Sylvester Sembratovych: A Return to Ukrainian History
Sylvester Sembratovych (1836–1898) is someone who appears to have suffered such a fate. His name does not appear in the index of most Ukrainian histories and his figure receives only marginal reference in the history of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Yet, Sylvester was a figure of enormous importance during his lifetime. Not only became leader of the Greek-Catholic Church, he was also one of only six Ruthenian-Ukrainians to have been raised to the cardinatial dignity. And without his pastoral outreach, it is questionable whether that Church would have, already at the dawn of the twentieth century, become a global reality.
So why has Sylvester been ignored? Despite his patriotic ideals, his critics created a caricature of him as a sell-out to the enemies of the nation. His second “sin” was not to have adhered to the party that was eventually victorious in the battle over national identity. The winners turned their attention and affection to his successor, Andrey Sheptytsky, and wrote Sembratovych out of history.
The Sembratovychs and Ruthenian Factions
In the nineteenth century, Ruthenians in the Russian and Austrian Empires went through the process of the awakening of national consciousness. This process was stifled in Russia but permitted in Austria, partly as a counterbalance to keep the Poles in check in Galicia. The Ruthenian national idea was divided into two juxtaposed concepts: Russophile and Ukrainophile. Among the Russophiles, John-Paul Himka and Ostap Sereda made a crucial distinction between two currents/moments: Old Ruthenophile and Moscophile.
Both Russophiles and Ukrainophiles saw themselves as linguistically and culturally separate from Poles. They different in how they viewed the relation of Austrian (and Hungarian) Ruthenians to the “Little Russians” of the Russian Empire. In the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there had been a description, gente Ruthenus nationе Polonus (Ruthenian people of the Polish nation). Under Austria, this became Ruthenian people in the Austrian nation (state). The Old Ruthenophiles were the generation of 1848, who had founded the national movement. They saw themselves as a separate nationality of 3 million within the boundaries of the Habsburg Monarchy. Moscophiles saw Galician Ruthenians as part of a greater Russian nation whereas Ukrainophiles considered them, together 22 million Little Russians, as constituting a Ukrainian nation.
The Sembratovych family came from the Lemko region in the Peremyshl (Przemyśl) Eparchy. They were a typical clerical family with son succeeding father and uncle helping nephews to obtain church appointments. Sylvester’s father Antoniy had four brothers, three of which were priests. Of the four, Yosyf (Joseph) had done particularly well. When he became rector of the Greek-Catholic seminary in Vienna, he brought his nephews Sylvester and Yulian to study there. When Yosyf was transferred to Rome and made a bishop, his nephews were not far behind. Although Ukrainian historians rejected Sylvester they were accepting toward Yosyf. Yet Sylvester could not have become a church leader without his uncle, as his career was determined by Yosyf’s successes and failings.
By the end of eighteenth century, the Ruthenian nobility had absorbed a Polish or Russian identity. In Austria, the nation’s remaining literate class, the Greek-Catholic clergy, played the decisive role in the process of national awakening. During the revolution of 1848 the clergy had led the Ruthenian nation in asserting its existence, siding with the Habsburgs against the rebellious Poles. The Ruthenian clergy hoped to gain civil rights for their people within the empire, perhaps even equal to those of the Poles. To this purpose, they pursued a conservative program hallmarked by loyalty to the Dynasty and Old Ruthenophile ideology. As the Metropolitan and his canons represented this faction in the Austrian parliament, it was named the “Saint George Party” after their place of residence. Saint George’s Archcathedral.
The situation changed in the 1860s following a series of military defeats and territorial losses by Austria. To maintain his remaining realms the Emperor agreed to a compromise (Außgleich) in 1867, whereby the state was divided into two governments, Austria and Hungary. On the Austrian side, Galicia was handed to the Polish aristocracy to govern. They began to Polonize the territory, including the civil administration and the educational system. The Ruthenians blamed their losses on their own church hierarchy and many turned to Moscophilism, which became predominant among the Greek-Catholic clergy in the 1870s.
For all of its political conservatism and despite its Catholic majority, since the 1780s the Austrian State had been at odds with the Church over an Enlightenment-inspired policy known as Josephism (for Emperor Joseph II). A form of liberal rationalism, Josephism treated the Church as something to be regulated by the state. And Josephism sought to banish the Church’s moral influence from the lives of its citizens. Church administration was to be micromanaged by state officials; seminarians were to be trained less doctrinally and more practically, to become petty civic functionaries. Greek-Catholic clergy would also absorb aspects of the Josephist mindset.
The pious Emperor Franz Joseph and made peace with the Church and repealed most of the Josephist legislation. In 1855 he signed a treaty with the Holy See regulating church affairs in his realms. The concordat granted more autonomy to the church over its educational institutions. And the government agreed to cover the costs of sending a number of gifted seminaries for study in Rome, to study at one of the colleges under the supervision of the papal department for the missions, Propaganda Fide.
In order to be chosen to study at a Roman College, seminarians had to promise to be ordained in celibacy. They also undertook to write Propaganda each year, giving an account of their activities and of the local situation. They returned to Galicia with a changed outlook on church and national affairs: less provincial, more cosmopolitan and ultramontane in Catholicity, less status-quo in pedagogy, more zealous in ideas for renewal and, above-all, anti-Josephist. These younger priests referred to themselves as “The Romans”. They were graduates of Rome’s best clerical training institutions, convinced followers of the Roman pedagogical system and theological school that opposed the liberal doctrines of the age. Sylvester Sembratovych was one of their number.
