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.