St. JOSAPHAT KUNSEVICH of POLOTSK
The Martyr of Ecumenism-First Eastern Saint
The first priest of the Eastern Church to be canonized by the Western Church was St. Josaphat because he was martyred for his great efforts to reunite the Orthodox Church with Rome.
Josaphat was born John Kunsevich at Vladimir, Ukraine in 1580. While working for a merchant at Vilna in what is now Poland he was offered not only a partnership in the business but also one of his master’s daughters in marriage.
But John turned down the offer because he had already made up his mind to become a monk together with his good friend Joseph Rutsky. In 1604 they entered the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Vilna where they were ordained priests of the Byzantine rite in 1609. It was then that John took the name Josaphat.
From the beginning both Josaphat and his friend Joseph were intent on reforming the Ruthenian church which now covers the area of the present day Belorussia and Ukraine.
Rise in Church
Soon they had worked their way up in the Church with Joseph becoming the abbot of Holy Trinity and Josaphat sent to Poland to found new houses. Upon his return in 1614, he was named abbot of the monastery while Joseph made metropolitan of Kiev.
In 1617 Josaphat was appointed bishop of Vitebsk, Russia. Eight months later when the Archbishop of Polotsk died, he took over the sec. Unfortunately, he found the diocese in a terrible state: laymen controlling church lands, lax discipline among the orders of monks, general decadence with churches in a rundown state and the secular clergy marrying several times. (According to the Eastern Canon Laws a married man may be ordained a priest but cannot marry again if his wife dies).
Josaphat called synods to put into effect his reforms which by 1620 became effective. So successful was he in his efforts that he enraged several sectors such as the monks at the famous Caves monastery near Kiev.
However besides working tirelessly intent on reforming the abuses they saw in the Church, Josaphat and Joseph had one overriding goal: to unite the Ukrainian Church with Rome. This was a very hot and controversial topic at that time.
There was widespread opposition to Rome because both the church leaders and lay people were worried that the pope and the cardinals would arbitrarily interfere in their lives. Besides they were Westerners and thus were unfamiliar with their Eastern Europeans religious customs, spiritual traditions and folk beliefs based on centuries of ancient native cultures. So simply and basically this was their one prime argument against union: “Roman Catholicism was not the traditional Christianity of the various indigenous peoples living in that area between Europe and Asia.”
So they insisted and declared vehemently that Roman Catholicism was NOT for the Ruthenian people.
A group of dissident bishops of the Orthodox church then began to sow seeds of dissension claiming that Josaphat was not only “turning Latin” but was in actuality a Latin priest and a “robber of souls.”
Soon riots broke out as people chose sides.
No Catholic Support
Unfortunately, Josaphat was not given the support he should have received from the Latin bishops of Poland because while he advocated unification with Rome he insisted on maintaining Byzantine rites and customs. So the Catholic Chancellor of Lithuania, Leo Sapieha, fearing that the discord and dissension that Josaphat created might make the area politically unstable allowing the neighboring Cossacks to invade, falsely accused Josaphat of fomenting trouble and of using violence and closing down non-Catholic churches. Naturally this stirred up further dissent.
In the meantime the followers of the bishop of Polosk, Meletius Smotrisky, who had been elected by the group of dissident bishops hatched a plot against Josaphat to drive him from the area.
The Plot Against Josaphat
A priest named Elias was sent to harass Josaphat several times. After many warnings he was finally arrested and locked up by one of Josaphat’s deacons on November 12, 1623. However, he was set free shortly after an angry mob assembled, stormed the grounds and broke in demanding his release. They then seized Josaphat shouting, “Kill the papist!”
After hitting Josaphat on the head with a halberd and shooting him with a bullet they dragged him from his home and threw him into the Divina River at Vitebsk, Russia.
He was canonized in 1867, the first Eastern saint to be formally canonized for furthering religious unity especially among Christian Churches.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. JOSAPHAT KUNSEVICH of POLOTSK
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – vol. IV pp 337 – 340
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p. 250
The Book of Saints – p. 281
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp. 285 – 286
A Calendar of Saints – p. 220
A Year with the Saints – Nov. 12
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp. 532 – 533
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp. 511 – 512
My First Book of Saints – pp 269 – 270
Saint Companion – pp 424 – 425
Saint of the Day – pp. 309 – 310
Voices of the Saints – p. 534
The Way of the Saints – pp. 257 – 259
Prayer of St. Josephat
From the Catholic Encyclopedia
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 and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.