The “Romans” Come Home
After completing a doctorate in Sacred Theology, in the summer of 1861, Father Sylvester returned to his native Peremyshl Eparchy where he was given pastoral work. Unfortunately, he was unable to find the available teaching position for which a higher education had qualified him. As a result, the following year Sylvester asked for a transfer to the Lviv Archeparchy. He began his service in Lviv as chaplain and religion instructor at a Basilian nuns convent. In April 1863, he was named one of four prefects for the students of the Greek-Catholic Seminary. In August 1865, he obtained the post of adjunct professor of dogmatic theology at Lviv University, and became a full professor in December 1869. In 1873 he received the Imperial habilitation diploma, and lastly he served as dean of theology faculty.
The Liberal doctrines that were spreading across Europe had not yet arrived the Lviv University. There was, however, an intense rivalry between Latin Catholics and Greek-Catholics. In cities, Ruthenians felt the pull to the Latin Rite of the majority of the urban population; in the countryside, Poles were assimilating to the predominant Greek Rite. In 1863, the year Sylvester began his professorship, Propaganda brokered a truce between the Latin and Greek hierarchies known as Concordia. It prohibited one rite poaching of the faithful of the other and divided families of mixed-rite: the sons were to follow the rite of the father while the daughters that of the mother.
The Lviv theology faculty had students from both Latin and Greek and also from the Armenian Rite. At the beginning of his professorial career, Sylvester experienced the national-ritual rivalry first-hand when the Latin Archbishop of Lviv tried to block his appointment as adjunct professor in order to give the post to fellow Pole. It was only the intervention of Propaganda Fide that secured Sylvester the post. The Vatican favoured the “Romans” and encouraged the Greek-Catholic hierarchy to appoint them to educational posts in the seminary. Such posts had little prestige and income, but they were important for influencing the minds and hearts of the upcoming generation. Among the “Romans,” Izydor Dolnytsky was equal in importance to Sylvester. He was brought back from Rome in 1877 to become spiritual director of the large, unmanageable Greek-Catholic seminary.
The Greek-Catholic Church bureaucracy was dominated by canons of the cathedral chapters, mostly widowers from clerical families. Joseph II had established their ecclesiastical monopoly and they in turn adopted a Josephist mind-set that blurred the limits between Church and State. In 1868, Ruthenian priests that were parliamentary deputies voted in favour of the “May Laws.” These restricted the role of the Church in civil society and introduced civil marriage, divorce, etc. In voting for the May Laws, the clergy were following the age-old Ruthenian strategy to support whatever government was in power, in this case a liberal ministry, in the hopes of cueing favour for their nationality. The Emperor reluctantly approved some of these laws, but drew the line at suppressing monasteries and convents. From Rome, Pope Pius IX issued a strong condemnation.
Uncle Yosyf was also brought back from Rome to strengthen the Catholic perspective of the Ruthenian Church. In 1869 he was made temporary administrator of Peremysl and in 1870, Metropolitan-Archbishop of Lviv-Halych, primate of the Church. Yosyf Sembratovych was a zealous shepherd but a mediocre administrator. For the latter, he relied on the structure in place headed by the adroit Mykhailo Malynovsky, who became his right hand and éminence grise.
It was natural that the new metropolitan would also look to his clever nephew. He encouraged Sylvester’s projects to publish vernacular prayerbooks and “a little paper for the clergy in Ruthenian to combat many modern evils.” Sylvester turned to the “Romans” and some other gifted clerics. John-Paul Himka named this group “The Sion circle” named after the clergy journal that first appeared in 1871, Ruskiy Sion (Ruthenian Zion).
Zion was the mountain in Jerusalem where God’s saving grace became manifest. This could have been an allusion to the Vatican Hill, the capital of Catholicism, or to the idea that following their reform agenda would save the Greek-Catholic Church from ruin brought about by liberal and Moscophile doctrines inimical to the Catholic religion. The old guard resented the young celibate “Romans” and their Ultramontane reform agenda. As long as the Saint George Party held the positions of power, the “Romans” could not exert decisive influence over church affairs. A generational and ideological clash was in the making.
Before an internal clash could take place, an event happened across the border with Russia that reverberated all the way to Vienna and Rome. Following a Polish uprising in 1863, Russia clamped down on Catholics and laid plans for the assimilation of the last bastion of Uniate Catholicism, the Kholm Eparchy, into the Russian Orthodox Church. Moscophile Greek-Catholic priests from Galicia were enticed to accept well paid positions in Kholm. In 1875 the eparchy was declared part of the Russian Orthodox Church by and Imperial ukase (decree), although most of the faithful continued to adhere secretly to Catholicism (only to return in 1905 when religious liberty was granted).
Hitherto allies, the 1870s Russia and Austria became rivals over the Balkans. Vienna considered the role that the Galician clergy had played in the Kholm schism as a portent of what would happen in Galicia, unless something was done to stem Moscophilism at home. And in 1877, Apostolic Nuncio Jacobini travelled from Vienna to inspect Galicia, and concluded it was rife with pro-Russian tendencies. Both the Polish elites as well as and the “Romans” identified the ringleaders as the canons of the Saint George Chapter. Propaganda Fide drew up a list of reforms but Metropolitan Yosyf and Canon Malynovsky argued that Rome had fallen for Polish propaganda against patriotic Ruthenians.
