Reading stories of amazing heroes both inspires and humbles me.
Today, on the feast of St. Josaphat, bishop and martyr, I fell in love with this amazing saint who bravely gave his life for unity.
His story resounds in me today, because I feel the pain of disunity.
I can see and I can feel the effects of Satan's attempts to destroy the family and the Church with his lies against unity.
Most of us don’t have to look far to feel these effects ... because we experience disunity within our family, or in the families around us…
If not in our families, then in our communities, parishes, our nation, in the Church, and throughout the world…
And as the media spews fear and division surrounding the Holy Father and the Synod on the Family, we feel the effects of Satan's lies against this great source of unity that all Christians are meant to possess in and through the primacy of St. Peter.
It was for this unity with the successor of Peter that St. Josaphat gave his life.
So, who was Josaphat and why does the Church remember him as a Saint?
Josaphat was born in what is now known as the Ukraine in 1580. He was pious even as a youth and became an exemplary priest, whose favorite devotion was to make a poklony (i.e. a reverence, in which the head touches the ground) while praying: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner."
Never eating meat, he fasted much, wore a hair-shirt and an angular chain, slept on the bare floor, and chastised his body until the blood flowed.He offered these prayers and sacrifices for souls and for Church unity!
When his words failed to convert souls, his entreaties and tears would often soften and convert hearts.
As deacon, priest, and bishop, he was distinguished by his extraordinary zeal in the service of souls. Not alone in the church did he preach and hear confessions, but likewise in the fields, hospitals, prisons, and even on his journeys.
This zeal, united with his kindness and extraordinary love for the poor, won numbers to the Catholic Faith. Among his converts were included many important personages such as Ignatius, Patriarch of Moscow, and Emmanuel Cantacuzenus, who belonged to the family of the Greek Emperor Palæologus.As archbishop he restored the churches; issued a catechism to the clergy with instructions that it should be learned by heart; composed rules for the priestly life, entrusting to the deacons the task of superintending their observance; assembled synods in various towns in the dioceses. Throughout all his strivings and all his occupations, he continued his exemplary life as a religious, and never abated his zeal for self-mortification and prayer.While he was a teenager, he was shaped and inspired by the Synod of Brest, which took place from 1595-96. The synod sought to repair the split of schism that occurred in 1054 between the Eastern Church and Rome. During this synod:
an Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev and five Orthodox bishops decided to commit the millions of Christians under their pastoral care to reunion with Rome. Many disagreed with the bishops decision to reunite with Rome.This great move toward unity led to martyrs dying on both sides of the controversy, including Josaphat.
Josaphat entered the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Vilna in 1604. In the monastery he found a soulmate in Joseph Benjamin Rutsky, who had joined the Byzantine Rite under orders of Pope Clement VIII after converting from Calvinism. They both shared the same passion to work for reunion with Rome. The two friends spent long hours making plans on how they could bring about that communion and reform monastic life.When Josaphat was sent to found new houses in Rome, Rutsky was made abbot at Vilna.
Josaphat, later, replaced Rutsky as abbot when Rutsky became metropolitan of Kiev. As abbot, Josaphat immediately put into practice his early plans of reform.
Because his plans tended to reflect his own extremely austere ascetic tendencies, he was not always met with joy. One community threatened to throw him into the river until his general compassion and his convincing words won them over to a few changes.
Josaphat faced even more problems when he became first bishop of Vitebsk and then Polotsk in 1617. The church there was literally and figuratively in ruins with buildings falling apart, clergy marrying two or three times, and monks and clergy everywhere not really interested in pastoral care or model Christian living. Within three years, Josaphat had rebuilt the church by holding synods, publishing a catechism to be used all over, and enforcing rules of conduct for clergy. But his most compelling argument was his own life which he spent preaching, instructing others in the faith, visiting the needy of the towns.
But despite all his work and the respect he had, the Orthodox set up their own bishops in his sees. Meletius Smotritsky was named his rival archbishop of Polotsk. It must have hurt Josaphat to see the people he had served so faithfully break into riots when the King of Poland declared Josaphat the only legitimate archbishop. His former diocese of Vitebsk turned completely against the reunion and him along with two other cities.
But what probably hurt even more was that the very Catholics he looked to for communion opposed him as well. Catholics who should have been his support didn't like the way he insisted on the use of the Byzantine rite instead of the Roman rite. Out of fear or ignorance, Leo Sapiah, chancellor of Lithuania, chose to believe stories that Josaphat was inciting the people to violence and instead of coming to his aid, condemned him. Actually his only act of force was when the separatists took over the church at Mogilev and he asked the civil power to help him return it to his authority.
In October 1623, Josaphat decided to return to Vitebsk to try to calm the troubles himself. He was completely aware of the danger but said,
"If I am counted worthy of martyrdom, then I am not afraid to die."
The separatists saw their chance to get rid of Josaphat and discredit him if they could only stir Josaphat's party to strike the first blow. Then they would have an excuse to strike back. Their threats were so public that Josaphat preached on the gospel verse
John 16:2, "Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God."He told the people,
"You people want to kill me. You wait in ambush for me in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways, in the marketplace, everywhere. Here I am; I came to you as a shepherd. You know I would be happy to give my life for you. I am ready to die for union of the Church under St. Peter and his successor the Pope."
Josaphat insisted that his party not react in anyway that did not show patience and forbearance. When the separatists saw that they were not getting the violent response they had hoped for they decided to wear Josaphat and the others down as they plotted more direct action. A priest named Elias went to the house where everyone was staying and shouted insults and threats to everyone he saw, focusing on calumniating Josaphat and the Church of Rome.
