One of the tentative signs that things were thawing in Rome, and that the situations of the Jesuits in limbo in Russia was changing was the opening of a noviaite in Polotsk, in Belarus. For the first time in the years since the Brief of Supression the society was admitting new candidates and tentatively could look to the future. The opening of a new novitiate became an international flashpoint. The diplomatic dispatches of the Bourbon powers fizzled with indignation, Monino the Spanish ambassador energetically impressed upon Catherine that Jesuits were considered to be enemies of the state, and threatened to withdraw all Spanish merchants from St Petersburg and the Russian Empire. Catherine ignored the protests on what she considered to be a domestic issue. As the pressure was sustained she decided to issue a counter threat that she would remover her protection for all Catholics in the Russian Empire.
So how did the novitiate come about? Key to this was the ambitious and seemingly unscrupulous figure of Stanislaw Siestrzencewicz. A Lithuanian nobleman, he was the first Bishop of White Russia, with his see in Mogilev (current day Belorussia, in between Russia and Lithuania). His pastoral responsibility was the care of the souls of Latin Catholics in the Russian Empire, but like that ‘national’ cardinals in Rome, essentially he was a puppet of the Empress. Under his role agreed between the Vatican and Catherine, he had the powers of an official visitor over the religious orders. Rome hoped that now he would promulgate the Brief of Suppression and eradicate the Jesuits. He did the opposite, he released a pastoral letter which authorized the Jesuits to open a novitiate. Various factions in Rome were incandescent with rage, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pallavicini was apoplectic. Pius VI was more measured, however under pressure he protested and demanded a retraction. Cardinal de Bernis, an astute observer, suggested that the Pope was not as displeased as he seemed.
Catherine was not perturbed and strenuously defended the novitiate. This caught the Spanish, the French and the Portuguese by surprise. In the delicate world of geopolitics, they suddenly became alarmed that if Catherine was provoked too much then it might nudge her away from her neutral stance on the American War of Independence. Fearing that she might enter on the side of the British, the diplomatic sails changed tack and orders were given to back down on the novitiate. Today, 234 years ago, the novitiate opened and received eight novices. It was chink of light breaking through the clouds that had enveloped the Jesuits. For those daring to hope there was to be a future of the Society of Jesus, those hopes now seemed to be on a solid foundation.