Metropolitan Yosyf might have been wanted to gradually prepare Sylvester for higher office. Nevertheless, the nephew could not complete for a place in his uncle’s heart with the powerful and talented Malynovsky, who as a celibate was also eligible for the episcopacy. The Poles, however, would not allow it; they viewed him and Canon Hryhoriy Shashkevych of Peremyshl as strong opponents to their plans. Alhough the Saint George Party had defended the Ruthenians against Polish hegemony, the Polish elites had too much power and influence in Vienna and Rome.
Both the Poles and the “Romans” considered Metropolitan Yosyf to be soft on Moscophilism, but they blamed this on Malynovsky’s evil influence. Propaganda Fide chose Sylvester Sembratovych as an agent of reform and recommended that he be made archpriest of the chapter of canons and auxiliary bishop to the metropolitan. By these appointments, Rome hoped the nephew would exert a positive influence over the uncle, but the Metropolitan threatened to resign rather than part with Malynovsky. In the end, he reluctantly accepted his nephew as head of the chapter and auxiliary, and Sylvester received episcopal consecration at the hands of his uncle on 20 April 1879.
The “Romans” among the Greek-Catholic clergy were never pro-Polish but neither did they identify entirely with the emerging Ukrainophile identity. One might refer to their ethic-political conceptions as “Proto-Ukainophile” or “Old Ukrainophile.” From his student days, Sylvester had identified with patriotic Ruthenian initiatives. In their correspondence with Propaganda, he and Dolnytsky both warned that there could be no peace in Galicia unless Ruthenians were given equal rights. But unlike the Saint George Party, the “Romans” perceived Moscophilism as the greater danger. As Dolnytsky wrote to Propaganda: “The Russians are smarter than the Poles because, while the Poles attack Ruthenian customs, the Russians support them.”
Sylvester’s appointment as auxiliary bishop emboldened the “Romans” to make a direct assault on the power of the old guard. The point of contention was the seminary, which was still being run along a Josephist model. It resembled an army barracks: impersonal and with mildest external requirements. In that atmosphere, there was little opportunity to develop a spiritual identity and religious zeal. Even those who showed little interest in religion were accepted, provided they were the son of a priest.
The “Romans” began publishing articles in Ruskiy Sion challenging the canons’ monopoly over ecclesiastical sinecures. They suggested that chaplaincies to the prison or the women’s institute be given to a priest willing to help Dolnytsky with frequent confession of the seminarians. Near the end of 1880, one of the seminary prefects, Alexander Malyniak, published in Ruskiy Sion an article entitled “Reflections of a Roman.” In it, he mercilessly criticized the spiritual formation of the younger generations, laity and clerics, and laid the blame before the old guard. The canons demanded Malyniak’s head. He was dismissed as prefect and Metropolitan Yosyf ordered Sion to be closed down.
The silencing of the voice of the pro-Catholic reformers caused alarm bells to ring in Rome, and Propaganda admonished the Metropolitan to maintain a pro-Catholic publication. At the same moment, the Moscophiles launched a press offensive and lobbied for a village to leave the Greek-Catholic fold and embrace Orthodoxy. Something had to be done before all the Ruthenians were lost. Sylvester and Dolnytsky suggested that the Basilian Order be reformed to turn it into a counterweight to the evils of the age and Sylvester lobbied Rome to appoint him to carry out the reform or at least to implement an earlier plan by his uncle. But another reform project had been conceived by the Polish Jesuits, initially aimed at restoring Catholicism in the Kholm Eparchy. Jesuit provincial superior Henryk Jackowski convinced Basilian provincial superior Klymentiy Sarnytsky to sign on to his plan. With Sarnytsky on board, Jackowski convinced Propaganda Fide which convinced Pope Leo XIII to impose a Jesuit reform of the Ruthenian monastics.
Jackowski was not seeking to Polonize the Basilians but rather to discipline and Catholicize them. As a Jesuit, he held Ultramontane views, the goals of which did not coincide with a polonizing agenda of his fellow countrymen. Jackowski’s plan was to create something akin to Eastern-Rite Jesuits which would be capable of re-Catholicizing the Ruthenians and work for the “conversion” of Russia to the Catholic Faith. For this purpose, Propaganda had asked Bishop Sylvester for a list of Jesuits of Ruthenian or Russian nationality, suitable for the task.
When the papal bull Singulare presidium was made public alarm bells went off in Ruthenian society. All factions, Old Ruthenophiles, Moscophiles, Ukrainophiles, saw the Basilian reform as another step toward assimilation by the Poles. Even the “Romans” were surprised and a little dismayed. While pledging loyalty to the papal decision, they suggested that ethnic Poles be excluded from the Jesuit venture. The Saint George Party recognized the challenge to its power and so Metropolitan Yosyf published a pastoral letter criticizing this reform of a Ruthenian national institution by outsiders. This was the last straw for the governing Poles, who demanded not only Malynovsky’s head but also the Metropolitan’s.
In announcing his resignation to the assembled chapter, Yosyf Sembratovych admonished the canons that the good of Ruthenian society could only be achieved by fidelity to the Pope. Then he quietly departed for Rome and handed the administration of the Archeparchy over to his nephew, Sylvester. In December 1882, Sion wrote that “the resignation of Metropolitan Yosyf is a major event in our history, one which we are as yet unequipped to evaluate.” Even in exile, Yosyf continued to cast a shadow over Sylvester’s administration. The latter would be financially hampered by the substantial pension due the emeritus metropolitan, who was destined outlive his nephew by two years. Malynovsky also retired to the Stavropigian Institute but not before penning an apologia defending his fidelity to Catholicism and blaming the Poles for what had occurred.
