St. Josaphat, Martyr for Church Unity

May 30th, 2010 by admin

St. Josaphat

The Ukrainian Catholic Church has a particular reverence for Saint Josaphat, archbishop of Polotsk, who gave his life in 1623 as a witness to the importance of Church unity. The Orthodox Churches of the East had been in schism with Rome since the year 1054. A major attempt at reunion in 1439 had ended in failure, and the future of the reunion of Brest-Litovsk (1596) seemed uncertain at best.

The problem lay in the fact that the decision to return to communion with the Church of Rome was made by the bishops, who for the most part lacked an understanding of how the people would feel about it. In fact, millions of Christian faithful were affected by this decision, yet most had little or no idea of what it meant. They did know, however, that it went against what they had always been taught, namely that as good Orthodox Christians they should want nothing to do with Rome. This caused many—priests and laypeople alike—to reject this newly formed union openly, and eventually it led to violence. People on both sides fought and died for what they understood to be the true Church, much the way Catholics and Protestants had been doing in the West. In the midst of all this confusion and bitterness, Josaphat stood as a voice of Christian peace.

Josaphat had given up a promising career to enter the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Vilna in 1604. He had, in fact, taken a great interest in the issues raised by the Union of Brest-Litovsk, and come to the conclusion that two things—judged by many to be incompatible—were in reality essential: union with Rome and adherence to the Byzantine tradition. Based on this conclusion, he decided to dedicate his entire life to God and become an apostle for the Union—a decision from which he never wavered. While in the monastery he found a soulmate in Joseph Benjamin Rutsky, a convert from Calvinism, who had become an Eastern Catholic under orders of Pope Clement VIII. Rutsky shared Josaphat’s vision of a united Church, and the two young monks spent long hours discussing their thoughts and ideas of what could be done to bring about that communion, along with a reformed monastic life.

Shortly after their ordination to the priesthood, Josaphat was sent to establish new Byzantine Monasteries at Byten and Zyrowice in Poland, while Rutsky was made archimandrite (abbot) at Vilna. After a few more years, Rutsky was raised to metropolitan of Kiev, and Josaphat succeeded him as archimandrite. It was at this time that Josaphat first learned how difficult it can be to bring about a true reform. He was seeking to impose a high level of monastic discipline, and many of the monks were less than eager to comply. When one group of monks actually threatened to throw him into the river, however, Josaphat began to realize that a new approach was in order. Any reform that was imposed without a spirit of Christian charity and a genuine compassion for the monks who had to live it was doomed to failure. Working from that perspective, Josaphat was able to work out a compromise with the monks, and some of his proposed changes were put into practice.

That lesson became even more important for him when he became archbishop of Polotsk in 1617. The Church there was falling apart both figuratively and literally, with buildings in disrepair and priests showing little interest in caring for the faithful. Tempering his zeal with compassion and patience, Josaphat was able to bring about a remarkable change in just three years. He held synods, published a new catechism, and enforced rules of conduct for the clergy. His most effective tool for change, however, was the example of his own life, which he spent preaching, educating people in the faith and visiting the needy.

At this point a new challenge arose: the Orthodox separatists had succeeded in having new bishops installed who rejected the Union, so that everywhere there was a bishop in union with Rome, there would be another bishop who was not. A rival archbishop was installed in Polotsk, and he immediately declared Josaphat to be the imposter. Many of the same priests and people for whom Josaphat had worked so zealously were now siding against him, and in the city of Mogilev a church was forcibly taken over by the separatists. This last event prompted Josaphat to make a decision he would later regret: he asked the civil authorities to intervene and help him restore the church to his authority. The action gave rise to many stories of Josaphat sending soldiers to drive the Orthodox faithful from their churches in order to claim them for the Pope, and support for Josaphat diminished still further. At this point, the King of Poland declared Josaphat to be the only legitimate archbishop, and the people responded by breaking into a riot.

Josaphat’s troubles were compounded by hostility coming from the opposite direction. The very Catholics to whom he looked for communion and support began to oppose him. A number of influential Catholics had previously criticized him for his insistence on the use of the Byzantine rite instead of the Roman rite. Now some of these were openly condemning Josaphat, choosing to believe the stories about his advocating violence, while others merely declined to speak out in his defense. In the face of all this opposition, Josaphat continued to be a spokesman for peace and unity.

In October 1623, Josaphat decided to travel in person to Vitebsk, which had become the focal point of the conflict. He was completely aware of the danger, but could not sit idly by while Christians continued to engage in violence against one another. He said, “If I am counted worthy of martyrdom, then I am not afraid to die.” In Vitebsk, he went about preaching his message of peace and unity, but was only able to calm the crowds for a short time. Death threats were made against him daily, and soon enough they were carried out. On 12 November, a mob succeeded in breaking into the house where he was staying, and began beating the servants and anyone else they could find. Josaphat cried out to them, “My children what are you doing? If you have anything against me, here I am, but leave these people alone!” With shouts of “Kill the papist,” the crowd advanced on Josaphat, hitting him with sticks, then an axe, and finally shooting him through the head. They dragged his body to the Dvina river and threw it into the water. 

The effect of violence is often the opposite of that which was intended, and such was the case with the death of Saint Josaphat. Sobered by the archbishop’s death and horrified at how far the violence had gone, people began taking Josaphat’s message of unity to heart. Priests and bishops began openly declaring their loyalty to the Pope, and the doomed Union of Brest-Litovsk took on a new life. Eventually even Archbishop Meletius Smotritsky, Josaphat’s rival, was reconciled with Rome. Josaphat’s memory was kept alive as well, until finally in 1867 he became the first saint of the Eastern Church to be formally canonized by Rome. 

The story of Saint Josaphat would not be complete, however, without a word of praise for the Jewish people of Vitebsk. Not influenced by the rhetoric and the debates over who were the true Christians, they saw Josaphat simply as a righteous man, and were not afraid to show their support for him. Some Jews even went so far as to risk their own lives, rushing into the courtyard to rescue Josaphat’s friends and servants from the ruthless mob. Through their courage, lives were saved. These same Jewish people were the only ones to publicly accuse the killers and mourn the death of Josaphat, while the Catholics of the city hid in fear for their lives.

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