St. Josaphat was born a child of divorce. By this I don’t mean that his parents split up but rather that his Church did. By the time he was born in 1580 in what is now Ukraine, the Great Schism of 1054 was hundreds of years old but no less bitter.
I won’t go into the causes because as with all divorces, the split was complicated. Suffice it to say that there was blame on both sides, the children suffered, and to this day they are divided about whether to patch things up or to keep the separation permanent.
Perhaps there is one thing we can all agree on, especially in light of the persecution of Eastern Christians by atheistic Communists. Pope Saint John Paul, in his encyclical Orientale Lumen, The Light of the East, lamented,
“We have deprived the world of a joint witness that could, perhaps, have avoided so many tragedies and even changed the course of history.”i
There are never human solutions to the endless problems humans cause so God sent a heavenly one.
St. Josaphat was born Ivan Kuntsevych to devout parents and baptized into the Orthodox Church.
However, according to the Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Ecclesiam Dei, On St. Josaphatii, Ivan always considered himself a Catholic in light of his baptism. When he was just a lad, Ivan’s mother took him to church and showed him an icon of the Crucifixion. Suddenly, out of the Savior’s wounded side, burst a flame which pierced his heart. From that moment, Ivan’s heart was united with Our Lord’s wounded mystical body.
He would offer his life and ultimately his death for the sake of reconciliation with the Roman pontiff.
When Ivan was fifteen years old, seven Eastern bishops signed the Union of Brest and officially reconciled with Rome.
They were allowed to keep their Rites, their bishops, and their customs, which had remained unchanged since Catholic times. This eliminated their fear of being forced to westernize but it was not the only issue. Many bishops and clergy and laity opposed reunification, citing historical atrocities like the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 at the hands of rogue Crusaders. There was also much worldliness in the clergy, a problem then also plaguing the west.
Ivan he knew what he must do – and it’s a lesson for anyone who realizes that such battles are ultimately against principalities and powers. He refused a good job in business which included marriage with the boss’s daughter and entered a Uniate monastery under the rule of St. Basil the Great.
Josaphat, as he was now named, was a model monk. So good was he that he was soon elected head of the monastery. Immediately, he set about reforming it.
After that, he was named Bishop of Polotsk, a job he did not want but also accepted because he was now in a position to restore Catholic churches and to discipline worldly priests.
Bishop Josaphat was uncompromising in his clerical reforms. He spared no one, even himself. He even pawned his own omophorion (bishop’s stole) to assist the poor. Wisely, he left politics alone but took up the issue of the Schism of which he studied and wrote extensively. He wrote on the Primacy of Peter; he proved that the conversion of King St. Vladimir was to the Catholic faith; and he authored a catechism in the same style as one by St. Peter Canisius, who, only a few decades earlier had fought Protestantism in Germany. He traveled extensively to spread the cause of unity. But he never lost sight of the fact that the battle was ultimately spiritual. In this he influenced at least sixty men to become Basilian monks themselves.
But not everybody loves a saint.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he is annoying to us; he opposes our actions. Wisdom 2:11-13
Chief among Josaphat’s enemies was a bishop named Meletius Smotrytsky. While Bishop Josaphat was off traveling, Meletius spread fake news about him and tried to get him removed from office. “Uniate! Papist! Latin! Destroyer of piety! Usurper! Traitor!” Meletius bombarded him with slurs.
Bishop Josaphat knew that martyrdom was coming. His response was, “I rejoice to offer my life for my holy Catholic faith. Grant that I be found worthy, Lord, to shed my blood for the union and obedience to the Apostolic See.”
The hatred peaked on November 12, 1623 when a mob of townspeople, including priests, men, women, and even children, broke into Bishop Josaphat’s home calling for his blood. He walked in on them roughing up his servants and faced them squarely, saying, “Why are you attacking my servants? Take your anger out upon me!” In this he would echo Our Lord.
