stories of amazing heroes both inspires and humbles me.
and martyr, I fell in love with this amazing saint who bravely gave his life
resounds in me today, because I feel the pain of disunity.
our families, then in our communities, parishes, our nation, in the Church, and
throughout the world…
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!
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.
When his words failed to convert souls, his entreaties and tears would often soften and convert hearts.
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
“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
“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
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
“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.
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.”
Copyright 2014 Janet Moore