St. Josaphat, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: Current world events make the witness of the martyr St. Josaphat more important than ever.

Józef Simmler, “Martyrdom of Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych,” ca. 1861
Józef Simmler, “Martyrdom of Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych,” ca. 1861 (photo: Public Domain)

Though he is honored in the Roman Calendar by an obligatory memorial, St. Josaphat Kuntsevych (c. 1580-1623) is perhaps not well-known to many American Catholics. Given Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, it’s time to fix that.

Before we talk about him, take a look at this map, which shows something of Poland’s borders in Josaphat’s day superimposed on a map of today’s Europe. Josaphat was killed in the northeastern quadrant of what on today’s map is Belarus. As the map shows, much of the region that is today five separate countries — Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia — were united under the Polish-Lithuanian Crown.

Josaphat was born in Volodymyr, now a city in western Ukraine not far from the present-day eastern border of Poland, to an Orthodox family. The young man showed talent, learning to read Church Slavonic. He got most of his religious education from the breviary he could now read, since local Orthodox clergy rarely preached.

His parents sent him to Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, as an apprentice to a merchant. In Vilnius, he met a former Calvinist, Josyf Rutsky, who had converted to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church. That encounter would set Josaphat on his path.

The 1500s and 1600s were a time of religious dislocation in Europe. By 1600, the German principalities would be in the Thirty Years’ War, England would have gone through three versions of “Reformation” and one Counter-Reformation, and was preparing for the upheaval of Scottish Presbyterianism in the form of Puritanism that would lead to the English Civil War.

In contrast, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was, as historian Janusz Tazbir described it, “a state without stakes.” Religious toleration existed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and many sought refuge there from religious strife elsewhere in Europe. The Commonwealth itself was religiously and ethnically diverse: Poland and Lithuania itself were primarily Latin-Rite Catholic, but the further east one went in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian areas, Orthodoxy predominated. Protestantism — particularly Calvinism — won a slight toehold among the nobility in Poland in the 16th century, but the Jesuits led an effective Counter-Reformation that led most of the noble class back to Catholicism. That’s probably why Josaphat met a former Calvinist.

Another important historical event that remains relevant even today occurred in 1595-96: the Union of Brest. Brest was the beginning of a number of “Unions” that resulted in what is called today the “Greek Catholic” Church.

What is it? Well, it’s a Catholic “rite” within the Catholic Church. At Brest, a number of Orthodox bishops agreed to leave the Orthodox Church and acknowledge the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the head of the entire Church. In return, the “Greek Catholics” were allowed to keep the Eastern liturgies to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. “Greek Catholics” are people who worship according to Eastern/Byzantine rites but are in communion with the pope.

Josaphat joined the Greek Catholics and, in 1604, entered the Order of St. Basil. Rutsky soon followed him (and would eventually become Archbishop of Kyiv). Josaphat was eventually ordained a priest and, in 1617, a bishop. In 1618, he became Archeparch (Archbishop) of Polotosk.

As Archeparch, he undertook many reforms to upgrade the quality of the religious life and education of his people. At the same time, he clearly intended to establish the Greek Catholic Church on a surer footing over the Orthodox. The Orthodox, who regarded the Eastern Catholics as schismatics and heretics — Christian Samaritans — undertook passive and active resistance against them, which Josaphat reciprocated. Josaphat was lynched in Vitebsk, where he was beaten, clubbed, shot and his head split open with an axe. His naked body was then dragged through the wintry streets and his corpse thrown, with rocks to take it down, into the river. His residence was looted. He was beatified in 1643, just 20 years after his death — record time in that era.

Today’s saint’s martyrdom is depicted by 19th-century Polish Classical painter Józef Simmler (1823-1868). It is found in the National Museum in Warsaw. The murdered prelate is cradled by two of his clerics. His breviary — the book he learned to read from — lies beside him. Behind him, two faithful Eastern Catholics react: a man with shame and disgust, a woman praying to heaven.

His Orthodox attackers stand in front of him with the various weapons used in his murder: an axe, a pistol, a rod. (Given the numbers of swords, halberds, knives and crosses we usually seen in saints’ martyrdoms, this is one of the first times we see a gun.) For a man so attacked, Simmler is extremely modest in the wounds he depicts. Josaphat’s eyes are already turned heavenwards, his arms almost cruciform. The otherwise dark surroundings are marked by light in the heavens. The wall panels point to Simmler’s classical focus.

Orthodoxy never outgrew its dependence and readiness to lean on throne to promote altar, something that can be seen in Ukraine today, where the Moscow Patriarchate is doing everything to advance the subservience of Russian Orthodoxy to the Russian state. Since Brest, however, whenever Orthodoxy — particularly Russian Orthodoxy — has gained ascendance, Eastern-Rite Catholics have suffered severe persecution. In the USSR, for example, they were officially abolished, amalgamated against their will into the Orthodox Church. Similar severe repression was found elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, producing many 20th-century martyrs, not just in Ukraine but in their time in places like Romania and Slovakia.

Greek Catholicism also has a certain number of opponents within the Catholic Church, especially among the professional ecumenical class that pursues the ever-elusive promise of “dialogue” with Russian Orthodoxy sometimes at Greek Catholic expense. Eastern Catholicism is considered by some a “solution of the past” and an “impediment” to ecumenical relations, as if those who choose to worship according to their liturgical tradition in communion with the successor of St. Peter are some “problem.”

Ukraine continues to suffer from Russian invasion. This year, let us mark the feast of St. Josaphat with prayer for peace and the people of Ukraine, especially those who follow their conscience to Rome.