Friday, November 12, 1998
First Reading: Wisdom 12: 1-9
Psalms: Psalm 19: 2-5
Gospel Reading: Luke 17: 26-37
Feast of Saint Josaphat, Bishop, Religious and Martyr
In 1580, during the papacy of Pope Gregory XIII- author of the Gregorian Calendar, Saint Josaphat was born as John Kuncevic to an Orthodox family in Vladimir, Poland. Though he was born into the Greek Orthodox Church and a Pole, he became a member of the Uniate Ruthenian Church in Vilna, Lithuania. In the 16th and 17th Centuries the Ruthenian followers were divided into three sects - the Catholic or Latin Church in total union with Rome, the Orthodox Greek Church which answered to the Patriarch of Constantinople and Moscow, and the Greek Uniate Church which the Polish people had discarded because of the lengthy liturgy and the ignorant clergy who were allowed to marry. In a word, respect was non-existent for the latter hierarchy. The Roman Catholic Church had become strong in Poland, but had failed to make headway into Lithuania or Russia, but a synod held by the Ruthenian Church in 1595 opted to be reunited with the Church of Rome pending approval by Pope Clement VIII. So excited with this proposition was John that he became a Basilian monk at the age of 24 at Holy Trinity Monastery at Vilna and was given the religious name of Josaphat. Along with a friend and fellow monk Jozef Rutski, he worked long and hard on bringing reform to the Basilians in anticipation of union with Rome. At the age of 37 Josaphat released an extensive thesis in the Slavic language on the natural roots of unity of the Ukranian Church with the Church of Rome. Through his efforts he started a Basilian monastery that was totally in union with the Catholic Church. When his friend Jozef became metropolitan of Kiev, Josaphat became archimandrite of the monastery which was the same as abbot in the Roman Church, before being appointed in 1617 Archbishop of Polotsk on the eastern border of Lithuania next to western Russia. Because of the state of disrepair in his new diocese and the strong opposition to Rome, Josaphat knew in his heart his mission was to reach out to the Ruthenians and convince them the Catholic Church was the true faith. He carried this out through synods, seminars, and catechesis studies. When some priests rebelled, he exacted sanctions on clergy who were not following the true teachings. This naturally caused dissension and resentment and many of the misguided clergy stirred up opposition to Josaphat, spreading fear among the Ruthenians that if the Latin rite were introduced into their land they would lose everything from their culture to their property. This caused the Ruthenians to rally against Josaphat. It turned to outright hatred when, in 1621 the Byzantine Patriarch of Jerusalem traveled to the Ukraine to consecrate a metropolitan and a handful of Orthodox bishops in the Ruthenian Church. This action further eroded support for Josaphat and the plotters, led by antiarchbishop Metetius Smotritsky, sought to seal his fate by stirring fear in the populace at a time when Poland was being threatened by the Turks from the South and Sweden to the north. In addition, Poland was cautious of coming to Josaphat's aid because Josphat, though in total union with Rome, still insisted on keeping the Byzantine rites and customs in the Ukranian Church as opposed to the Latin rite in Poland. To quell the opposition Josaphat decided to go to Vitebsk, Russia which was then known as "White Russia" and where he had first become an auxilary bishop, to meet face to face with his enemies in hopes of a peaceful dialog. However this was thwarted when a priest named Elias harassed Josaphat and was locked up. The people demanded Elias' release and as they assembled taunts of kill Josaphat rose to a fever pitch. As Josaphat held out his hands to quiet the crowd and speak reasonably to the maddening mob, they stormed the platform and began beating him. As the frenzied mob of Ruthenians roared its approval, one man cleared a path and leveled his rifle at Josaphat killing the saint instantly. They then dispatched of his body by hurling it into the Dvina River. Thus this Eastern saint became a martyred victim of the cruel persecution by the Slav-Ruthenian Church in Russia in 1623. Nearly 250 years later Pope Pius IX canonized Josaphat as the first Eastern saint to formally be canonized in such a process. The efforts begun by Josaphat are being carried out today by Pope John Paul II in uniting the Orthodox Churches with Rome and the Uniate Churches such as the Ukranian Rite and Byzantine Rite which are in union with the Pope, yet maintain an eastern culture in their liturgy and language.