Saint Josaphat, pray for us! | National Catholic Registry



Although honored in the Roman calendar with a mandatory memorial, Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych (c. 1580-1623) may not be well known to many American Catholics. Given Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, it is time to address it.

Before we talk about him, take a look at this map, which shows something of Poland’s borders in Jehoshaphat’s time superimposed on a map of Europe today. Jehoshaphat was killed in the northeast quadrant of what, on the current map, is Belarus. As the map shows, much of the region that today is made up of five separate countries – Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia – was united under the Polish-Lithuanian crown. .

Josaphat was born in Volodymyr, now a town in western Ukraine not far from the present eastern border of Poland, to an Orthodox family. The young man showed talent by learning to read Church Slavonic. He received most of his religious education from the breviary which he could now read, as the local Orthodox clergy rarely preached.

His parents sent him to Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, as an apprentice to a merchant. In Vilnius he met a former Calvinist, Josyf Rutsky, who had converted to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church. This meeting will put Jehoshaphat on his way.

The 1500s and 1600s were a time of religious dislocation in Europe. By 1600 the German principalities would be in the Thirty Years’ War, England would have gone through three versions of the “Reformation” and a Counter-Reformation, and was preparing for the upheaval of Scottish Presbyterianism in the form of Puritanism which would lead to war English civilian.

In contrast, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was, as historian Janusz Tazbir described it, “a state without stakes”. Religious tolerance existed in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and many sought refuge there from religious strife elsewhere in Europe. The Commonwealth itself was religiously and ethnically diverse: Poland and Lithuania themselves were predominantly Latin Rite Catholics, but further east one went to Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian regions, Orthodoxy predominant. Protestantism – particularly Calvinism – gained a slight foothold among the nobility in Poland in the 16th century, but the Jesuits led an effective counter-reformation that returned most of the noble class to Catholicism. That’s probably why Jehoshaphat met a former Calvinist.

Another important historical event that remains relevant even today occurred in 1595-96: the Union of Brest. Brest was the start of a number of “Unions” which resulted in what is now called the “Greek-Catholic” Church.

What is that? Well, it’s a Catholic “rite” within the Catholic Church. In Brest, a number of Orthodox bishops agreed to leave the Orthodox Church and recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as head of the whole Church. In return, “Greek Catholics” were allowed to keep Eastern liturgies to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. “Greek Catholics” are people who worship according to the Eastern/Byzantine rites but who are in communion with the Pope.

Jehoshaphat joined the Greek Catholics and in 1604 entered the Order of Saint Basil. Rutsky soon followed him (and would eventually become Archbishop of Kyiv). Jehoshaphat was eventually ordained a priest and, in 1617, a bishop. In 1618 he became archeparch (archbishop) of Polotosk.

As archparch, he undertook many reforms to improve the quality of religious life and education for his people. At the same time, he clearly intended to establish the Greek Catholic Church on a more secure footing in relation to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox, who viewed Eastern Catholics as schismatics and heretics—Christian Samaritans—undertook passive and active resistance against them, which Jehoshaphat returned in return. Josaphat was lynched in Vitebsk, where he was beaten, bludgeoned, shot and his head cut open with an axe. Her naked body was then dragged through the wintry streets and her corpse thrown, with rocks to knock it down, into the river. His residence was looted. He was beatified in 1643, barely 20 years after his death – a record time at that time.

The martyrdom of today’s saint is depicted by the 19th-century Polish classical painter Józef Simmler (1823-1868). It is in the National Museum in Warsaw. The assassinated prelate is cradled by two of his clerks. His breviary – the book he learned to read – lies next to him. Behind him, two faithful Eastern Catholics react: a man with shame and disgust, a woman praying to heaven.

His Orthodox attackers stand in front of him with the various weapons used in his murder: an axe, a pistol, a stick. (Given the number of swords, halberds, knives and crosses we usually see in the martyrdoms of the saints, this is one of the first times we see a gun.) For a man so attacked , Simmler is extremely modest in the wounds he portrays. Jehoshaphat’s eyes are already turned to the sky, his arms almost cruciform. The otherwise dark surroundings are marked by light in the heavens. The wall panels are reminiscent of the classic Simmler orientation.

Orthodoxy has never outgrown its dependence and willingness to lean on the throne to promote the altar, which can be seen in Ukraine today, where the Moscow Patriarchate is doing everything to advance the enslavement of Russian Orthodoxy to the Russian state. Since Brest, however, whenever Orthodoxy – especially Russian Orthodoxy – has gained ascendancy, Eastern Rite Catholics have suffered severe persecution. In the USSR, for example, they were officially abolished, merged against their will into the Orthodox Church. Similar harsh repression was seen elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, producing many 20th-century martyrs, not just in Ukraine but in their time in places like Romania and Slovakia.

Greek Catholicism also has a number of opponents within the Catholic Church, particularly among the professional ecumenical class who pursue the ever-elusive promise of a “dialogue” with Russian Orthodoxy sometimes at the expense of Greek Catholics. . Eastern Catholicism is considered by some to be a “solution of the past” and an “obstacle” to ecumenical relations, as if those who choose to worship according to their liturgical tradition in communion with the successor of Saint Peter were a “problem”.

Ukraine continues to suffer from the Russian invasion. This year, let us mark the feast of Saint Josaphat with a prayer for peace and the people of Ukraine, especially those who follow their conscience in Rome.

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