Sylvester as Administrator
Hitherto, Sylvester Sembratovych had not been very forceful nor had he achieved much success in promoting reform under his uncle. No wonder that neither Rome, Vienna, nor the Poles were enthusiastic about entrusting him with the Greek-Catholic primatial see. For that reason, he was appointed interim administrator to implement basic reforms, while the selection of an archbishop-metropolitan was deferred.
One of the first reforms, already on the agenda since 1850, was to divide the vast Lviv Archeparchy in two, by creating a third Greek-Catholic Eparchy in Stanyslaviv. The scholarly Yulian Pelesh was first relieved of the seminary rectorship in Vienna to head the Lviv Chapter. For a time, Vienna thought of moving Sylvester to Stanyslaviv and the more talented and respected Pelesh to Lviv.
In the meantime, Bishop Sylvester showed himself to have been a competent administrator and faithful executor of Rome and Vienna’s orders. His strategy was simple: he couldn’t fight the Poles and the Moscophiles at the same time. As long as the Poles did not perceive him as a danger, he could concentrate on marginalizing Moscophile influence and improving the spiritual, social, and economic position of his people. In taking this line, he would come also into conflict with the emerging Ukrainophiles.
Sylvester started off on the wrong foot in the eyes of Ruthenian society because he had taken the place of his uncle, who was beloved for having made a public stand for national rights. But the Church had problems with more than one natinonal faction: while Russophiles were politically conservative they were becoming increasingly pro-Russian and pro-Orthodox; Ukrainophiles, on the other hand, were ideological liberals and gravitated toward anticlericalism and even socialist radicalism.
After three years as administrator, Rome and Vienna were convinced that Sylvester could deliver: he had begun seminary reforms and laid plans for a new building; he practiced political moderation and sought détente with the ruling Poles; he founded a newspaper that promoted moderate politics and Catholicism; he began the reform of the Basilian Sisters and religious education. Dolnytsky lobbied to have him confirmed as Metropolitan, to continue these reforms. In 1885, Sylvester was duly enthroned as metropolitan-archbishop and Pelesh was appointed bishop of Stanyslaviv.
A New Era as Metropolitan-Archbishop
Sembratovych’s administration can be characterized by détente in external policy (with the ruling Galician Poles) and active defence of Ruthenian causes in internal policy. Amid Polish complaints to Rome, he and Dolnytsky vigorously defended the use of three-barred crosses as proper to the Ruthenian Church. He showed tremendous strength of character when Propaganda second guessed him by siding with an influential Polish landowner in the case of a parish appointment. The Metropolitan demonstrated courage by threatening to resign if his decision was not upheld. He also spent a significant portion of his life performing canonical visitations of the churches and chapels of the Lviv archeparchy, which numbered over a million souls. During these visits he listened first-hand to the joys and sorrows of his clergy and faithful. At least one of the deaneries had not received an episcopal visitation in 60 years.
Although Metropolitan Sylvester’s conservative policy of loyalty to Pope and Emperor have brought peace to his Church, it lost him the love of the patriots. The National Populists, who had initially supported him, boycotted his enthronement. In 1885, he made an unpopular move un running a separate slate of Catholic-minded candidates for the Galician diet, which divided the Ruthenian vote.
In 1890, he convinced Catholic-minded deputies to establish a coalition with Catholic-minded Poles in the Galicia Diet, known as the “New Era.” This coalition was perceived as pro-Polish and thus rejected by Russophiles and Ukrainophiles, which identified the Poles as the common enemy. Sembratovych had thought that a truce with the Poles would achieve equality for Ruthenians but the Polish side was only prepared to concede the minimum, never anything approaching equality. The truce lasted a mere four years and, of all his initiatives, the it was the one that most damaged his reputation among his own.
The establishment of Stanyslaviv brought the number of Greek-Catholic eparchies to the required three for holding a provincial synod. The 1891 Lviv Synod was a success in that it solidified much needed church reforms into law. But it touched upon an issue that become another national battleground: clerical celibacy. The church hierarchy needed to increase the percentage of celibate secular clergy, to increase the number of eligible candidates for the episcopacy and for missionary work. Most national leaders were the offspring of priests, civically-active married priests were considered a national institution. An attempt to recommend celibacy was taken to be another attack on the nation. Sylvester took a moderate stance but his image suffered greatly, and he was blamed for the pro-celibacy wording subsequently redacted into the synod’s decrees by Propaganda.
In 1893, a group of Moscophile university students in Vienna (including a couple of seminarians) hurled eggs and heckled him as a sell-out to Rome. When the Ruthenian seminary in Vienna was closed, Moscophiles saw it more as a political move rather than as part if a larger plan. Sylvester had, in fact, sacrificed the Vienna college in exchange for two new seminaries in Peremyshl and Stanyslaviv, as well as a the possibility of an additional minor seminary in Lviv, and more stipends to send seminarians to Rome. His efforts in that regard led, in 1894, to the allocation of ten places for Ruthenians at the Greek College. This project was expanded, in 1896, with the creation of an entirely separate Pontifical Ruthenian College, inaugurated during the last year of Sylvester’s life.
