St. Josaphat: A Saint For Our Times

Gillian Weyant

St. Josaphat: A Saint For Our Times

The story of St. Josaphat is one that speaks to the beauty and truth contained in Holy Mother Church.  St. Josaphat, who was martyred for the faith in the year 1623, testified throughout his life on earth to the goodness of Catholicism and sought to unite members of both Eastern and Western rites under the headship of Rome.  His life and martyrdom reflect his commitment to this task, especially in a tumultuous time where many other Eastern Rite members were strongly against unification with the Roman pontiff.

Early Life

St. Josaphat was born as John Kuncevic (or Ioann Kuntsevych) in about 1580 in the village of Vladimir, which was then a part of the Polish Kingdom.  He was baptized into the Eastern Rite Church of Kyiv, Ukraine, which at the time was not unified with the Catholic Church in Rome. As a boy, John’s virtue and hunger for the truth of the Catholic faith was apparent.  His parents, who were of a noble background but had fallen into poverty, made great efforts to educate John in the Orthodox faith to the best of their ability. His mother especially made efforts to show John not only the truth, but the beauty of their faith.  In later life, John remembered his mother showing him and teaching him about the resplendent icons throughout the Eastern Rite churches. He viewed these lessons as ones that planted a seed within him to desire to live, suffer and even die for the beautiful truths of the faith.  John described them as pivotal events in his life, saying that after learning about his faith in this manner, he felt “a spark of fire leave the wounded side of the Crucified and enter [my] own heart” and that from then on, he joyfully felt called to martyrdom.

Work for Unifying the Church

John spent his childhood and teenage years studying at a school at Volodymyr, there studying Church Slavonic (the language used throughout the Eastern Rite) and memorizing most of the Horologion, which provides the fixed portions used throughout the Eastern Rite services.  John carried this religious education with him even as he was sent to be apprenticed to a merchant in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was here that he met several men who were influential in his desire to commit himself completely to Catholicism. In 1604, seemingly prompted by such meetings, John entered the Monastery of the Trinity in Vilnius, and took the religious name Josaphat.  At this monastery, his holiness was apparent to many. He worked to revitalize Eastern monastic life, increase devotion to the Blessed Mother, increase the number of novices in his monastery and preserve Church traditions.   

He also worked to support the unity of the Eastern Rite under the Pope in Rome, compiling texts from Eastern Fathers and Doctors and titling this “A Defense of Church Unity.”  The situation in the Catholic Church at this particular time was somewhat complex. In 1595, bishops who lived within the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth had held a Ruthenian Synod and voted to unite themselves with Rome under Pope Clement VIII.  Three years later, bishops had signed the Union of Brest, which allowed them to retain their Eastern Rites while in communion with Rome. Although many in Vilnius had opposed this unification, John embraced it and made his profession of faith, and it was at this time that he entered the monastery.  Others, however, stood staunchly in opposition, fearing that their beautiful Byzantine liturgies would be Latinized and thus erased.

Upon being ordained an archbishop, Josaphat continued in his efforts to support the unification of the Eastern and Latin rites as well as revive the presence of Catholicism among the people he encountered.  His efforts in this tumultuous time, where many Eastern Rite members still strongly opposed unification with Rome, caused him to be slandered and treated with hostility. Eventually, in 1623, while Josaphat was visiting what is now Belarus, a mob against the union broke into the place where he was staying. Josaphat bravely met the men and demanded that they take their anger out on no one but Josaphat himself.  Two schismatics then brutally murdered Josaphat and desecrated his body. He was only forty-five years old.  

St. Josaphat’s Legacy

Josaphat’s martyrdom in many ways helped to accomplish what he had strived for in his life.  Thousands of Eastern Rite members returned to the Catholic faith after his death, even Orthodox Bishop Meletius Smotrytsky, who had been one of Josaphat’s primary opponents in his efforts to support the union with Rome.  Thus, in his martyrdom, Josaphat not only helped to accomplish his goal of uniting more members of the Eastern Rite with Rome, but fulfilled his childhood image of embracing the cross of Christ Crucified in martyrdom. St. Josaphat was canonized in 1867.

There are numerous things we can learn from the life and martyrdom of St. Josaphat.  The first thing that is evident is his unwillingness to live a dull and ordinary Christian life.  Throughout his time on earth, he constantly sought to infuse his Catholicism with vitality and holy fervor, never wanting to settle for the ordinary faith that he saw was prevalent in the Church at the time.  Many of the people that he encountered in his time in both the monastery and as their leader as archbishop were content to settle for an easy faith, one that did not interfere much with their daily life.  

Modeling Our Lives After St. Josaphat’s

St. Josaphat sought to change this, and mold his own Catholic faith and the faith of others into something that was a driving force of life rather than a detraction from it.  He committed to this task fearlessly, facing unpopularity and open hostility from those who were upset by the changes he was seeking to make. From these actions of St. Josaphat, we can learn what it means to truly be committed to living our faith well.  In our modern world, it is often not a popular or well-received decision to live out the enduring teachings of the Catholic Church and espouse its beliefs in our daily lives. There are many who accuse contemporary Catholics of a number of things, such as a lack of compassion or an unwillingness to see that the world has changed since the time of Jesus.  We can look to the actions of St. Josaphat to direct us as we seek to uphold our faith always, especially in times that may be turbulent or inhospitable to faithful and traditional Catholics.

Another lesson we may learn from studying the life of St. Josaphat is the importance of upholding the unity of the Church throughout difficult times.  Although we do not face the same types of issues as St. Josaphat (namely the unification of the Eastern Rite with Catholicism), as members of the Church Militant we still face division within the Church itself.  After learning about St. Josaphat, we can contemplate the meaning of the Church here on earth, and always seek to preserve its goodness and integrity especially in the face of trial. This does not mean blind acceptance of all church leaders or acting out of ignorance, as some might suggest, but rather signifies an effort to integrate the teachings we know to be true with the specific difficulties we may encounter in modern times.  

Like St. Josaphat, may we always hold fast to the teachings of our faith, work to make the Church on earth flourish and unite our sufferings to those of Christ Crucified.  St. Josaphat, pray for us!