The Catholic Church of Mariavites is a religious group created in Poland and nearly not found in other countries. Its roots date back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. There are three main stages in the history of the group based on its leadership:
1. 1893-1921 – leadership was in the hands of the foundress of Mariavitism, Maria Franciszka Kozłowska, referred to in the Catholic Church of Mariavites as Little Mother.
2. 1921-1942 – the time after the death of Kozłowska, when the leadership was in the hands of her previous collaborator, Jan Maria Michał Kowalski
3. from 1942 till now - the time since the death of both charismatic leaders.
In this paper I will outline briefly all the stages and show how they were influenced by the previous ones.
The Catholic Church of Mariavites was founded by Maria Franciszka Kozłowska, at the time a Roman Catholic nun. According to her, Mariavitism was the result of a sequence of divine revelations experienced by her starting on the 2nd of August, 1893. In the revelations, Kozłowska received a command to create a new order called the Order of Priests Mariavites. The name cames from the latin words Mariae vitam imitantes – the followers of the Life of Mary. After some years of existence, the order attempted to register with Roman Catholic Church authorities. They sent information about their activities with the text of Kozłowska's revelations to the Polish bishops and then to the Pope, but they did not receive the approval of the Roman Catholic Church. On the contrary, the bishops – and, after some years, the Pope - ordered them to dissolve the order. After failing to fulfill this instruction, in 1906 the order was expelled from the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, a new Christian denomination was created.
Specific to the new Church was belief in the guidance of Divine Will communicated to Kozłowska in her revelations. The revelations were very frequent and sometimes related even to irrelevant matters. But generally, during Kozłowska's life, the Mariavite Church did not introduce spectacular changes compared with other Christian denominations. With some specific Mariavite elements, such as, for example, special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and honour to one of the icons of Virgin Mary - Our Lady of Perpetual Help - they were accepted as a member of the Utrecht Union, a group of Churches of the Old Catholic tradition. What was unique to Mariavitism from its beginning was a strong conviction about the special role of the foundress and of themselves in the history of Christianity. In the opinion of the group, they were new believers chosen by God as His People, after the Israelites and Roman Catholics. They believed that just as the Isrealites lost their position after they rejected Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics lost theirs because they did not accept the revelations of Kozłowska. Mariavites believed that Kozłowska was the greatest of the saints, comparable only to the Blessed Virgin, as stated in her revelations. Visiting the pope in Rome, the Mariavites asked not only for legalisation of their order, but also for the Pope to proclaim Kozłowska - still living - as the greatest of the saints and to introduce prayers to her.
Maria Franciszka Kozłowska died in 1921. From that time, the leadership of Jan Maria Michał Kowalski began. His position in the Mariavite group resulted from the fact that he had been the closest collaborator of Kozłowska, but also his special role was confirmed in her revelations. According to Kozłowska's account, Jesus spoke to her about Kowalski: "This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased" - the same words God the Father said about Jesus during His baptism in the Jordan (Mt 3,17). In another part of her revelations, there is another reference to God's words about Kowalski: “Give him all the power. I Myself will lead him.” As a result, every decision by Kowalski was considered to be the Will of God.
While Kozłowska had revelations, Kowalski had so-called understandings . Use of the neological in Polish language terms meant that the ideas came to him from a source other than mystical experiences, but they were still treated as following strictly the Will of God. During the first 15 years of his leadership, based on his understandings, Kowalski introduced numerous innovations, so-called reforms, in doctrine as well as in the life of the Church. These changes varied from the non-controversial, such as communion in two forms, some liturgical reforms, communion of babies after baptism, and abolition of confession to a priest to the more questionable, such as the priesthood of women, the doctrine about cessation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church, and, the most controversial, the so-called mystical marriages among Mariavite priests and nuns.
The last of the above-mentioned practices illustrate well the characteristics of Kowalski's leadership. Mystical marriages started in 1924 with the marriage of Archbishop Kowalski to a young nun, Izabela Wiłucka. In the next few months, there followed pairings of other Mariavite bishops with nun-brides selected for them by Kowalski. At first, the marriages were secret - only people prepared for their own mystical marriages were informed of the practice. The idea for the future was to include in the practice all Mariavite priests. When he introduced mystical marriages, Kowalski had a special religious explanation for the practice. They were based on Kozłowska's revelation about her mystical unification with Christ. According to Kowalski, mystical unification could be passed down by sexual intercourse. He claimed that during her life, he had a sexual relationship with Kozłowska; so he gained mystical unification with her and, through her, with Christ; and now he could hand it down to others. The mystical marriages were just a way of transferring the mystical unity with Christ to other Mariavite priests. To do this, he first had to unify the “mystical brides” with Christ through himself. To put it in concrete terms, before their marriages all Mariavite nuns were initiated for them by Archbishop Kowalski. The initiation had three stages. In the first stage, he touched the nun's breast with his hand. The second stage took place with a kiss, “deep, symbolised in the dove's kiss, in which the love of Holy Spirit is transferred, without contamination of original sin, passion nor temptation”. According to Kowalski's interpretation, the second stage introduced the nun to the state of engagement with God. He also claimed that the way of this “mystical engagement” was mentioned in some prophetical texts in the Song of Songs. In the third stage, marriage with Christ was solemnised by sexual intercourse with the Archbishop.
