12 November 2009

Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr

12 NOVEMBER 2009. Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Josaphat, born about 1580 in the Ukraine. Saint Josaphat--whose baptismal name was Johannes--was born into an orthodox family and from an early age he showed great piety. As a child, Josaphat applied himself with zeal to the study of ecclesiastical Slav, learning to recite the entire casoslov (or breviary), which from an early age he prayed daily. Much of Saint Josaphat's early religious training came from the breviary, as many of the orthodox clergy at the time, in Saint Josaphat's area, were not formally educated and, therefore, not permitted to give catechetical instruction.

Centuries before Saint Josaphat's birth, in 1054, the Great Schism occurred, separating the Eastern churches under Constantinople from the Western churches under Rome. Nearly five centuries later, the orthodox metropolitan of Kiev and five orthodox bishops committed to bringing themselves and the faithful in their pastoral care back into union with Rome. It was into this context that Saint Josaphat was born, and he experienced both the positive and negative consequences of the reunification. Many of the followers of the metropolitan did not want to return to communion with Rome, which led to a schism in the Orthodox Ruthenian Church, creating great division that sometimes led to bloodshed.

On 23 November 1595, the Ruthenian Church, through the Union of Brest, reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. However, schismatic Ruthenian separatists refused the reunification.

In 1604, at about the age of 24, Saint Josaphat embraced Catholicism and entered the Basilian monastery of the Trinity at Vilna. In the monastery, Saint Josaphat met Joseph Benjamin Rutsky; the two became lifelong friends and allies in the Church and spent long periods of time planning for the reunification of the Ruthenian separatists with Rome and a reform of monastic life.

After his ordination as a Byzantine Rite priest, now Father Josaphat was sent to Rome to found new Basilian houses, and Rutsky became the abbot of Vilna. Saint Josaphat returned to take Rutsky's place as abbot, when Rutsky was named Archbishop of Kiev. In his role as abbot of Vilna and other monasteries, Saint Josaphat began to put into practice his ideas for reunification and monastic reform. However, Josaphat's practices were austere and ascetic, to the extent that one community went so far as to threaten to throw him into the river until he persuaded them to see his purposes.

After leading several monasteries, on 12 November 1617, Saint Josaphat was reluctantly consecrated as the bishop of Vitebsk. He became archbishop of Polotsk in 1618. Upon becoming bishop, Saint Josaphat found the state of the Church in ruins, literally. Buildings were falling down, priests and monks were marrying multiple times, and there seemed to be a lack of commitment by the clergy to live a life of pastoral service modeled on Christ. To this scene, Saint Josaphat instituted many reforms, including holding synods, publishing a catechism for universal use, and instituting rules of conduct for clergy. Despite the improvements found under the bishopric of Saint Josaphat, the separatist Ruthenians tried in every way to injure Saint Josaphat's efforts at complete reunification, going so far as to even set up a competing diocese and archbishop. The Roman Catholics with whom Saint Josaphat was seeking communion did not give him great support either--owing at least in part to Saint Josphat's adherence to the Byantive Rite and not "Romanizing" his practices.

In October 1623, Saint Josaphat decided to return to Vitebsk to quell the division with the Ruthenian separatists himself. The separatists did their best to incite a violent reaction from Saint Josaphat and his followers, hurling insults and profanity at them. When finally, one of the inciters was confined by Saint Josaphat's party, the separatists launched a violent attack against Saint Josaphat and his followers.

On 12 November 1623, an angry mob attacked Saint Josaphat, killing him and many followers. Saint Josaphat was beaten with a stick, then an ax, and finally shot in the head. His body was drug through the streets and thrown in the river with the body of a dog that had tried to protect him.

However, the violence in the end had the opposite effect of pushing forward the separatists' agenda. Saint Josaphat's rival archbishop was reconciled with Rome and the weight of opinion came down decidedly on the side of those seeking complete reunification with Rome.

Josaphat was beatified by Pope Urban VIII on 16 May 1643. And, in 1867, Saint Josaphat became the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized a saint by Rome.


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, for ever and ever.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jody-

    Greetings! Thank you for your blog, I enjoy reading it. I too went to CUA for philosophy (BA/MA) and am now in my last year of law school. I'd be interested in hearing more about your path to law. You weren't by any chance a Basselin Fellow? I was in the seminary while at CUA, which is why I ask.