The name derives in the first instance from an eponymous church in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the 12th century Cathedral of Holy Wisdom. This in turn was inspired by the 10th century Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God at Novgorod, one of the oldest cities of the Rus' Slavs. The original inspiration for this was the 6th century cathedral of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople.
The cardinalate title is Santa Sofia a Via Boccea, but the church itself is usually referred to merely as Santa Sofia.
The church is one of the three national churches of the Ukraine in Rome, and belongs to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This is the Ukrainian Byzantine-rite branch of the Catholic Church. The officiating clergy belong to the eparchy (roughly equivalent to an archdiocese) of Lviv.
It is not often realized, even by Catholics, that the Catholic Church has nine different Eastern rites all of which are of the same dignity as the Latin rite and which are in full communion with the Holy Father. The Byzantine rite is one of these, and in the Catholic church is further divided into fourteen so-called Particular Churches. The majority (not all) have the word "Greek" in their title, although this has nothing to do with the modern Greek nationality. The Ukrainian language group is one of these fourteen.
(Those who know something about this subject should be aware of recent changes arising from the collapse of Communism. Also, the Byzantine rite is now viewed as a single rite like the Roman one, with language groups, instead of several different rites each with its own language. The latter interpretation came about in order to protect the status of Latin in the Roman rite -"one rite, one language"- and is now obsolete.)
The other two Ukrainian national churches are San Giosafat al Gianicolo, belonging to the Ukrainian college on the Janiculum, and Santi Sergio e Bacco which is the actual Ukrainian parish church in the city and has precedence over the other two.
The church of Santa Sofia is primarily a meeting place and religious and cultural center for Ukrainian expatriates in Rome. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated according to the Byzantine rite, regularly in Ukrainian. However the church is now listed by the Diocese of Rome as available to other Oriental rites and Byzantine language groups, especially Slavic ones not Ukrainian.
Canonically, the church is dependent on the nearby Roman-rite parish church of Santa Maria della Presentazione (also worth visiting) rather than on Santi Sergio e Bacco. This is because the Eastern churches have personal jurisdictions over their expatriate faithful in Rome, but no territorial jurisdictions of any kind.
There is a commonly repeated assertion (including on Wikipedia articles as at June 2018) that the church was given the dignity of a minor basilica in 1998. The writer would welcome a source reference for this, as the church is not included in the list of minor basilicas published online by the Diocese.
"Ruthenians" in Rome
Byzantine-rite Slav Catholics have been in Rome for a long time, institutionally for almost four hundred years. In 1641 Pope Urban VIII had the old church of Santi Sergio e Bacco renovated, and then granted the complex to the so-called "Ruthenian Monks of St Basil" who built a college adjacent to the church.
The term "Ruthenian" causes confusion. Back then, what it meant was any Slav who worshipped in the Byzantine rite. Hence, this included those now identified as Russians, Bielarus, Ukrainians, Serbs and also modern Ruthenians who are better known as Rusyns and who live on the other side of the Carpathian mountains from the rest of Ukraine. The original papal donation referred to those speaking the "language of Dalmatia" which is modern Croat but which was intended to signify Slavic in general.
The origin of these monks lay in the Union of Brest in 1596, whereby almost all of the former Byzantine-rite Orthodox living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath (better known as the Kingdom of Poland). Poland then was vast, and included most of what is now Bielarus and also western Ukraine, where these people lived. Ideas of nationalist identity were not well developed back then, and these Slavs called themselves various things and spoke various slightly differing dialects; the notion of being exclusively Russian, Ukrainian or Bielarus in this area was a 19th century invention.
The monastic order survives, as the Order of St Basil the Great.
At the end of the 18th century, the Partition of Poland had taken place and those Byzantine-rite Catholics living in the part taken by the Russian Empire suffered forced conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church. This caused ecclesiastical refugees to arrive at Rome, who set up a permanent expatriate community.
The part taken by the Habsburg Empire was constituted as that empire's province of Galicia, and the eastern part of this was the source of the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism in the 19th century. This was centred on the city of Lviv (in Russian, Lvov; Polish, Lwow; German, Lemberg; Greek, Leontopolis; English, City of the Lion), and strongly influenced the expatriates at Rome who can now be called Ukrainian.
In 1896, Pope Leo XIII ordered a major restoration of San Sergio e Bacco. This was part of his scheme for a new Ukrainian Byzantine-rite seminary, which was called the "Ruthenian Pontifical College" when it was founded and which was given charge of the church. (Subsequently it built its own larger premises, San Giosafat al Gianicolo.)
Galicia was annexed by Poland in 1920, but the eastern part was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1944. Ukrainian nationalism was violently suppressed, as was the Greek Catholic Church.
