Saint Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr

St Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr (Memorial)

Josaphat Kuntsevich was born of a merchant family in the small town of Volodymyr (Vladimir) in the region of Volhynia (Vilna), then part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in 1580 or 1584.

After a local education, he was apprenticed to a merchant in Vilna. In 1604, at the age of twenty-four, Josaphat entered the Monastery of the Trinity of the Basilian Fathers in Vilnius. His religious devotion, charity and sanctity rapidly became known, and prominent people came to consult him. About the same time, after a distinguished life as a layman, a certain Benjamin Rutski also joined the order. The number of novices steadily increased and under Rutski, who had meanwhile been ordained priest. Then began the regeneration of Eastern Catholic religious life among the Ruthenians (Belarusians and Ukrainians). In 1609, after private study under Fabricius, a Jesuit priest, Josaphat was ordained priest by a Catholic bishop. He subsequently became the superior of several monasteries, and on 12 November, 1617, was reluctantly consecrated Bishop of Vitsebsk, with right of succession to the Archbishopric of Polotsk. He subsequently became archbishop in 1618.

Five hundred years before, a schism had taken place between the Eastern and Western Churches. Over the years, the split only grew worse, mainly centred on the authority of the pope in Rome. Then in the 16th century, in what is now known as Belarus and Ukraine, but was then part of Poland-Lithuania, an Orthodox archbishop of Kiev and five Orthodox bishops decided to commit the Christians under their pastoral care to reunion with Rome. Josaphat Kunsevich was still a young boy when the Synod of Brest Litovsk took place in 1595-96. However, there were many of the faithful who did not accept the bishops’ decision. Efforts to solve the disagreement involved not only words, but violence. Among the leaders of the anti-union party, Meletius Smotrytsky was conspicuous, and the most celebrated of his opponents was Josaphat, who promoted Catholic unity with Rome. There were martyrs on both sides and Josaphat tried to be a voice of peace and reconciliation.

As Archbishop Josaphat restored the Byzantine churches, issued a catechism with instructions that it should be learned by heart, composed a code of behaviour for priests, assembled synods in various towns in the dioceses, and firmly opposed the Polish Imperial Chancellor Sapieha, who wanted to make concessions in favour of the Eastern Orthodox. Throughout all his labours, he continued his religious life as a monk, with no lessening in a life of penance and prayer.

In 1620, a rival hierarchy was set up and Josaphat now had a serious problem of widespread schism to deal with. The situation was complex. There were conflicting interests, stirred by nationalism, long-standing customs and an Eastern dislike of Rome. Josaphat strongly supported union with Rome, but also held the right of Byzantine clergy, together with their local customs, to be on the same level as those of the Roman church.

During the schismatic conflict, he refused to avail himself of the opportunity of flight afforded him. Sadly misrepresented by both sides, Josaphat eventually became the victim of a murder plot, instigated by violent and uncontrolled supporters of his rival to the bishopric of Polotsk.

He clearly foresaw he would die a violent death. Finally on 12 November, 1623, while pleading that none of his servants should be made to suffer, he was struck by a halberd and then shot by Orthodox supporters.

After numerous miracles were claimed and reported, a commission was appointed by Pope Urban VIII in 1628, to inquire into the cause of Josaphat, and examined on oath 116 witnesses. Although five years had elapsed since Josaphat’s death, his body was claimed to still be incorrupt. In 1637, a second commission investigated his life, and in 1643, twenty years after his death, Josaphat was beatified. He was canonised in 1867 by Pope Pius IX.

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