In this very short description, I have tried to show some elements characteristic of Kowalski's leadership. First, there was the absolute trust in his leadership. Secondly, he had absolute power and influence even in such initimate things as sexual relations, when he himself chose the couples for it. The next feature was his right to sexually abuse every Mariavite nun. And, last but not least, he made manipulative use of the Holy Bible to justify his ideas. During the period of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, the Mariavites were under the leadership of an authoritarian leader, who manipulated and used power for his own, non-religious ends.
As a result, in 1934 a large group of Mariavite priests came to the conclusion that their church was going in the wrong direction. The majority of them had previously been priests in the Roman Catholic Church. They joined the Mariavite movement after being disappointed by some features of the Roman Catholic Church and wanting to renew the priestly life. Observing the ascetic life of Kozłowska, they believed in her special role. Following revelations from her, they accepted the divine provenance of Kowalski's leadership; but while observing it, they simply lost the trust. They decided to call a chapter and to select a new Superior General, Bishop Filip Feldman. Kowalski at first accepted the decision of the chapter, but after a short time he proclaimed his understanding that it was not in accordance with God's Will, so he could not follow it. As a result, the Mariavite Church divided into two groups. The followers of Kowalski were in the minority, but still they numbered several thousands.*
After the division, Kowalski continued his reforms. In 1935, he introduced the universal priesthood of all believers. From this time, every member of the Church could celebrate the People’s Mass in his or her home. In the late 30's, Kowalski also proclaimed his understanding about the incarnation of all the Persons of the Holy Trinity, identifying the Virgin Mary as an incarnation of God the Father and the foundress of Mariavitism, Kozłowska, as an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.
Kowalski died in 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp. After his death, Izabela Wiłucka assumed leadership of the group. As a mystical wife of Kowalski and the only woman with the title of Archbishop, she had a special status in the group; but members did not believe that she had special contact with God, as Kozłowska and Kowalski had. After her death, the new Superior General Rafael Wojciechowski was elected by the chapter in a democratic way. The death of Kowalski marked the end of charismatic leaders in the Catholic Church of Mariavites.
After the death of Kowalski, the group lost a leader who could introduce new elements into the doctrine or practice simply through his charisma. Sociologically speaking, as regards leadership, the group became less sect-like and more church-like. Consequently, after the death of Kowalski, there was a big slowdown in innovativeness of the group. They just preserved the existing ideas of the former leaders. The contemporary theology of the Catholic Church of Mariavites is focused on giving reasons for Kowalski’s teachings. It does this in several ways. Firstly, it finds proofs for the divine provenance of Kowalski's power. Secondly, it offers explanations for his particular decisions. To do this, the Catholic Church of Mariavites has developed its own methods of interpretation of the Holy Bible based on the belief that every word of the Holy Bible is conveyed three times in history: firstly, in the time of the Old Testament; secondly, in the life of Christ; and, finally, in Mariavitism. This means that every passage from the Bible can be intepreted as referring to Mariavitism and its main figures. As proof of the validity of the method, they state that many parts of the Old Testament are still secret, even since the coming of Christ. This means that these passages referred to not only Him, but also to other important events in the history of salvation. In the interpretations of the group, many meanings of the Holy Bible are understandable only when considering the person of Kozłowska and the history of Mariavitism.
The charismatic leaders, already dead for several decades, are still the most important figures in the contemporary Catholic Church of Mariavites. Not only are their teachings still present in the group, but also their special role is still confirmed by unique interpretations of the Holy Bible. Actually, the former leaders are the only factor legitimising the existence of the religious group. In a similar way to how Kowalski, in order to legitimise his leadership, needed to preserve the memory of Kozłowska and even to develop teachings about her that led him to an understanding of her divinity as an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, so now the group to justify its existence developed its teaching about both founders, Kozłowska and Kowalski. Starting as a Christian denomination with some specific elements able to be included within the Christian frames, the group step by step lost the features characteristic of Christianity, instead focusing on the elements characteristic of their own doctrines. In this sense, we can observe a very interesting process of transition from Christianity to a new religious movement.
What is characteristic of this denomination is the use of arguments from Christian tradition to justify the specific elements of their doctrine which became more and more far from Christian tradition. As the Catholic Church of Mariavites sees its doctrine, it is not opposed to Christianity, but, on the contrary, it perceives itself as a development of Christian theology. They believe that the time is coming when all Christianity will accept their teachings as consistent with the Holy Bible.
* Now there are two main branches of Mariavitism, separated after 1935: the Old-Catholic Church of Mariavites – with about 25,000 members in Poland and one diocese in France (parish in Paris), and the Catholic Church of Mariavites – with about 2.200 members in Poland. The number of members of the Catholic Church of Mariavites is slowly but steadily decreasing. In recent years, it is losing about one hundred members per year. This is due mainly to the older age of the majority of the members and the lack of new ones. There are also some other groups outside Poland declaring themselves to be Mariavite, with various levels of relation with the Polish ones, in both an organizational and doctrinal sense, with the biggest ones in Germany, the United States and South America.