On the surface, Metropolitan Sylvester had placed in check the most dangerous elements to the peace and wellbeing of Habsburg rule over the Galician Ruthenians. Mindful of the strength of Russian propaganda directed at them, Vienna wanted to make a gesture to show benevolence toward the Ruthenians. The occasion that presented itself was the three-hundredth anniversary of Union of Brest. Accordingly, in 1895, Emperor Franz Joseph proposed that the Pope bestow the high dignity of cardinal upon the Lviv Metropolitan.
Sylvester led a Ruthenian pilgrimage to Rome, and the Emperor participated by conferring the cardinatial beretta, as per sovereign privilege. Nevertheless, instead of a mark of favour for the Ruthenians, Ukrainiophiles and Moscophiles viewed the honour as a personal gift for having sold out to Rome and the Poles. The ceremonies of the new cardinal’s receptions represented everything National Populists, Moscophiles, and Socialists despised: the ostensibly peaceful collaboration of throne and altar, Ruthenians and Poles, Greeks and Latins, all under the benevolent rule of Caesar and his aristocratic counsellors. The paternalistic figure of a benevolent prince of the Church might have appealed to the peasant population but it was anathema to an increasingly radical nationalist intelligentsia.
Sylvester and the Americas
Mainstream history has ignored Sylvester Sembratovych’s role in sending the first Ukrainian clergy to the Americas: to the United States, Canada, and also to Brazil. In order provide such missionaries, he was forced to battle fierce opposition from American Catholic hierarchs and clergy. Undeterred, he also waged a diplomatic struggle with Vatican authorities over the right of the Greek-Catholic Church provide pastoral care for its own faithful, wherever in the world they chose to settle.
Ruthenian-Ukrainian immigration to the Americas began in the 1870s, during the reign of his uncle Yosyf. But the first request for a missionary priest dates from Sylvester’s term as apostolic administrator of Lviv. On 16 July 1884, the faithful of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, wrote to ask him, as the head of their Church, for a priest of their own rite and language. After conferring with the Eparch of Peremyshl, he dispached Reverend Ivan Voliansky, from the latter eparchy, to minister to the community of about 3,000 souls. Over a period of four years, Voliansky established Greek-Catholic communities and built churches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Minnesota. In 1887, Sembratovych sent another priest to replace him, but the latter died a few months after his arrival. Two more priests were sent in 1888 and others went without permission.
Metropolitan Sylvester had ordered Father Voliansky to present himself to the local Catholic bishop, upon arrival in the new land. But as arrived with his wife and children, Archbishop Ryan banned Voliansky from serving in the archdiocese of Philadelphia. Voliansky telegraphed Lviv that he was starting his mission under Metropolitan Sylvester’s jurisdiction. The missionary argued that the situation was urgent and of necessity, since most Greek-Catholics had not received the Sacraments for years. The frosty reception that American hierarchs gave Greek-Catholic missionaries impeded cooperation, and gave rise to a conflict over ecclesiastical jurisdiction unintended by the Archbishop of Lviv.
In 1885, as yet no canonical prohibition existed against married clergy ministering in the Americas. Nevertheless, American Roman Catholics were scandalized by the idea, and their bishops were concerned that Latin clergy would become demoralized if Rome permitted parallel clerical disciplines in the same territory. Although Archbishop Ryan asked for a celibate priest or widower, he admitted to Propaganda Fide that it was possible for Voliansky to minister with faculties from his home bishop.
Sylvester Sembratovych attempted to resolve jurisdictional conflict. He had instructed each of his priests to submit to the local bishop, but those bishops rejected them. He also wrote to the American hierarchs but received no reply, while the Americans complained directly to Rome. Sylvester argued that he was acting within his rights by providing provisory pastoral care for his own faithful. Yet the Americans misunderstood him to be claiming direct jurisdiction over the immigrants.
The American bishops strategy was aimed at forcing the recall of the missionaries, so that Greek-Catholics would have no choice but to assimilate to the Latin Rite. The hierarchs were under the mistaken impression that “the pope wants to reconcile all rites into one” and assumed that the imigrants would abandon their old ways once they assimilated to the new culture. After their meeting Baltimore in 1888, the bishops informed Rome that it did not want the Byzantine Rite to be permitted in America.
Those bishops had little knowledge about the Eastern Churches and, in addition, were being misinformed about the number and situation of the immigrants by their own Polish clergy. As a result, they underestimated the danger of the well-funded Russian Orthodox proselytism coming out of San Francisco and New York. They ignored warnings from Lviv that Greek-Catholics might accept a more familiar Orthodox priest over an unfamiliar Roman Catholic, especially a Pole, whom the people perceived to represent the hegemonic system of the old country.
Sylvester Sembratovych understood the Latins’ objections to married clergy and acted upon it, but was hard pressed to find celibates willing to volunteer for the mission. He asked only that Voliansky be recognized temporarily until a celibate or widower could be recruited. Several widowers were displaced by the end of the decade. But the American hierarchs continued to complain, failing to distinguish between the Galician clergy, under Sembratovych’s jurisdiction, and more numerous married priests that were arriving from Hungary (mainly Carpatho-Rusyns).
In response to American complaints, on 1 October 1890, Propaganda Fide issued a decree entitled Aliquibus abhinc annis. By this decree married clergy were thenceforth prohibited from serving in North America, and each missionary priest required prior approval from Rome and from the Latin bishop of the community to which they were destined. In addition, all married clergy in America were to be recalled.
