Today is the feast day of St. Josaphat, a monk and bishop who was martyred in modern-day Belarus due to his efforts for Christian unity in the 17th century. He was born John Kuncevic to Orthodox Christian parents in the late 1500s in Lithuania. Despite strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the Eastern Orthodox churches, a number of Eastern Catholic bishops signed the Union of Brest in 1598, which allowed several Eastern churches to maintain their liturgical rites while remaining in full communion with Rome. Following the leaders of his Ruthenian Church, John chose to unify himself with Rome and subsequently entered monastic life, taking on the name Josaphat.
As a priest and later a bishop, St. Josaphat worked tirelessly for reunification between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox tradition; he produced apologetics texts and catechisms, published defenses of ecumenism, and reformed the priesthood in his diocese. He struggled against an influential rival Orthodox bishop and schismatic preachers who slandered Josaphat’s reputation and who denounced his desire for Christian unity. Eventually, in the early 1620s, St. Josaphat was attacked by an anti-unification mob, who shot and beheaded him before dumping his body into a nearby river. After his death, many of his former dissidents converted to union with Rome and even Josaphat’s greatest Orthodox rival eventually returned to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
What struck me when reading about St. Josaphat’s story was the utter breakdown in civil discourse. There were members on either side of the reunification debate who, while they disagreed strongly with one another, were able to do so without coming to blows. But after decades upon decades of increasing tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christian churches, even a peaceful reformer and ardent defender of unity like St. Josaphat came to be seen by some as an enemy who must be taken down. And there were some whose support of maintaining the schism was so strong that they openly murdered the nearest figurehead of the ecumenical movement.
At times like ours, when it feels like there is division and violence all around us, I find it comforting to look at the history of the Church and to see that she has struggled against division almost as long as she has existed. The difficulties that St. Josaphat faced in Eastern Europe were not new to the Church—from the Arian heresy to the Eastern Schism and the Protestant Reformation, Church history is littered with examples of people arguing over the truth, outright rejecting the authority of the magisterium, or spreading misinformation about the Church and her mission.
St. Josaphat’s life reminds us of how we are called to evangelize with respect and charity in turbulent—and sometimes violent—times. We must work tirelessly for unity without compromising on the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and the authority of the magisterium, and study and defend the truth in respectful dialogue with those who disagree with us. And we must also prepare, perhaps, to be martyred for our efforts.
Most of us will not suffer a violent martyrdom as so many saints before us have done, but there are smaller, everyday crosses that we can endure. When pointing out the truth loses us friendships, that is our little martyrdoms. When we have to wake up in the middle of the night to change yet another diaper, that is our little martyrdom. When someone cuts us off on our way home after a long day, that is our little martyrdom. When a family member misunderstands our intentions, that is our little martyrdom.
Like Josaphat, let us rely on God to give us the strength and courage to continue in our everyday mission of evangelization. Every effort matters—even if you never see the fruit it bears—whether you are an archbishop trying to bring Orthodox Christian churches back into unity with Rome or you are a young Catholic trying to demonstrate that an authentic Catholic lifestyle is one of joy and peace.
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This past spring, Pope Francis went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the motto, “So that they may be one.” On November 12, we celebrate a saint who lived by this motto, St. Josaphat.
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.
Just two weeks ago, Pope Francis named Fr. Kurt Burnette as the head of the Byzantine Eparchy of Passaic, in the United States. How is it, though, that the Roman Pontiff has the authority to name a bishop of an Eastern Rite? In many regards, we owe this to the work of a 16th century saint, St. Josaphat, whose feast we celebrate today, Nov. 12. The Ruthenian Church, a branch of the Eastern Church mainly found in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland which was once part of the Eastern Church is now in full communion with Rome.
St. Josaphat, born around the year 1580, is one of few people from an Eastern Rite who has gone through the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church. As a young man, St. Josaphat tried to live a virtuous life, which led him to a Basilian monastery in Vilna, Lithuania. His great virtue caused him to be elected abbot of his own and other monasteries, and later appointed as bishop and archbishop in Poland. While an agreement had been signed between the Ruthenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church early in his life, there were many members of the Ruthenian Church who did not want to be in communion with Rome. Neither side was completely innocent in their actions, with violence and betrayal being perpetrated on both sides. However, there were men and women on each side of this ecumenical disagreement who tried to rise above the conflict. St. Josaphat was one of these men.
For all his attempts to mend the rift between the Ruthenian Church and the Roman Church, St. Josaphat was hated by many in his native land (Lk. 4:24). Eventually, due to his work in bringing about reforms of the clergy in Lithuania and Poland, as well as efforts to bring the Ruthenian Church into better relation with Rome, he was beaten, stabbed, and shot. His body was dumped unceremoniously by his attackers into a river. Recognized as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church, St. Josaphat was beatified in 1643 and canonized in 1867.
In the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel according to St. John, Christ is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest. One famous line from His prayer is “that they may all be one” (Jn. 17:21). This is the work that St. Josaphat was trying to accomplish in the small corner of God’s vineyard to which he was assigned. How often do we fail to recognize the importance of Christian unity? We will soon, in 2017, be marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Within some of our lifetime’s, in 2054, we will be recognizing the end of the first millennium of the Great Schism. Our Church has been broken apart for far too long. We have failed, in many accounts, to ‘breathe with both lungs’ as Bl. John Paul said. Yet, in the spirit of St. Josaphat, great work is being done.
Popes Benedict and John Paul II did amazing work in dialoging with the Lutheran and Calvinist communities. Both of them, as well, met with Archbishop Rowan Williams, the then spiritual head of the Anglican Church. Pope Francis has continued on this same track. He has met with the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s 8 million Coptic Christians. Even the Patriarch of the Eastern Church, Bartholomew of Constantinople, was present at the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis, a step which had not happened since the Great Schism. We are witnessing historical moments in our Church today.
Let us continue to pray the words that Christ Himself prayed in the Garden, let us hope for the total unification of our Church, and let us, in all charity, always welcome home those who come back to our Mother Church. We should follow the example of St. Josaphat who, even in the face of violence and hatred, sought out peace and unity above all things.
St. Josaphat, pray for us!
Michael Phelan is in his second and final year in the Echo Program at the University of Notre Dame and serves as an Apprentice Catechetical Leader at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, FL, in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.