St. Josaphat was an Eastern Rite bishop and model of Christian unity. He was martyred in an effort to bring part of the Orthodox Church into union with Rome. He was born John Kunsevich in 1580 to a Catholic family in what is now modern day Ukraine. Clergy who were seeking and supporting reunion with Rome influenced Kunsevich at a young age. This led him to become a Basilian monk and priest. He lived as a preacher and ascetic.
Josaphat was elected bishop of Vitebsk in 1617 and became archbishop of Polotsk in 1618. Through synods, catechesis, reform of the clergy, and personal example, Josaphat influenced the greater part of the Orthodox in the area of Vitebsk to unity. He remained steadfast in his beliefs by opposing Latins who saw unity only in Latin terms. Likewise he suppressed Byzantine traditions in the name of Catholic unity.
An Orthodox archbishop was appointed in Polotsk and Josaphat was accused of taking office invalidly. Many of the Byzantine Catholics were won over to allegiance to Orthodoxy. The Latin bishops of Poland did not support him. In 1623 Josaphat went to Vitebsk to bring peace and preach to churches to reconcile differences. On November 12, a mob broke into the house where he was staying, shouting hatred and violence. He was struck in the head with an axe blade mounted on a long shaft, and shot. His body was thrown into a river after the upheaval.
An article from EWTN writes, “It is important to say that there was a martyr on the Orthodox side as well, and even good men were uncertain where truth and justice lay. St. Josaphat died working for reconciliation, and peacemakers often find themselves hated by both sides.” Four hundred years later Church leaders are supporting the same cause for unity. St. Josaphat did not have all of the answers, but he did know that following Christ and working toward forgiveness and peace were worth the pain of confronting those who hated him. He was canonized by Rome as the first saint of the Eastern Church.
Pope Francis displayed this sentiment in conversations with the Orthodox Church while visiting the Holy Land a year after he spoke about the treasures of Christians. He noted that “we Christians bring peace and grace as a treasure to be offered to the world, but these gifts can bear fruit only when Christians live and work together in harmony.” He shares the convictions of St. Josaphat and the gifts they bear. It is an important reminder of the responsibility we share to promote unity among all Christians.
Sophie Jacobucci is a recent graduate of the Echo Program at Notre Dame and currently lives in Denver, Colorado.