Saint Josaphat: Martyr for Peace and Unity

The world we live in now is so full of division; we see this most painfully in former Christendom (Western and Eastern), with so many different denominations of Christianity, especially with the continuing divorce of the Eastern Orthodox with the Catholic Church. We can also see this with matters not directly related to the affairs of the Church, particularly now with the tension between Ukraine and Russia. It is important in times like these to turn to saints who fought for unity within the Church and strove to bring God’s peace to the world. One saint who emulated these qualities during his life was Saint Josaphat, a bishop-martyr who is praised as the patron saint of unity between Catholics and Orthodox, as he dedicated his life to bringing harmony to the Church during a time of great discord.

Saint Josaphat is thought to have been born between 1580 and 1584. He grew up during a turbulent period of Church history, as the Union of Brest took place in 1595-96. This union brought a number of the Orthodox back into communion with the Church of Rome. It is because of the Union of Brest that there are Eastern Rites within the Catholic Church, such as Ukrainian Rite and the Ruthenian Rite. (Other “uniate,” sui juris Eastern Churches would come into Communion with the Catholic Church at different times and in different places.) Many assumed that the Union of Brest would result in peace, but it brought about the opposite; many Orthodox did not intend to become Catholic, and the resulting tensions engendered civil unrest, especially Poland and Lithuania (whose borders looked very different at that time than they do now). We should note that Ukraine did not at that time exist as a distinct nation-state. Its current territory was part of other nations.

Saint Josaphat was set to live a life many men could only dream of having: he apprenticed under a merchant, was offered a partnership in a business, and had a potential spouse. However, in 1604, he pursued a higher calling and entered a Basilian monastery named after the Holy Trinity in Vilnius, which is the capital of Lithuania. It was a great joy to Josaphat when his close friend, Joseph Rutsky entered this same monastery. Together Josaphat and Rutsky sought to bring reform to Eastern monastic life. Josaphat, a deacon at the time, primarily did this through his example of love for others and performing the rituals of the Eastern Churches, as well as teaching the other monks the music of the Church, while Rutsky, a priest, offered Divine Liturgy often and served as the spiritual father of the monks. It was not long before Rutsky was appointed archimandrite (abbot or superior) of Holy Trinity Monastery.

In 1609, Josaphat was ordained a priest. Within a couple of years of his ordination, Rutsky, being his superior, appointed Josaphat to be the hegumen (local superior) of Holy Trinity Monastery. In 1613, the Metropolitan Archbishop passed away, and Rutsky was elected to succeed him, leaving the position of archimandrite open; it was offered, as could be expected, to Josaphat. Out of his great humility, Josaphat originally declined the position, but Rutsky, knowing the great holiness of his friend, ordered him to accept it. Even though this new responsibility required much from Josaphat, he remained the spiritual director, confessor, and preacher to the other monks, on top of his regular duties as a priest and monk.

In 1617, the archeparchy (archdiocese) of Polotsk was in a sad state and in need of a new archbishop. Rutsky, being the Metropolitan, felt that Josaphat was the most suitable person for this position. Hearing about Rutsky’s potential decision, Josaphat was greatly distraught, as he humbly saw himself as unworthy and incapable of fulfilling the duties such an office would entail. He spent considerable time fasting and praying, asking to be spared this great authority. When Rutsky officially asked him to fill the office, Josaphat cried and pleaded that he pick someone else, but Rutsky, again recognizing the sanctity and capabilities of his friend, commanded that he take the office under threat of disobedience. After Josaphat’s installation and consecration as archbishop, those who knew of his great holiness rejoiced, but those who hated his sanctity became infuriated. Even as an archbishop, Josaphat still remained humble, as he did during his time in the monastery, performing penances such as living in a cell, wearing a hairshirt and his habit, and eating plain food. Unlike many archbishops, Josaphat was directly involved with the souls of his eparchy.

During his time as an archbishop, the tension between the Catholics and the Orthodox grew tremendously. Josaphat patiently dealt with the riots and uprisings that his dissidents caused, and was known to have shown love to each man he encountered, even if that man was his enemy. He prayed that there would be peace within his archeparchy. During these times, his dissenters tried to kill him on several occasions, but failed. However, they succeeded in killing some of the priests and deacons under his care; through these hard times, Josaphat prayed and trusted in God. In November of 1623, while Josaphat was making a pastoral visit to Vitebsk, the conspirators were finally successful. While Josaphat was in his house, a group of attackers broke in and were beating his servants. Out of his love and compassion for his servants, he asked that the attackers beat him instead, which they did. After beating him, they took him out to the courtyard, shot him, and, even after he was dead, they continued to beat his body.

Josaphat is commemorated on November 12, his feast day, in the Ukrainian Catholic Rite with beautiful prayers, especially during Vespers, one being: “O great martyr Josaphat, in chastity you yearned for an honorable life. You worshiped Christ the Almighty, and you led the people into union with Him by your precious words and by His grace. You washed yourself with the blood of martyrdom, O blessed one of God.” Though this prayer addresses several virtues which Josaphat showed in his life, it only begins to demonstrate how saintly he was.

Although there are many saints who fought for the unity of the Church, Saint Josaphat is one who should especially be invoked during these times of division and war as he died fighting for a cause very similar to the one we ought to be fighting for today. As Pope Pius XI taught us clearly, we can only have the peace of Chirst in the Kingdom of Christ, and that Kingdom is the Catholic Church — for whose precious unity Saint Josaphat lived, prayed, labored, and died.

Saint Josaphat, pray for us!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Sources used:

Wysochansky, Demetrius E. St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, Apostle of Church Unity. Detroit: Basilian Fathers Publications, 1987.

Maluf, Br. Francis. “Two Patrons for True Ecumenism.”, May 23, 2005.

“November 12: The Holy Priest-Martyr Josaphat, Archbishop of Polotsk.” Edmonton Eparchy, November 8, 2022.