Calendar and conversion

The debate between the Uniates, Orthodox Christians and Catholics over the superiority of the Gregorian calendar is quite well documented by a series of prints from the 1640’s. One of the authors and adversaries in this exchange of vernacular pamphlets, brochures, short treatises and short fictional dialogues was Kasjan Sakowicz (1578-1647), a polemical writer, theologian and Uniate priest.

His biography shows, however, that as much as the first two categories denote well his activity during his whole career, the term “Uniate priest” may be used only to a certain period of his life, which covered merely 16 years between 1625 and 1641. Sakowicz was born to an Orthodox family and as a teenager he entered the walls of the Zamojski Academy, where he received basic education in liberal arts, as well as the Academy of Cracow where he broadened his knowledge. In the early 1620’s, being still a member of the Orthodox Church, he was the principal of the school in Kiev. The school was ran by the local bratstvo, a secular association, or fraternity, of Orthodox citizens organized on the model of a guild. It was in 1625 when Sakowicz decided to change his confession and join the Uniates, that is the community of Eastern Christians who on the strength of the Union of Brest of 1596 acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome but kept the Orthodox liturgy with its language, symbols and calendar.

We do not know exactly what made Sakowicz to take such step. The reasons for conversions throughout the history, including the early modern period, were various (and quite often coincided with one another), starting from an actual strong religious, or even mystical, experience, through the necessity to secure one’s life in face of political threat, to pure opportunism having its origins in a belief that confessional affiliation can either facilitate or hinder economic enterprises in particular region of the world. To this list of reasons for conversion we can distil from dozens and hundreds of conversion narratives, one should add at least one more – the calendar.

Since at the moment of joining the Greek Catholic Church Sakowicz was already a public person and author of a commentary to Aristotle and few poetical works, he must have exposed himself to the fury of his former fellow believers. Unfortunately, he did not leave us any kind of a narrative that could broaden our knowledge about this act. This could be simply a matter of a political choice, but could also be an act of theologically grounded belief that the unity of the Christian communities is far more important than all the differences between them and a simple step that an Orthodox Christian can take in order to bring this unity closer is to acknowledge the act signed in Brest. The discussions over the consequences of the Union of Brest are still ongoing and from the point of view of political and social history it is still unclear whether this act brought more good or bad for Eastern Christianity, culture, and political life in the region. If one takes the Catholic point of view, it may seem that it contributed to the advent of the unity of the only true, i.e. Roman Catholic, Church, but from the Orthodox point of view, things are not (and probably never be) that obvious, and the document of 1596 became immediately a reason for yet another schism in the Eastern Christianity and a bone of contention between these two confessions.

Kalendarz staryLuckily, we know far more about Sakowicz’s second act of conversion, which took place in the early 1640’s. In 1641 he published in Vilnius, in the printing shop of the Basilian order a brochure entitled The Old Calendar (Kalendarz stary), in which he exposed the „blatant and self-evident error regarding the celebration of the Passover”, included a series of replies to the accusations formulated by men who stuck to the Julian calendar (he coined even a lovely compound to label them, starokalendarzanie, ‘the oldcalendrists’), and listed the possible benefits related to the acknowledgment of the new measure of time. Although the brochure received the imprimatur of the Uniate elders and came of the Uniate printing press, its publication ended up with a fervent controversy. This was caused by the fact that the rhythm of the liturgical year based on the Julian calendar was treated by the Uniates as a vehicle for their cultural, religious and ethnic identity, which, apart from their language and form of liturgy, allowed them to differ from the Roman Catholics. Sakowicz, reducing the role of calendar to a tool, neglected the symbolic role and power of the calendar.

Sakowicz’s position was built on two assumptions. The first one was that the measure of time is not an article of faith and it can be changed, corrected or reformed if necessary. For him, the fact that the Uniates referred to the 1st Nicean synod of 325 as a landmark for their calendrical computations was an example of their hypocrisy, stubbornness and blindness. The basic rule for determining the date of the Easter, established already in 325, was that the Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first spring full moon. The Julian calendar, however, as Sakowicz put it in an almost Shakespearean phrase, „fell of the track” (wypadł z kluby) and should no longer be used to determine the date of Easter. The second assumption was based on a conviction that the unity of Christians makes a greater value than sticking to one’s, sometimes wrongly understood, tradition. Hence the whole argumentative structure of his book, built of calculations, images, analogies, folk tales and geared up in order to convince his fellow believers to acknowledge the new calendar. For Sakowicz the change of the system of calendar calculation was not a matter of a deep intervention in the logical structure of the Uniate creed and was a rather cosmetic change which would allow the Roman Catholics and Uniates to breathe and celebrate in one rhythm.

Sakowicz’s belief in the idea of the unity of Christendom must have been really strong and the things around him must have been heating up after the publication of The Old Calendar as during the diocesan synod at Lutsk in 1641 he declared his obedience to the bishop of Rome, shortly after the synod applied for the pope’s consent to leave the Greek-Catholic Church, and after receiving the approval of Urban VIII become a full Catholic and joined the Augustinian order. As a catholic monk based in the Kraków convent of St Catherine, he continued to work on the problem of “many calendars” and in 1644 he decided to publish yet another book, Spectacles for the Old Calendar (Okulary kalendarzowi staremu), which he conceived as an augmented and expanded version of his 1641 brochure. Indeed, some arguments which appeared already in The Old Caledar have been substantially revised and their style is less hectic and more elaborated (although this still does not make this text an example of prose artistry). Yet the most interesting part of the Spectacles is not Sakowicz’s exposition of the errors of the old calendar and virtues of the new one, but his preface addressed to the “pious reader”. In it, he spares no bitter words to his former fellow believers, who, as he writes, claimed that he published The Old Calendar without the consent of the Church authorities, badmouthed him and even went as far as to try to convince the Vatican authorities to revoke the papal decree regarding Sakowicz’s transfer to the Catholic Church. Sakowicz used the publication of the Spectacles as an opportunity to speak from the podium and straighten the things out, showing his version of the facts and expressing his misery.


Sakowicz expressed his resentment not only in Polish but also in Latin and he did it in a rather frank, if not brutal, way, declaring that for him there was no way back to the Uniate Church as it would mean something even worse than ab equis transire ad asinos. Despite this move from the Uniate to the Catholic camp and despite the bitterness of phrasing used to describe this act, he did not change his general view and actually claimed that the unity of these two churches could be built through small things such as calendar and that there is no actual need for a mass conversion of Uniates. He was wise enough to avoid the strategy of an open proselytism which could actually make more harm to the whole cause. It seems, however, that one of the very few people who Sakowicz managed to convince to take the side of the new calendar was Sakowicz himself and that the consequences of his decision turned probably far more serious than he could have imagined.

Source of images: Jagiellonian Digital Library