This weekend we celebrate St. Josaphat's Feast Day. St. Josaphat was an Eastern Rite Bishop who was martyred in 1623 while trying to restore unity between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1054, a formal split (called a schism) took place between the Eastern Church centered in Constantinople and the Western Church centered in Rome.Trouble between the two had been brewing for centuries because of cultural, political, and theological differences. More than five centuries later, the Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev and five Orthodox bishops decided to commit the millions of Christians under their pastoral care to reunion with Rome.
Many of the Christians did not agree with the bishop's decision to return to communion with the Catholic Church and both sides tried to resolve this disagreement. Unfortunately, violence often broke out and martyrs died on both sides.
Josaphat became the first bishop of Vitebsk and then Polotsk in 1617. (Both cities are now in Belarus.) The church there was in ruins. Buildings were falling apart and the clergy were in complete disarray with many of them marrying two or three times. Within three years, Josaphat had rebuilt the church by holding synods, publishing a catechism and by enforcing rules of conduct for clergy. Josaphat was known as an excellent teacher and preacher and for spending time visiting the sick and needy of the town.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Christians who were against reunification with Rome set up their own bishops in the exact same area. Meletius Smotritsky was named his rival archbishop of Polotsk. To try to resolve the tensions this created, the King of Poland named Josaphat the only legitimate Bishop. Sadly, this lead to riots in Polotsk and Vitebsk.
Josaphat decided to return to Vitebsk to try to stop the fighting. He was aware of the danger but said, "If I am counted worthy of martyrdom, then I am not afraid to die...I am ready to die for union of the Church under St. Peter and his successor the Pope."
On November 12,1623 an Orthodox priest named Eliasstirred up a mob and went to the house where Josaphat was staying and shouted insults and threats to everyone he saw, focusing on Josaphat and the Church of Rome. Josaphat came out into 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 body was dragged to the river and thrown in.
The heroes that day 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.
Surprisingly though, the violence had the opposite effect that Elias intended. Instead of destroying support for reunification with Rome by eliminating Josaphat, 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 (just a few years before our Parish was founded) Josaphat became the first saint of the Eastern church to be formally canonized by Rome. St. Josaphat's body is on display on St. Peter's Basilica and has miraculously remained incorrupt.
Sadly, division amongst Christians and even some divisions within the Catholic Church still exist today. Let us pray through the intercession of St. Josaphat that peace and unity will be restored. May we also follow st. Josaphat's example and work towards greater unity and peace within our own community and amongst our families and friends.