St. Josaphat

(1580-1620)

Since many of the children of St. Thomas the Apostle parish have attended St. Josaphat School, one of our parishioners has suggested that I devote a “Saints Alive” column to the story of the Ukrainian archbishop and martyr.

The older of Rochester’s two Catholic Ukrainian Churches is St. Josaphat’s, on Ridge Road East. This parish is rightly proud of its patron saint. An archbishop of the Greek-Ruthenian Rite, he died in defense of the union of his people with the Holy See.

Most American Catholics belong to the Latin Rite which follows the liturgy common in the church in western Europe. But even before the Latin Rite was fully formed, there were several Catholic churches in eastern Europe, Asia and Africa that followed a somewhat different but still authentic way of offering Mass, and used other languages than Latin.

One of the tragedies of Christian history is that certain of these great churches broke off their connection with the pope during the Middle Ages. By now, there are Catholic branches of each of these fragmented communities. The Catholic branches continue their own Eastern liturgical practices, but acknowledge the Holy Father as head of the total church. But most of these Catholic branches are relatively small, and have often suffered much to maintain their union with both the Holy See and the Greek Rite.

That brings us to St. Josaphat. Christianity was introduced into Russia by St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, in 989. Since the missionaries to Kiev came from Constantinople, the type of liturgy adopted was both Greek and Slavonic. Constantinople and Ukraine at that time acknowledged the pope. The Greek Rite, in the Old Slavonic language, was used. After 1054, however, Constantinople, for political as well as religious reasons, declared its independence of the Holy See, and gradually the other Eastern Orthodox churches followed suit, especially Moscow.

Efforts were not wanting on the part of the popes and some Eastern churchmen to reestablish union with the Holy See. Thus, in 1595, the Orthodox bishop of Kiev and five other Ukrainian bishops sought official reunion with Rome. However, this partial reunion aroused great opposition on the part of the Russian Orthodox majority of the country, and much violence followed.

John Kunsevich was born in 1580 to a prominent Catholic of the city of Vladimir. A thoughtful and devout young man, John entered a monastery in 1604, taking the name Josaphat. He became noted for his holiness as a monk, and for his ability as a preacher. Since there was so much opposition to reunion with Rome, Father Josaphat devoted much of his preaching to defending Catholic unity. In 1617 he became archbishop of Polotsk. Here he struggled manfully but successfully to bring about a reform among his clergy and laity.

In 1620, however, the opponents of union with Rome set up a non-Roman archbishop of Polotsk to serve as a rival. Soon they had won a number of Catholic Ukrainians away from the pope.

As Josaphat battled to bring back his straying sheep, personal opposition against him became increasingly intense. Surrounded one day by an angry mob, he said, “You people of Vitebsk want to put me to death … I am ready to die for the holy union, for the supremacy of St. Peter and of his successor, the Supreme Pontiff.”

Sometime later a gang entered his church. Crying out, “Kill the papist,” they shot the archbishop, crushed his skull, and threw his body into the river.

St. Josaphat’s death served only to encourage the Ukrainians in their loyalty to the pope. In our own more ecumenical days, the Catholic Church is striving to reestablish unity with all the Orthodox churches through loving dialogue. To this work of reconciliation, we may be sure, St. Josaphat is adding his own powerful prayers.

Would we be ready to die like this for the supremacy of the pope over Christ’s church?

A frank question!

—Father Robert F. McNamara

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