“If you are looking for me, let these men go.” John 18:8
The mob attacked Bishop Josaphat with rocks, sticks and axes.
They stripped him of his garments then stopped short. Since when does a “destroyer of piety” wear a hair shirt? They cursed him, stoned him, and hacked his skull open. Then they dragged his lifeless body to the river, weighed it down with stones, and threw it in.
The ruler of the region made an inquest and rounded up the ringleaders. At this point some of them, including Smotrytsky himself, repented and joined the Uniates. Some sources give the credit to the prayers of St. Josaphat, others to the long arm of the law.
After three days, friends fished the body out of the river. It was intact. They brought it to the cathedral and people immediately began venerating it as a relic. There were pilgrimages, conversions, and miracles. Such overwhelming evidence of Josaphat’s sanctity led to his being speedily beatified just twenty years after his death. But then politics got in the way and it would not be until 1867, during the reign of Pope Pius IX that he would be canonized.
Meanwhile, the body of Blessed Josaphat traveled a great dealiii, perhaps more than it ever had when it drew breath.
That is because the spiritual and temporal rulers of Josaphat’s day were not much different than the ones who asked Pilate for a guard at Jesus’ tomb. To them, St. Josaphat was more dangerous dead than alive.
Blessed Josaphat always stayed one step ahead of them. Basilian monks whisked the body away numerous times often at their own peril. Czar Peter I, hell bent on burning the body, only to find it gone, took his rage out on the monks, torturing and massacring them.
The body of St. Josaphat seemed to be always running for its life.
Once the monks hid it in a damp basement. Another time, they placed it in a garbage cart and covered it with debris. It spent decades hidden behind a wall. The monks hid it so well they forgot exactly where in the wall they put it. Providence had to intervene. A man who lived far off did some business which took him back through his home town. As a small boy, he had watched from the choir loft while his father and some other men walled up the body. He remembered exactly where it was.
The monks didn’t only have to worry about the relic’s enemies. During a war, the monks gave it to a certain prince for safekeeping with the understanding that when peace returned, he would give it back. When the danger passed, the prince found that he had grown fond of the relic so he put the monks off. He stalled for so long that he eventually died. His wife and sons likewise refused to part with it. It had been in the family for so long that they considered it their rightful property. The war forced the family to vacate their castle at which time the monks sneaked in and stole the relic back. They put Josaphat on display and once again there were pilgrimages, conversions, and miracles.
Each time the Basilians received the relic back (and I’m skipping most of them) it was examined and verified to be the body of the saint. Once the fatal wound in the head reportedly bled. In 1916, it was sent for safekeeping to a Ukrainian church in Vienna and received by fellow saint, Venerable Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. There the relic stayed until after World War II.
During the pontificate of Pius XII, as the Soviets bombarded Vienna, it was smuggled out.
Rome was to be the final resting place of the body of St. Josaphat.
There it was received by Monsignor Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Saint Paul VI. He fell to his knees, draped his arms over the casket, and praying, wept. Later, at the recommendation of Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj, himself a white martyr in the gulag, Pope Paul VI would inter St. Josaphat’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica under the Altar of St. Basil the Great. The still incorrupt body was revested and placed in a silver reliquary. The Pope declared that the “outstanding champion of Catholic communion should not be separated from blessed Peter, to whose See he remained unshakably faithful, nor from his father, lawgiver and master in the monastic life of the East.”iv
St. Josaphat’s feast day is November 23rd.
iJohn Paul II. “Orientale Lumen.” Vatican, May 2, 1995. Retrieved July 22, 2020 from http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1995/documents/hf_jp- ii_apl_19950502_orientale- lumen.html
ivDipippo, Gregory. The Feast of St. Josaphat at the Vatican, Religious Information Service of Ukraine, November 15, 2010. Retrieved July 22, 2020 from risu.org.ua/en/index/monitoring/kaleido_digest/39021/.