene taught by him, as the trueth is in Iesus, That yee put off concerning the former conuersation, the olde man, which is corrupt according to the deceitfull lusts: And bee renewed in the spirit of your minde: And that yee put on that new man, which after God is created in righteousnesse, and true holinesse" (List to Ephesians, 4, 17:24).

[2] It is important to note here that the issue of the subject and subjectivity (podmiot, podmiotowość) is also often raised in Oaza itself. Most often this concerns subjectivity in interhuman relationships and members are told and taught not to treat the other as an object, but as a subject. This holds especially for man-woman relationships.

[3] The question arises here about the comparison between Oaza similar religious movements and historical movements. About religious movements in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Foucault states that "they should by analyzed as a great crisis of the Western experience of subjectivity and a revolt against the kind of religious and moral power that gave form, during the Middle Ages, to this subjectivity. The need to take a direct part in spiritual life, in the work of salvation, in the Truth that lies in the Book - all that was a struggle for a new subjectivity" (Foucault, 1994, 332). This seems strikingly similar to what is going on in Oaza. The struggle for subjectivity then seems to be a struggle of all times, taking different forms and resulting in different outcomes in different historical periods.

[4] In fact, many members do leave because of the requirements made by Oaza. The continuous pressure to improve oneself is one of the main reasons why people drop out of the movement. According to Załęcki the ‘strong feelings of the members’ own sinfulness and imperfection and the lack of possibility of total realisation of accepted values and ideas, leads many people to frustration’ (Załęcki, 1995: 189). An ex-member said to me: For me, as for many ex-Oaza members, Oaza is a symbol of half- freedom, showing the power and dynamism of thinking in religion, but on the other hand proving limits; arguing for the need of having one's own personality, fighting for it and cutting the wings short, for the sake of the group. It was a good school of life, but the worst possible of creativity. The group pressure was incredibly high.

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