Josaphat knew of the plot against him and spent his day in prayer. In the evening he had a long conversation with a beggar he had invited in off the streets.
When Elias was back the next morning of November 12, the servants were at their wits' ends and begged Josaphat's permission to do something. Before he went off to say his office he told them they could lock Elias away if he caused trouble again. When he returned to the house he found that the servants had done just that and Josaphat let Elias out of the room.
But it was too late. The mistake had been made. Elias had not been hurt in anyway but as soon as the mob saw that Elias had been locked up they rejoiced in the excuse they had been waiting for. Bells were rung and mobs descended on the house. By the time they reached the house, Elias had been released but the mob didn't care; they wanted the blood they had been denied for so long.
Josaphat came out in the courtyard to see the mob beating and trampling his friends and servants. He cried out,
"My children what are you doing with my servants? If you have anything against me, here I am, but leave them alone!"
With shouts of "Kill the papist" Josaphat was hit with a stick, then an axe, and finally shot through the head. His bloody body was dragged to the river and thrown in, along with the body of a dog who had tried to protect him.If we take time to place ourselves in St. Josaphat's shoes, imagining what it must have been like to be caught up in the such intense hatred, such intense anger...
It is amazing to consider the strength and courage he had and how, disregarding the cost, he entered into the midst of the mob, who was thirsting for his life.
What is the cause for such courage?
When I pray, I come to realize that it was his love
His love of Jesus...
His love of Jesus present in his people...
His love of Jesus present the Church...
He loved Jesus so much that he willingly suffered, unto death, to stay united with Him!
He loved Jesus so much, that he was willing to die for Him Who is present in His people!
He willingly sacrificed his life for union of the Church!
Do I love Jesus like that?
Do I love the Church like that?
Do we love Jesus like that?
Of course, his story doesn't end with his martyrdom. God can always brings good out of evil. Life out of death. Though his life seemed hopelessly spent and tragically lost in all outward appearances, his self sacrifice brought forth enormous fruit and life for the Church!
The unsung heroes of this horrible terrorism were the Jewish people of Vitebsk. Some of the Jewish people risked their own lives to rush into the courtyard and rescue Josaphat's friends and servants from the bloodthirsty mobs. 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 of their lives.
As usual violence had the opposite affect from that intended. Regret and horror at how far the violence had gone and the loss of their archbishop swung public opinion over toward the Catholics and unity. Eventually even Archbishop Meletius Smotritsky, Josaphat's rival, was reconciled with Rome. And in 1867 Josaphat became the first saint of the Eastern church to be formally canonized by Rome.
So many miracles were attributed to Josaphat, that Pope Urban VIII appointed a commission in 1628 to begin investigations into his sanctity, which included examining 116 witnesses under oath. Josaphat’s body was retrieved from the river and amazingly, even after its bloodly martyrdom, was found to be incorrupt when exhumed 5 years later! In 1643, just 20 years after his martyrdom, he was beatified, and was eventually officially recognized as a saint in 1867 by Pope Pius IX on June 29, 1867.
May we learn from St. Josaphat and honor him as a martyr for unity in "the primacy to Peter, the source and visible basis of unity for all time" as Pope Pius XI did in the Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam Dei:
Christ the Lord passed on to his apostles the task he had received from the Father: I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. He wanted the apostles as a body to be intimately bound together, first by the inner tie of the same faith and love which flows into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and, second, by the external tie of authority exercised by one apostle over the others. For this he assigned the primacy to Peter, the source and visible basis of their unity for all time. So that the unity and agreement among them would endure, God wisely stamped them, one might say, with the mark of holiness and martyrdom.
Both these distinctions fell to Josaphat, archbishop of Polock of the Slavonic rite of the Eastern Church. He is rightly looked upon as the great glory and strength of the Eastern Rite Slavs. Few have brought them greater honor or contributed more to their spiritual welfare than Josaphat, their pastor and apostle, especially when he gave his life as a martyr for the unity of the Church. He felt, in fact, that God had inspired him to restore world-wide unity to the Church and he realized that his greatest chance of success lay in preserving the Slavonic rite and Saint Basil’s rule of monastic life within the one universal Church.
Concerned mainly with seeing his own people reunited to the See of Peter, he sought out every available argument which would foster and maintain Church unity. His best arguments were drawn from liturgical books, sanctioned by the Fathers of the Church, which were in common use among Eastern Christians, including the dissidents. Thus thoroughly prepared, he set out to restore the unity of the Church. A forceful man of fine sensibilities, he met with such success that his opponents dubbed him “the thief of souls.”
May we pray to St. Josaphat, asking his intercession, to navigate the hatreds and misunderstandings that provoke disunity in our world today.
May we look to Josaphat and ask for his prayers, confidence and devotion for the successor of St. Peter, realizing that the Pope is our divine guarantee of unity.
May St. Josaphat help us to find the truth amid the false and misleading reports regarding Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family.
St. Josaphat, beacon of tireless love and hope in a world that is marked by disunity, pray for us and help us to love Jesus with the same intensity you did.
Inspire us to do all we can to stay united with Jesus, to save souls and to help foster the unity that Jesus prayed, sacrificed and longed for -- taking to heart the divine commission to make all people Jesus' disciples -- doing all we can to ensure that we fulfill the unity that Jesus prayed for the night before He died: "May they be one, Father, as I am in You and You are in Me" cf. John 17:21.
St. Josaphat, pray for us!
Copyright 2014 Janet Moore
Copyright 2014 Janet Moore