When Fire Enters the Heart: The Life of St. Josaphat

Josh Florence

When Fire Enters the Heart: The Life of St. Josaphat

My family, like many families, makes a point to get together once a year to reestablish connections. This past summer my wife, Mary Catherine, was able to meet my extended family for the first time during the annual reunion. Anytime I am able to go home for a reunion it is always a time of reflection and thanksgiving. I give thanks for everyone I get a chance to reacquaint myself with and the memories shared. I also reflect on how different we all are in my family. Yet, we share a common story, a common origin through my grandparents, and a common home.

Within the Catholic Church, the common home has been found, geographically speaking, in Rome. The bishop of Rome, traditionally, has been the visible head of the universal Church going back to the time of St. Peter and his martyrdom in Rome. Amidst all that makes us different around the world, this is a major part of the Church’s shared story.

St. Josaphat, bishop and martyr, understood the importance of reunion and remembering our shared story with Rome. When St. Josaphat was born, the church in Ukraine, at this point in time, was in schism, or separated, from the Pope in Rome. Drastically oversimplifying Ukrainian history, the Ukrainian church’s union with Rome had been in flux ever since The Great Schism of 1054, which first separated the Catholic Church in Rome with the Eastern Orthodox church of Constantinople. (If you would like to know more about the Ukrainian Church in greater detail, I highly recommend reading Life Of St. Josaphat: Martyr of the Union by Theodosia Boresky).

St. Josaphat was born in present-day western Ukraine in 1580 to christian parents who taught him from an early age how to pray1. One of the earliest callings St. Josaphat had to the Lord was when he was a child and was visiting the church of St. Parasceve with his mother. While looking at the crucifix, St. Josaphat later commented that “I saw a spark of fire leave the side of our Lord and enter my heart. I was suddenly overwhelmed by such an abundance of sweetness and love that I stood very still, seeing and hearing nothing, and from that moment on such a great love was born in me for the Savior of mankind . . .”2

This moment would lead to a life filled with grace. In his adolescence he was sent away from home to work for a wealthy cloth merchant, Yakinta Popovich, in Vilna (Vilnius), the capital of Lithuania. Even though he was a young man, St. Josaphat was given many graces and did not succumb to the temptations a large city can provide. He spent his free time either in reading about the lives of the saints or in prayer.3

While he was living in Vilna, a small group of Ukrainian bishops decided to pledge allegiance to Rome in 15964. The political authorities were not pleased with the bishops’ decision since they were not consulted on the matter. In retaliation, agents were sent throughout Ukraine to incite upheaval amongst the people in the name of religious liberty. Unfortunately, this led to a breakdown of respect for any authority figure.5 

Suddenly, young St. Josaphat found himself in the middle of a confusing tempest of political and religious unrest. Remembering who held true authority over him, he decided he would pray to God about what his next course of action would be. Should he join those Uniates, who were joining the Latin Church of Rome, or the Schismatics?

St. Josaphat got down on his knees in front of an image of our crucified Lord and earnestly asked Him. Immediately, he was given such clear conviction that he should join the Uniates that he began to proclaim the words from Psalm 24 “Show me Thy ways, O Lord; teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me: for Thou art the God of my salvation: on Thee I wait all the day.”6

He was so sure of his mission, to serve Christ’s church in union with the Church of Rome, that he decided to become a monk. His employer, Popovich, did everything he could to try to dissuade him. He offered his only daughter to him for marriage and all of his possessions. St. Josaphat, having found his calling from God, would reject Popovich’s offer.7

With time he became a monk, then a priest, and eventually bishop of Polotsk, in present-day Belarus. During his time as bishop, he reorganized his diocese so that the faithful may be better catechized and led an example of a holy life for his priests and the laity he served. Even though he was a holy man there were still plenty of people in the places he served who loathed him because he swore fidelity to the Church of Rome.

While visiting the city of Vitebsk a plot began to take place for St. Josaphat’s murder. A schismatic priest by the name of Ilian, took up position outside of the place where Josaphat was staying. Ilian would hurl all kinds of rebukes against the bishop, in an attempt to goad him to retaliate. Josaphat responded with patience to Ilian, however after a day or so of this treatment, Josaphat’s servants retaliated against Ilian and locked him in the kitchen of their residence.

Another man, seeing what was done to Ilian, ran to gather the people of the town. Suddenly, an angry mob appeared at the Archbishop’s residence. The angry mob began to assault St. Josaphat’s servants but suddenly St. Josaphat courageously appeared and said “My children, why do you kill innocent servants? Let not any man slavishly mutter against me in the corner but come out into the open boldly to convict me. If you have anything against me, here I am!”8

Soon the mob was upon him and killed him with mallets, axes, and gunshots. He was the only one who lost his life that day, it was November 12th, 1612. His servants, though beaten, would all survive the ordeal. As soon as the next day, miracles began to take place throughout the region. The holiness of St. Josaphat was made known to the masses through these extraordinary works of God.  

Even within a couple of days of his death, thousands of Schismatics sought to join the Roman Catholic Church9. Even one of the main organizers of the murder plot, John Khodiha, later said, “God wanted to show through me, that Josaphat could convert after his death those who had refused to listen to the words of their shepherd, while he lived.”10

We can take much from the witness of St. Josaphat’s life. We live in a world where people are easily overcome by their passions. We can name plenty of times throughout the past few years where angry, dissatisfied groups of people have let their passions rule them. Seeing these moments time and time again, be they politically charged or otherwise, can lead us to feel confused or scared about our what to do next.

When we have these feelings, we can look to St. Josaphat for an example. When he was confronted with uncertainty in his time, he got down on his knees and asked the Lord what His will was. He surrendered to His will because, at the end of the day, St. Josaphat knew where true authority and power was to be found. May we ask in a special way this November 12th , St. Josaphat’s feast day, to unite our hearts, our families, and our communities with Our Lord’s Sacred Heart.