Josyf Slipyj was the eparch (archbishop) of Lviv at the time, and was immediately sent to the GULAG in Siberia where he remained until 1963. Meanwhile, he was created cardinal of Sant'Atanasio a Via del Babuino in 1949. On his release in 1963, he went to Rome and was made Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in 1969. As such, he was head of the UGCC in exile until his death in 1984 (he was never allowed to return to the Soviet Union).
San Sergio e Bacco was his headquarters, and in 1969 it was also made the national church of the Ukrainians in Rome. Further, it served as the informal Mother Church of the UGCC worldwide, since St George's Cathedral in Lviv (the former holder of that dignity) was in the possession of the Russian Orthodox.
The old convent was turned into a hospice for Ukrainian pilgrims, mostly from the New World, as the main monastery was by then at the college of San Giosafat al Gianicolo.
Foundation of church
The church was built in 1967–1968 on the orders of Cardinal Slipyj, because Santi Sergio e Bacco is very small and lacks modern facilities for social and cultural events. It was deliberately designed in imitation of a mediaeval Ukrainian Byzantine rite church.
Many expatriate Ukrainians in Rome called it the "Cathedral". However, if Slipyj was hoping that it would become his official cathedral as head of the UGCC he was mistaken. The Diocese of Rome has never had any intention of allowing any other church in communion with the Pope to have territorial jurisdiction in Rome. Slipyj remained archbishop of Lviv, with personal jurisdiction elsewhere. The decision by the Roman Curia to leave the diocesan structures of the UGCC unchanged from what they had been before the Second World War proved wiser in the long run.
A portion of the relics of Pope St Clement I (88–97) were brought here from San Clemente, and enshrined. This was because the alleged relics of St Clement had been brought to Rome from what is now the Crimea by SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs, in 867.
In 1984, Slipyj died and was succeeded by Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, who continued to administer the UGCC from San Sergio e Bacco.
However, in 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the end of centralized persecution of the UGCC in the Ukraine, and he was able to return to Lviv from which city the church was now administered. (In 2005, the administration of the UGCC was moved to Kyiv and the eparchy of Kyiv-Halych became primatial.)
In that same year, the Pontifical Ukrainian Institute of Santa Maria del Patrocinio was moved here from its old premises at Santi Sergio e Bacco. It serves as a centre of theological and cultural studies.
In 2012, a restoration and embellishment programme was entered into. As well as beautifying the church, the intention was to augment the social and cultural facilities available.
Because the church has no territorial jurisdiction, priests from any diocese of the UGCC can officiate here. At present, the priest in charge is Petro Kvych who is from the Ternopil-Zboriv diocese.
The current titular of the church was H.E. Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, M.S.U., Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych and hence head of the UGCC. He was appointed on 21 February, 2001 and died on 31 May 2017. The title was still vacant in 2019.
Layout and fabric
The church has a rectangular plan, on which is superimposed a Latin cross. The fabric is, it seems, in concrete although none of this is left naked.
Firstly there is an internal narthex, then a nave with side aisles. The aisles have galleries above. Then comes a transept with a dome over its crossing, then a sanctuary which has a single bay within the outline of the overall rectangle but which is continued by a very large external apse. At the ends of the aisles are the prothesis(to the left), and diaconicon (to the right) , two side rooms used in the Liturgy. These have their own little external apses.
There is a large semi-circular concrete barrel vault over the central nave, over the transept either side of the dome and over the sanctuary bay. These are all at the same height. At the corners either side of the entrance are two square plinths bearing domed turrets, and this feature is replicated either side of the sanctuary over the prothesis and diaconicon. The side nave galleries are roofed by two lower and narrower longitudinal semi-circular vaults on either side.
These vaults govern the appearance of the exterior, which is very traditional. Since the 2012 restoration, it is all in white (before then, it had got rather dirty).
The façade is approached by a set of stairs. It has an arcade of three large arches with clustered piers and molded archivolts springing from imposts, and these give access to the narthex. Above, there is a triply-curved roofline, a central large arc flanked by two smaller ones above which are the front pepperpot turrets. Above the arcade is a row of three round-headed slit windows, and two more are below the turrets. Flanking the arcade are two sets of three slit windows in a distinctive design, a vertical rectangle extended both top and bottom by a much narrower slit like a rolling-pin.
Otherwise, the wall is blank and in white -the same applies to the sides.
The roofline of the side walls is also wavy, the smaller arcs not being structural. Each has three of these small arcs flanking the gallery vaults, then a large arc for the transept and then a small arc for the turret flanking the sanctuary.
Each side wall has a lower row of seven pairs of rolling-pin windows, and an upper row of seven round-headed slit windows.
The four identical corner turrets sit on low box plinths. Each is octagonal, with narrow round-topped sides giving a wavy edge to the edge of the cupola. Each side contains one of the rolling-pin windows. The cupola is hemispherical, in lead.
The dome sits on a large, low box plinth. The high drum is cylindrical, with the wall having a slight batter. It has eight round-headed windows. The dome itself is in lead, a segment of a sphere, and fits exactly on the top of the drum without any parapet or other features.
