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St. Josaphat: Martyr for Christian Unity

St. Josaphat was a Ruthenian Catholic Bishop who is venerated in both the Latin and Ruthenian Rites. His calls for unity between the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church led to his martyrdom in 1623. His feast day is celebrated November 12. 


Early Life


St. Josaphat was born and baptized with the name John around the year 1580 in Vladimir, Volhynia (then a Polish province of Lithuania). His family lived during the reign of the Jagiellonian Dynasty. Later, another Eastern European saint who was an ardent supporter of the reunion between East and West, St. Pope John Paul II, would attend Jagiellonian University, named after this dynasty.


His parents belonged to the Eastern Rite Church of Kyiv (Ukraine), in formal schism with Rome at the time. When he was a child, his mother explained to him the importance of venerating icons. It was then that he felt a spark of fire enter his heart, filling him with immeasurable joy.


When John was sent to Vilnius, Lithuania to study business as an adult, he entered the heated debates concerning the Ukrainian Rite’s reunion with Rome. By 1609, he had joined the Ukrainian Order of St. Basil (Basilians). He took the name Josaphat, and in 1618 he was appointed archbishop of Polotzk.


Reuniting the Eastern and Western Rites


Before John heard the call to the priesthood, the bishops of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Churches living within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth held a Ruthenian Synod. In 1595, they voted to unite with Rome under Pope Clement VIII. In 1589, they signed the Union of Brest, allowing the Eastern Rites to keep their traditions and come into communion with the Papacy.


Josaphat heavily supported this Union and preached on the importance and necessity for Church unity. However, he faced staunch opposition from the Orthodox Bishop Meletius who aided schismatic preachers in Josaphat’s own diocese. They relentlessly slandered Josaphat, particularly when he preached that St. Vladimir preached the Catholic, not Orthodox, faith. 


The Events of His Martyrdom


The hostility bubbled up into a murderous mob on November 12, 1623. The mob shot him then threw his body into a river wearing a penitential shirt crying all the while: “Kill the Papist!” His body was recovered from the river emanating rays of light. Allegedly, his murderers, including Bishop Melenius, repented and became devout Catholics. 


Shortly before his death, Josaphat had boldly preached to the mob stating “You people of Vitebsk want to put me to death. You make ambushes for me everywhere, in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways, and in the marketplace. I am here among you as a shepherd, and you ought to know that I would be happy to give my life for you.”


In 1867, Pope Pius IX canonized Josphat as a saint. On the tercentenary of his martyrdom, Pope Pius XI declared him the Heavenly Patron of Reunion between Orthodox and Catholics


Join Us in Prayer


Stir up in your Church, we pray, O Lord, the Spirit that filled Saint Josaphat as he laid down his life for the sheep, so that through his intercession we, too, may be strengthened by the same Spirit and not be afraid to lay down our life for others. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen. 


Visit The Station of the Cross for more authentically Catholic media content and listen to this episode of The Simple Truth, where he recently broke down what the Eastern Rites are with Fr. Michael Copenhagen. 


St. Josaphat Patron of Ukraine and Church Unity, Pray for Us!


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