Metropolitan Sylvester attempted to comply. He published a notice soliciting volunteers, but no celibates were forthcoming. At the end of 1891, Bishop Firczak of Užhorod proposed the appointment of a vicar apostolic (exarch) to coordinate the mission and combat growing Russian Orthodox proselytism. The following year, Sembratovych followed with an identical request. However, in December 1892, Propaganda rejected their petitions.The Congregation continued to issue decrees in 1894 and 1897, but they all failed to provide effective pastoral ministry. One of “the Romans,” Sembratovych’s sometime procurator to the Holy See, Canon Martyn Pakish, remarked to Propaganda that “150,000 people deserve more effort for their eternal salvation.”
Rather than providing a solution, Propaganda’s decrees handicapped the mission. In their correspondence with Rome, the American bishops cited the optimistic but erroneous appraisals of their own clergy, who had contact with a mere fraction of the settlers. The bishops assumed that Ruthenian-Ukrainians would assimilate to the Latin Rite but, instead, tens of thousands embraced Russian Orthodoxy. This colossal pastoral failure also represented a political danger for Austria-Hungary, as the defectors encouraged their families and friends back home to follow in their footsteps. As Propaganda would not facilitate, Austria-Hungary began to insist that more Greek-Catholic missionaries be sent.
Sylvester’s Last Stand
In the penultimate year of Sylvester Sembratovych’s life, a major development occurred in the missions. In 1897, Ukrainian immigrants to Brazil and Canada began requesting their own priests. Propaganda’s decree of that same year, Romana Ecclesia charitate, told Latin bishops to provide missionaries of their own rite to Eastern Catholic settlers. Accordingly, on 12 February 1897, Bishop Vital Grandin of Saint Albert (Edmonton) made such a request. With Ukrainian immigration increasing in tandem with Russian Orthodox proselytism, a second request followed from Grandin’s coadjutor, Bishop Legal. Propaganda instructed the Canadian hierarchs to approach Sembratovych directly and the latter sent Father Pavlo Tymkevych to the British Dominion of Canada, in November of the same year.
In March 1897, Cardinal Sembratovych’s strength began to fail. Unknown to him, he had developed stomach cancer. He returned sick to Lviv at the end of June, following a pastoral visitation of 28 churches and chapels in the Berezhany deanery. The doctors told him he had “catarrh of the stomach” and ordered him to rest at his country estate at Pidliute.
At this juncture, the tone of Sembratovych’s letters to Rome changed dramatically. In sickness, he began to evaluate his life: what he had done and especially what he failed to do. Hitherto his messages had been full of Roman-style obsequiousness; now the tone of correspondence became strong, unembeleshed, and to the point. In particular, the lack of pastoral care in North America was disturbing the peace of his conscience. And this issue led to a contentious altercation between him and the Polish cardinal, who had come to the helm of Propaganda in 1892, Mieczysław Ledóchowski.
Cardinal Sylvester began the conversation irenically on 26 June 1897, one could almost say in a “Roman” way, one where exceptions to the rule are not uncommon, with a little negotiation. In responding to complaints from Propaganda about the clergy sent to Brazil and Canada, Sylvester answered that he had “forgotten” about the earlier decrees. Those had been addressed to the bishops collectively, but he had adhered instead to instructions addressed to him specifically. Then Sylvester came to the crux of the matter: It was providential that he had forgotten those decrees for, otherwise, the Ruthenian faithful would have left the Church. The implication was that the Congregation’s rules were more of a hindrance than a help in maintaining the immigrants in the fold.
The Congregation refused to grant concessions, which caused Sylvester to harden his tone. On 27 November 1897, he wrote a strongly worded letter to express his displeasure and to argue his point. The Lviv Cardinal explained that the decrees had not provided the necessary pastoral care. To remedy this, he had dispatched priests which Rome had subsequently outlawed. Sembratovych argued that, in doing so, Propaganda was going against the intentions of the Pope himself who, in his 1894 encyclical Orientalium dignitas ecclesiarum, had prohibited Latin clergy from attempting to draw the Easterners to the Latin Rite.
Sembratovych asserted that the facts demonstrated the opposite of Ledóchowski’s claim that the faithful were sufficiently provided for (by Latin priests). That more had not embraced Orthodoxy was due only the efforts of a single Ruthenian priest (Voliansky), which Rome attempted to ban. In an exasperated tone, Sylvester said that he had raised his voice many times and if his advice was not heeded, the remaining faithful in America would leave the Catholic Communion. In that event, Propaganda Fide would be solely responsible for the outcome.
Ledóchowski responded by assuring Sembratovych that Propaganda had always faithfully interpreted the Pope. He identified the problem in the disobedience of the Ruthenian missionaries. He then cited the decrees and erroneous reports that the faithful were being sufficiently served. The Polish cardinal turned the tables by shifting the blame from his own obstructionism to the a lack of faith among the Ruthenians, citing Gregory XVI’s lament regarding of their defection to Orthodoxy in Podlachia.
In the 1830s following one of several Polish rebellions, the Russian Empire violently suppressed the Uniate Church in Podlachia (followed by Kholm in 1875). Although these defections were procured by force, they gave Polish elites a pretext to argue that Uniate Catholicism were a failure. The proof was that the Latin-Rite faithful did not embrace Orthodoxy. The argument was that, if the Ruthenians had passed to the Latin Rite, their Catholicism would have been more difficult to dislodge.
