November 11, 2016

Memorial of Saint Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr

St. Josaphat
On November 12th, the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Josaphat, (1584-1623) the 17th century Orthodox monk, archbishop and martyr of the Ruthenian rite, (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) who died seeking unity with Rome. He was born, Josaphat Kuntsevych, in Vladimir, a city in ancient Poland (now the Ukraine). At the time of his birth, the Ruthenian Church was nominally unified. St. Josaphat was the first saint of the Eastern Church to be formally canonized by Rome.

His father, Gabriel Kuntsevych held the office of town-councilor. His mother raised him to fear God and instilled in his heart the first longings for virtue. Josaphat was never frivolous, but often separated from the games of his childhood companions to pray. Possessing an intellectually curious mind, he made excellent progress in his studies. From his youth, he recited the Divine Office which he learned by heart. Owing to his parent’s poverty, Kuntsevych apprenticed under a merchant named Papovič in Vilnius. There, Josaphat became acquainted with figures such as Josyf Veliamyn Rutsky, a Calvinist convert to the Latin Church who joined the Byzantine Rite, and became the Metropolitan of Kiev.

Josaphat entered the Holy Trinity Byzantine monastery in 1604. Joseph Velamin Rutsky, the archimandrite (superior abbot) of the monastery, observed that Josaphat "in a short time made such progress in the monastic life that he could have become the master of the other monks." A decade later, Josaphat was elected Catholic archbishop of Polotsk in 1614. He devoted his life to promoting unity under the Pope of Rome in a nation divided between Orthodox and Catholic. While firmly advancing unity with Rome, he staunchly opposed those who saw unity only in Latin terms and would suppress Byzantine traditions in the service of Catholic unification. He labored against the Latinization of his people and made powerful enemies and severe critics among the Latin clergy of Poland.

In 1617, at the age of 38, he became the Archbishop of Polotsk , on the very day when, six years later, he would earn the crown of martyrdom (November 12th). He rebuilt five major cathedrals and several lesser ones; he assisted the poor and the sick, often denying himself to do so. He maintained total frugality in his personal effects; he returned certain properties taken unjustly by powerful lords in the region, through his efforts in the law courts, to which he had recourse.

Josaphat was convinced that he would be martyred, and spoke of it often. A few days before his death when appraised of threats against him, he exclaimed: "Lord, grant me the grace to shed my blood for the unity of the church and in behalf of obedience to the Holy See." On Sunday, November 12, 1623, while visiting the city of Vitebsk, his enemies attacked his lodging crying, "Kill the papist!". Josaphat implored them, following the example of our Lord, not to harm the members of his household, then gave himself over into their hands. He was killed in a most horrific manner. Despite his grievous wounds he continued until his dying breath to beg God's pardon for his murderers. His body was thrown into the river, but emerged, emitting rays of light. (His remains now rest in St. Peter's Basilica.) His murderers repented their crime and became Catholics. Summon in your Church, we pray, O Lord, the Spirit that filled Saint Josaphat as he laid down his life for the sheep, so that through his intercession we may be strengthened by the same Spirit and not be reluctant or afraid to lay down our life for others.

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