In 2012, the main dome and turret cupolas were gilded -giving a spectacular effect.
The statue group outside the entrance features the three angels whom Abraham entertained as guests under the tenebinth at Mamre before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (Gen 18:1-15). They are an ancient symbol of the Trinity.
The spacious nave is entered from the narthex via three round-headed doorways, a large central one flanked by two smaller ones. Above these is a gallery behind three arches, again one large central one and two smaller side ones. The two piers separating these have small stone columns with cushion capitals inserted into the fabric (these have no structural function). The gallery has balustrades in the arches, with balusters in the form of arcades having little columns of the same design.
In the corners flanking the nave are the confessionals, and the stairs to the galleries over the entrance and side aisles.
The central space has a deep barrel vault. To each side is an arcade of three simple arches, with no imposts or moldings and above these are three gallery arches in the same style as those in the counterfaçade gallery.
The church is famous for the fact that the interior is entirely covered in mosaic, the gold background of which predominates on the nave walls.
The counterfaçade has, at the top, depictions of SS George the Great and Andrew the Apostle (patrons of Kyiv and the Ukraine). Below the arches are tondi with portraits of Josyf Slipyj, and Andrei Sheptyts'kyi (1865-1944) who was his inspiration. These are flanked by depictions of the cathedrals of St George in Lviv to the left, and Sancta Sophia in Kyiv to the right. Either side of the central door are four portraits of recently beatified martyred clerics of the UGCC: Teodoro Romža, Josafat Kotsylovskyj, Grigor Khomyšyn and Pavel Gojdič. The Keys of St Peter are over the central door.
The side walls feature SS Boris and Gleb, Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves, Prince St Vladimir and the emperor Constantine on the right, and SS Olga, Helena, Michael of Chernigov and Josaphat Kuntsevych to the left.
The intradoses of the arches have a floral design in gold, red and dark blue. The aisle walls have representations of saints; in the left hand aisle, SS Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara and Andrew of Crete, and in the right hand aisle St Demetrius of Thessalonica.
The nave vault is in dark blue. On it are mosaic representations of the Transfiguration, flanked by the Crucifixion and Christ Rescuing Those in Hell.
The end wall of the left hand end of the transept is dominated by a mosaic depiction of the Sermon of the Mount. Below this, and on the side walls, are a series of saints: SS Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom.
Each transept side wall has a balustraded gallery arch, above the portal into the side aisles on the left, and into the prothesis(to the left of the sanctuary) on the right. Next to the gallery arch to the left is depicted Prince Vladimir II Monomakh of Kiev, and to the right Prince Yaroslav the Wise, founder of Sancta Sophia Cathedral at Kyiv.
The vault above has a pair of angels holding tablet reading "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God" in Ukrainian.
The prothesis chamber has a depiction of Our Lady in its little apse.
The interior of the dome has the very traditional depiction of Christ the Pantocrator, accompanied by seraphim and angels on a golden background. The surfaces of the dome and the dome itself form one figurative composition. The pendentives have the symbols of the Evangelists.
The right hand end of the transept matches the left hand one. The end wall has a spectacular depiction of The Creation. Lots of animals are featured, as well as Adam and Eve with the serpent.
The diaconicon chamber has a mosaic of the Baptism of Christ.
As the church is of the Byzantine rite it has an iconostasis, which here was painted by Jucenalij Josyf Mokryckij. Many modern iconostases have an open design so that you can see through them into the sanctuary, but this one has the more traditional screen form.
The apse has two sets of stone benches against its curved wall, with round-headed stone backs for the individuals sitting there. These flank a bishop's throne in a niche, the back of which has a Cosmatesque quincunx -not in the Byzantine tradition, but mediaeval Roman. This is good evidence that Slipjy wanted the church to be his cathedral.
The apse has the Apostles above the benches, with the Altar of the Eucharist in the centre. Above these is a representation of Holy Wisdom as a symbol of Christ in glory, being venerated by Our Lady and St John the Baptist as a Deesis. At the top is God the Father, over an emerald rainbow.
How to get there
This is one of the select number of modern churches in the Roman suburbs which it is actually worth a trip out to visit. The mosaics are spectacular.
Take the Linea A metro to Battistini, then take the 146 bus to the Boccea / Torrevecchia stop which is a few metres beyond the church driveway.
If you have your own wheels, you need to take the first driveway on the right after the Torrevecchia / Cornelia intersection on the Via Boccea (you need to be in the centre lane at the intersection).
The fascinatingly designed modern church of Santa Maria della Presentazione is a short distance to the east on the Via di Torreveccia, although the walk in between is along busy roads.
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated, in Ukrainian (tourist website 060608, November 2010):
Sundays 8:00, 10:00.
(No Wikipedia page in Italian.)
Church website (404, July 2018)
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