Cardinal Sylvester’s reply to Ledóchowski, dated 4 January 1898, was even more frank. He began by strategically affirming that he did not reject Propaganda’s latest instructions. But he qualified this by noting that they were not being observed by the American bishops, particularly lamentable at a time when Pope Leo XIII was trying to preserve the Eastern Catholic Churches. In this letter, he singled out the Bishop of Saint Albert, Canada, as the only one who had requested a Greek-Catholic priest.
Sembratovych blamed the defections on Russian propaganda and promised to send his new Roman procurator, Father Vasyl Levytsky, to provide details. Then he turned the argument back on Ledóchowski: knowing the strength and effects of Russian propaganda, his own conscience did not allow him to comfort himself with words of Gregory XVI, as if the defections happened merely due to external machinations. Here Sylvester was making a double allusion: firstly, that he had followed his conscience in sending priests; and secondly, that Ledóchowski was seeking to justify his inadequate measures by shifting the blame to others. Cardinal Sylvester was saying that he did not really accept Propaganda’s sollution and informed Ledóchowski that he would be going over his head and appealing directly to Pope Leo.
After a two month pause, Father Dolnytsky wrote to Propaganda, perhaps to mediate between the sparring cardinals. He told Ledóchowski that Sembratovych was extremely concerned about his faithful in the Americas. As Ledóchowski had minimized the danger of Russian proselytism, Dolnytsky mentioned a letter from the Galician Viceroy, Prince Sanguszko, asking Sembratovych to intervene against of Russian proselytism by sending priests to Canada. At first, Dolnytsky presented the conundrum diplomatically by stating that Sembratovych did not want to compromise Propaganda. But then he allowed the veil of diplomacy to fall. At the end of his letter, when stating that Propaganda “is not favourable to Ruthenian priests in America.” A few days later, the Lviv Cardinal sent his own letter informing Ledóchowski of Sanguszko’s official request for missionaries, and requesting advice on how to respond.
On 12 March 1898, Ledóchowski fell back on his habitual defence of Propaganda’s circulars and decrees which “are recognized for their wisdom and usefulness” [by whom?]. Sembratovych was advised to send copies to the Viceroy, to show how much Propaganda had done to favour Ruthenians “excepting only the jurisdiction of the [local] bishops.” Once again, Ledóchowski deflected responsibility from “ecclesiastical superiors” to “the evils of men.” Sembratovych responded seventeen days later: “You ask me to reflect on apostasy as being the result of bad will but I also hold that it comes from a lack of shepherds’ care. In order not to be guilty of that, I am considering every way to provide [for the flock].”
In May 1898, Ledóchowski sent Sembratovych the results of soundings by the papal delegate in Washington D.C. Once again, the American bishops underestimated the numbers of Ruthenians in their dioceses and claimed the defections had been fewer than reported. Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, Minnesota, made the ludicrous claim that only thirty-five families in Minneapolis had converted to Orthodoxy. In doing so, Ireland was unknowingly preparing his own place in history’s annals.
Unexpectedly, in July 1898, an eyewitness arrived in Lviv. Nikolai Tolstoy was a Russian priest who had converted to Catholicism a few years previously and had served as a Russian Orthodox misisonary in the United States. Now he sought to be deputized to return to America, in order spearhead a mission to reverse the defections among the Greek-Catholic settlers. Sembratovych was already in his last agony and could not receive Tolstoy. But during a lucid moment, Dolnytsky obtained the cardinal’s blessing for the venture. In a letter of 22 July, Dolnytsky wrote Ledóchowski asking him to approve that mission and informing him that Tolstoy had reported many as half a million Ruthenians had settled in the United States.
In the second half of Dolnytsky’s letter, he touched upon the quarrel between the two cardinals, to which he had been privy as a close collaborator of Sylvester. Dolnytsky wrote that, in last letter, Ledóchowski had “ attacked [Sembratovych] indirectly, as if he had usurped jurisdiction in America.” The Lviv spiritual director countered that it was the missionaries themselves who, under the circumstances, claimed to have jurisdiction, as Sembratovych had clearly instructed each of them to submit to the Latin ordinaries. Finally, Dolnytsky revealed that this quarrel had haunted Sylvester up to his final moments: “He tried to read your letter but good fortune disposed that he was to weak to understand it.”
Tolstoy waited in vain to be sent back to America, and further research is required to determine whether or not Cardinal Sylvester made good on his threat to intervene directly with Pope Leo.
Successor and Legacy
It is impossible to know for certain to what extent the feud with Ledóchowski and worry over the immigrants contributed to Sylvester Sembratovych’s death. It is likely that both played a role, if only in determining the time of his demise. He had already been incapacitated from almost half a year, from June 1897 until January 1898, but then recovered, “miraculously.” The recovery, however, did not endure.
In February 1898, Dolnytsky told Propaganda that Sembratovych needed an auxiliary bishop but was reluctant to ask, perhaps (he guessed) in denial about the real state of his health. By June the cardinal’s health had again deteriorated and he was forced to hold meetings from his archiepiscopal palace. On 18 June, less than two months before his death, Sembratovych wrote to Ledóchowski for an auxiliary bishop, who could carry out physical responsibilities such as ordinations and visitations. As candidates, he suggested four canons from his chapter (Biletsky, Turkevych, Chapelsky) but emphasized that he was leaving the choice entirely to Rome. He only asked that it fall upon someone who was willing to completely sacrifice themselves for the good of the Church.
