Today is the feast day of Saint Josaphat. Ora pro nobis.
Born in 1584 in Vladimir, a city of ancient Poland, Saint Josaphat was the son of Gabriel Kuncewicz. His was a family of honorable Christians of the Greco-Slavic rite, in use among the Russians. His mother took care to raise him in the fear of God, and in his tender heart formed the first longings for virtue.
from the Liturgical Year, 1901
Josaphat Kuncewicz, contemporary with St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul, might have been taken for a Greek monk of the eleventh century, or an ascetic of the Thebaid. A stranger to the intellectual culture of the West, he knew only the liturgical books and sacred texts used in his own church; as a priest, an archimandrite, a reformer of his Order of St. Basil, and lastly as Archbishop, he combated all his life against the consequences of the schism of Photius, and closed the struggle by culling the palm of martyrdom.
Immediately after the Mongolian invasions, Poland received into her arms, rather than conquered, the Ruthenian nation, that is to say the Slavs of the Greek rite from the Dnieper and the Dwina, who had formed around their capital and religious metropolis, Kiev, the nucleus of the power now known as Russia. The union of the new-comers with the Roman Pontiff, which a little more political insight and religious zeal might have brought about in the fourteenth century, was not concluded until 1595. This was the union of Brzesc. By the compact signed in this little town of Lithuania, the metropolitan of Kiev and the other Greek bishops declared that they returned to the communion of the holy Apostolic See. Being the spiritual superiors of half the nation, they thus completed the union of the three peoples, Ruthenian, Lithuanian, and Polish, then subject to Sigismund III. Now, a religious reform, even if decreed by a council, does not become a reality until men of God, true apostles, and if need be martyrs, come forward to consummate it. This was the vocation of St. Josaphat, the apostle and martyr of the Union of Brzesc. What he did not himself carry out was completed by his disciples. A century of glory was secured to the nation, and its political ruin was delayed for two hundred years.
But Poland left in a state of humiliating inferiority the clergy and people of the Graeco-Slavonic rite, who had taken shelter in her bosom; her politicians never admitted practically that Christians of the Greek rite could be true Catholics, on an equality with their Latin brethren. Soon, however, the Latin Poles were engaged in deadly combat with the Muscovites, and we know how the former were vanquished. Historians lay down the causes of Poland’s defeat; but they usually forget the principal one, which rendered it irremediable, viz: the almost total destruction of the Union of Brzeso, the forced return to schism of the immense majority of the Ruthenians whom St. Josaphat had brought into the Catholic Church. The consummation of this execrable work contributed, far more than political circumstances or military triumphs, to establish Russia’s victory. Poland, reduced to nine or ten million Latins, could no longer struggle against her former rival now become her stern ruler.
The power of the Slavs separated from Catholic unity is on the increase. Young nations, emancipated from the Mussulman yoke, have formed in the Balkan Peninsula. Fidelity to the Gaseco-Slavonian rite, identified in their eyes with their nationality and with Christianity, was alone able to save these peoples from being stamped out by the Turkish forces. Victorious over the universal enemy, they cannot forget whence came their safety: the moral and religious direction of these resuscitated nations belongs accordingly to Russia. Profiting of these advantages with consummate skill and energy, she continues to develop her influence in the East. In Asia her progress is still more prodigious. The Czar, who at the end of the eighteenth century ruled over thirty million men, now governs one hundred and twenty-five millions; and by the normal increase of an exceptionally prolific population, the Empire, within another half century, will reckon more than two hundred millions of subjects.
Unhappily for Russia and for the Church, this power is guided at present by blind prejudice. Not only is Russia separated from Catholic unity, but political interest and the recollection of ancient strifes, convince her that her greatness depends upon the triumph of what she calls orthodoxy, which is simply the Photian schism. Yet the Roman Church, ever devoted and generous, opens wide her arms to welcome back her wandering daughter; forgetting the injuries she has received, she asks but to be greeted with the name of mother. Let this word be uttered, and a whole sad past will be effaced, Russia becoming Catholic would mean an end to Islamism, and the definitive triumph of the Cross upon the Bosphorus, without any danger to Europe; the Christian empire in the East restored with a glory and a power hitherto unknown; Asia evangelized, not by a few poor isolated priests, but with the help of an authority greater than that of Charlemagne; and lastly, the Slavonic race brought into unity of faith and aspirations, for its own greater glory. This transformation will be the greatest event of the century that shall see its accomplishment; it will change the face of the world.
Is there any foundation for such hopes? Come what may, St. Josaphat will always be the patron and model of future apostles of the Union in Russia, and in the whole Graeco-Slavonic world. By his birth, education, and studies, by the bent of his piety and all his habits of life, he resembled far more the Russian monks of the present day, than the Latin prelates of his own time. He always desired the ancient Liturgy of his Church to be preserved entire; and even to his last breath he carried it out lovingly, without the least alteration or diminution, just as the first apostles of the Christian faith had brought it from Constantinople to Kiev. May prejudices born of ignorance be obliterated; and then, despised though his name now is in Russia, St. Josaphat will no sooner be known, than he will be loved and invoked by the Russians themselves. Our Graeco-Slavonian brethren cannot much longer turn a deaf ear to the invitations of the Sovereign Pontiff. Let us hope, then, that the day will come, and that before very long, when the wall of separation will crumble away for ever, and the same hymn of thanksgiving will echo at once under the dome of ‘St. Peter’s and the cupolas of Kiev and of St. Petersburg.
The great progress made by the Catholic faith so stirred, up the hatred of wicked men against the soldier of Christ, that they determined to put him to death. He knew what was threatening him; and foretold it when preaching to the people. As he was making his pastoral visitation at Vitebsk, the murderers broke into his house, striking and wounding all whom they found. Josaphat meekly went to meet them, and accosted them kindly, saying: My little children, why do you strike my servants? If you have any complaint against me, here I am. Hereupon they rushed on him, overwhelmed him with blows, pierced him with their spears, and at length despatched him with an axe and threw his body into the river. This took place on the twelfth of November 1623, in the forty-third year of his age. His body surrounded with a miraculous light was rescued from the waters. The martyr’s blood won a blessing first of all for his murderers; for, being condemned to death, they nearly all abjured their schism and repented of their crime. As the death of this great bishop was followed by many miracles, Pope Urban VIII. granted him the honors of beatification. On the third of the Calends of July, 1867, when celebrating the centenary of the Princes of the Apostles, Pius IX. in the basilica, in presence of the College of Cardinals, and of about five hundred Patri, Metropolitans, and Bishops of every rite bled from all parts of the world, solemnly enrolled among the Saints this great defender of the Church’s unity, who was the first Oriental to be thus honored. Pope Leo XIII. extended his Mass and Office to the universal Church. (1)