SAINT JOSAPHAT (c.1580-1623), bishop and martyr
Patron saint of Ukraine and the eparchies of Edmonton,
Alberta and Toronto, Ontario in Canada
Today, the Church honors Saint Josaphat, a bishop and monk whose example of faith inspired many Eastern Orthodox Christians to return to full communion with the Holy See of Rome, during a period of deep political and theological divisions between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Born about the year 1580 in the western Ukrainian region of Volodymyr with the name John Kuncevyc, John was not initially a full member of the Catholic Church, for he was born to Orthodox Christian parents whose church had fallen out of communion with Rome.
John was trained as a merchant’s apprentice and could have opted for marriage. But he felt drawn to the rigors and spiritual depth of traditional Byzantine monasticism. In 1604, he entered the Ukrainian Order of Saint Basil (Basilians), taking the monastic name of Josaphat.
This young monk decided to take on an ambitious task, striving to re-incorporate the Eastern Orthodox tradition with the authority of the Catholic Church in the era of “counter-reformation”. Soon, as a priest, subsequently an archbishop, Josaphat would ultimately give his life for the union of the Churches.
While rejecting the anti-Western sentiments of many of his countrymen, Archbishop Josaphat also resisted any attempt to compromise the Eastern Church’s own traditions. Recognizing the urgent pastoral needs of the people over whom he had pastoral care, he produced catechisms and works of apologetics [teachings in defense of the faith], while implementing long overdue reforms of the clergy and attending to the needs of the poor.
Bishop Josaphat’s exemplary life and zeal for the care of souls won the trust of many Orthodox Christians, who saw the value of Church reunification reflected in the archbishop’s life and works. Nevertheless, his mission was essentially controversial, and others were led to believe in the lies of lurid stories and malicious suggestions made about him. In 1620, opponents arranged for the consecration of a rival archbishop.
As tensions between supporters and opponents began to escalate, Archbishop Josaphat lamented the onset of attacks that would lead to his death. He once wrote, “You people of Vitebsk want to put me to death. You make ambushes for me everywhere – in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways, and in the marketplace. I am here among you as a shepherd, and you ought to know that I would be happy to give my life for you.”
Late in 1623, an Orthodox priest named Elias shouted insults at Bishop Josaphat from his own courtyard, and tried to force his way into the archbishop’s residence. When Elias was removed and restrained by authorities, a mob assembled and forced his release. Mob mentality took over, and they invaded the residence, while Josaphat was attempting to insure the safety of his servants.
Unable to escape himself, Josaphat died and was martyred by the mob, being shot and stabbed to death on November 12, 1623, at Vitebsk in the Republic of Belarus near the Russian border. His death was a shock to both sides of the dispute, and brought some sanity and a cooling-off period to both sides of the conflict. Remarkably, Josaphat’s onetime rival – the Orthodox Archbishop Meletius – was reconciled with the Catholic Church in later years.
Archbishop Josaphat was canonized a saint in 1876 by Blessed Pope Pius IX, and was the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome. His remains are interred in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
We commemorate his feastday on November 12.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org and newadvent.org)
(The following prayer is from the Roman Breviary from the Proper for Saint Josaphat)
“Lord, fill Your Church with the Spirit that gave Saint Josaphat courage to lay down his life for his people. By his prayers, may Your Spirit make us strong and willing to offer our lives for our brothers and sisters.
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”