There were only two provisos to his request: the first that the choice not fall on young Basilian hieromonk Sheptytsky, and the second that it not go to the cathedral pastor, Canon Martyn Pakish, who had been procurator in Rome. Sembratovych suggested that Pakish was too weak and gravitated to whichever party or opinion allowed him the greatest ease (something which has been reputed unjustly to Sembratovych himself). The reasons for excluding Sheptytsky were more complicated.
Andrey Sheptytsky had already been mentioned as a candidate for bishop of Peremyshl in 1896, but he was considered too vital to the success of the on-going reform of the Basilian Order. Cardinal Sylvester was aware that Sheptytsky was destined for high office, and perhaps even to succeed him. This is why he asked Ledóchowski to “leave him aside for the moment” but “save him for a more opportune time.” For now, Sheptytsky was still too “young and immature.” But there was a more important reason: Sheptytsky was “not well regarded by Ruthenians, and there could be protests which would paralyze his and my activities.” The National Populists had been suspicious of the “Polish count,” since the day he entered the monastery in 1887. In the press, they accused him of being a trojan horse, sent to steer their Church along a Polish agenda. Cardinal Sembratovych did not want the rift to widen between the Church and Ruthenian-Ukrainian society, which had developped under his watch.
In the end Propaganda rejected the canons, since the Lviv Synod had excluded widowers from the episcopacy. Perhaps Sylvester had thought he could achieve a final compromise alla Romana, as he had done in Peremyshl in 1896. On that occasion, he “forgot” to mention that Konstantyn Chekhovych was himself a widower. An exception was unknowingly made and the candidate was appointed.
By the end of July, Sylvester was dying and was unable to engage with Ledóchowski about an auxiliary. He had confided to Dolnytsky, who believed that he had left the choice to Rome so as not to hurt one of the candidates. Izydor Dolnytsky’s letter of on 22 July was the last communication Rome would receive during Sylvester’s lifetime. In addition to the Americas, in his last days the Lviv cardinal turned his mind to another piece of unfinished work, the restoration of the church in his native village of Doshnytsia in the Lemko region. Sylvester fulfilled this promise for the church was finished on the day of his death. But he could not fulfil the promise to perform the blessing of the completed temple. On 4 August 1898, the head of the Lviv Chapter, Canon Andrey Biletsky, telegraphed Propaganda Fide that Sembratovych had died that afternoon.
Cardinal Sylvester’s funeral was held four days later; its ceremonial resembled the honours rendered when he had returned from Rome, after receiving the cardinatial dignity. All three Rites, Greek, Latin, and Armenian, participated. The death toll rang out from all the churches in Lviv. Roman and Armenian Cathedrals held their own requiem Masses and their bishops celebrated requiems at side altars in Saint George’s Archcathedral. Ecclesiastical, provincial and national dignitaries and the military attended the grand Byzantine requiem celebrated by Bishop Chekhovych. Ruthenian-Ukrainian and Polish confraternities, brotherhoods, university officials, the mayor and city council, were all represented in the funeral procession, as well as seminary staff and students and religious orders: reformed Basilians, Basilian Nuns, and the recently-founded Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate.
A Place in History
Sylvester Sembratovych the sell-out was a caricature created by Ruthenian-Ukrainian factions seeking a convenient scapegoat for their own failures. But now it is time to hear a different side of the story, sentire et altera pars, told from hitherto neglected sources, in Sylvester’s own words and in those of his closest collaborators.
A century after his death, the figure of Sylvester Sembratovych was rediscovered and rehabilitated by John-Paul Himka in his publication, Religion and Nationality in Western Ukraine 1867–1900. Himka identifies some of his “exceptional achievements:” the creation of a new eparchy in Stanyslaviv, the Lviv Synod, the construction of a new seminary, liturgical reform. I would add: the reform of the Basilian Nuns, the birth of a second female religious order (SSMI), the creation of a college-seminary in Rome exclusively for Ruthenians, the rare honour of the cardinalate which gave a voice to Ruthenian-Ukrainians as well as Greek-Catholics in the Roman Curia. And no longer can we overlook his vigorous advocacy for emigrants and the rights of the Eastern Churches to minister to their faithful anywhere in the world.
The hallmarks of Sylvester’s policy were: cooperation of church and state and cooperation between Catholics of Particular Churches and Rites. He believed in détente but only to a point, as a means but not an end. And when the point could not be achieved, as we have seen here, he was most certainly willing and able to fight for Ukrainian Greek-Catholic interests against all manner of foe. His policies became very unpopular in the context of Polish-Ukrainian rivalry over Eastern Galicia, and his popular successor, Andrey Sheptytsky, criticized him in that regard. But his res gestae can now be re-examined afresh in a less politically-charged context, from ethical perspectives (rather than moral ones, which are not proper to history), as well from their intended ends rather than contingent means.
Few of his fellow “Romans” were destined for glory and Sylvester was the first among them to reach high office. One was suspended, one left the Catholic Church, Dolnytsky and Pakish were passed over. In the early twentieth century, Bishops Kotsylovsky, Charnetsky, and Buchko represented a new cadre of graduates of the Ruthenian College established due to his efforts.
Though despised by Kost Levytsky, airbrushed out by Rudnytsky, ignored by Subtelny and Magocsi, disinterred finally by Sereda and Himka, Sylvester Sembratovych must resume his place in the historical pantheon, neither as a moral hero or villain, but as a significant figure to Eastern-Catholic and Ukrainian history in Europe as well as North and South America.