Obituary: Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk
Saturday 04 October 1997
Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk of Lviv was for 22 years the head of the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church in its home territory of western Ukraine. During the church's persecution his life consisted of, as he later described it, "surveillance, house searches and interrogations on the part of the state and, on my side, attempts to evade surveillance so as at least to be able to carry out ordinations".
Sterniuk was born in 1907 in the village of Pustomyty near Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. War soon engulfed the area and Russian troops of the Tsarist army invaded. Then fighting broke out between Ukrainians and Poles and he was taken with his family to safety in Lviv. Sterniuk decided to follow his father into the priesthood. He was sent by the Redemptorist Order to Belgium to complete his schooling, in 1927 joining their novitiate in St Trond. He studied theology in Louvain and was ordained priest in Belgium in 1931.
Sterniuk returned to western Ukraine and was sent to Volhynia to do missionary work. These were difficult years for Eastern-rite Catholics under Polish rule. The government and Roman Catholic Church were keen to assimilate them into the Polish community and church. The missionary work ran into problems when it was put under Polish church control.
In 1939 the Red Army invaded Ivano-Frankivsk, where Sterniuk was living. But before the Soviets could establish themselves the Nazis arrived. They immediately started rounding up and murdering the local Jewish population. Many Jews came to ask Sterniuk for a certificate of baptism, which he gave with no questions. The SS, suspicious about the number he had issued, twice came to arrest him. He had to flee the area, taking refuge in Lviv, where the great prestige of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, the powerful inter-war leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, somewhat restrained the Germans' attacks.
But the Soviets soon returned, and Stalin moved to extinguish the Ukrainian Catholic Church. A forced "synod" in Lviv in 1946, held after the arrest of many leading figures in the church, voted to "re-unite" with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sterniuk, who opposed the forced merger, was arrested in June 1947 for illegally carrying on with his priestly work. He was sentenced to five years in labour camp, which he served in the Arkhangelsk region.
On release Sterniuk returned to Lviv. He worked at various jobs before qualifying as a medical assistant in 1959. In July 1964 he was secretly consecrated as bishop of Peremysl (a diocese which crossed the new Polish/Ukrainian border) by Archbishop Vasyl Velychkovsky. This was the time when secret consecrations, without the prior knowledge or approval of the Vatican, were required to continue the apostolic succession of the church.
Sterniuk was to be Velychkovsky's successor in case of his arrest - which indeed happened in January 1969. Although he had been consecrated bishop of Peremysl, Velychkovsky told him he had jurisdiction over the whole of the Galician Metropolia, based on Lviv. His position as leading Galician bishop was confirmed when Sterniuk heard in February 1972 by a roundabout route that the Vatican had confirmed him as locum tenens of the Archdiocese of Lviv.
By this time Sterniuk was retired, so he had time to devote to his secret episcopal duties. Although the Soviet authorities knew well he was a bishop, Sterniuk appeared in public only as a priest. It was in private at priestly ordinations and the consecration of bishops - often only in the company of the required two witnesses - that he wore episcopal garments.
Sterniuk believed his main duty during those years was to protect the church's structure and to lead the clergy. He took a back seat to the more activist clergy who ministered directly to the faithful and who led the increasingly vocal campaigns for the church's relegalisation.
It was only with the arrival of glasnost in the late 1980s that realistic hopes were raised that the Soviet authorities would at last admit that the 1946 "synod" was bogus and the church could be relegalised. As the Russian Orthodox Church gathered its forces to resist this move, Archbishop Sterniuk's status as leading hierarch in Ukraine came to be publicly admitted. This was confirmed in September 1987, when the Ukrainian Catholic synod in Rome (made up only of bishops from the emigration) declared that there were 10 bishops in Ukraine, headed by Archbishop Sterniuk. Many visitors from inside Ukraine and abroad were already making the trek to the dingy one-room flat in Lviv where he had lived since 1957.
The momentum for relegalisation was kept up in 1988 and 1989, with hunger strikes in Moscow and demonstrations. On 15 August 1989 all the church's 10 bishops crowded into Sterniuk's flat for their first ever meeting, many not even knowing the identity of all the other bishops. Events moved fast and, to coincide with the historic first meeting of Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Vatican on 1 December 1989, it was announced that the ban on the church had been lifted.
The Novosti news agency interviewed Sterniuk on what he described as "this joyful day". It was on 7 January 1990 (Christmas Day in the Eastern Church) that Archbishop Sterniuk first appeared in public as a bishop, when he celebrated a triumphal Christmas liturgy in Lviv.
On 16 January 1991 the Vatican confirmed all the 10 secret bishops in office - but Sterniuk was pointedly described as "Archbishop", not "Metropolitan" as he had customarily been described in Ukraine. The division between the Church in the West, headed directly by Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky from Rome, and the Church on its home territory of western Ukraine was one that needed delicate handling.
Sterniuk's moral authority in western Ukraine was great, and Cardinal Lubachivsky, especially on his return to Lviv on 30 March 1991 after more than 50 years' exile from Ukraine, had to tread carefully to assert his leadership. Sterniuk had already been rebuked by the church for accepting into communion with Rome Bishop Vikenty of the True Orthodox Church, a breakaway group from the Russian Orthodox Church which had existed in the catacombs.
Surviving long enough to see the church's relegalisation, it was hard for Sterniuk to accept that he was then only second in command to Cardinal Lubachivsky, who had not shared the sufferings of the church directly. Already 82 at the time of relegalisation, Sterniuk could leave the many problems of the church - the shortage of priests and facilities, disputes with the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches - to the younger generation, which by now was coming to the fore.
Coming from the older generation, who had studied in Western Europe between the wars, Sterniuk had a wider view of the world than those who had grown up under Soviet rule. He once apologised to a Western visitor that so few of the younger clergy could converse in Latin. His hospitality, keen intellect and sense of humour endeared him to visitors, but it was his steadfast dedication to his office and his sufferings that gave him a place of honour in western Ukraine.
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