St. Josaphat Kuncevyc

 

St. Josaphat Kuncevyc, a Virtuous Saint of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

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. I am ready to die for the holy union, for the supremacy of Saint Peter, and of his successor the Supreme Pontiff.

- Saint Josaphat
 

On November 12, the Church remembers the life and tireless efforts of St. Josaphat Kuncevyc, the first Eastern Rite (Byzantine Catholic) saint to be canonized by Rome in 1876. This devout man preached and worked to encourage unity within the church and would eventually be martyred at the hands of the schismatic group he had worked to unite to the Apostolic See of Rome.

Early Life

St. Josaphat Kuncevyc was born and baptized as Johannes in the small Lithuanian town of Volodymyr in either 1580 or 1584. It was not a happy time for the Ruthenian Church, inwhich he was raised, and which united itself to Rome in 1595. There were, however, members of the Church who maintained a schism from Rome, and had disdain for the "Uniates," which was the term for those who were in full communion with Rome.

Though Johannes's father was of noble heritage, he was devoted to commercial pursuits, and held the office of town-councilor. Both he and Johannes's mother contributed to the fostering of piety in the future saint. As a child, he didn't care much for typical child's play, but rather spent time praying and assisting at the liturgy. As a student he was both talented and zealous. While still a youth, he fervently studied ecclesiastical Slav, and learned almost the entire casoslov (breviary), which he began to pray daily. He was offered a well paying partnership with a successful merchant and the hand of the merchant's daughter in marriage. However, Johannes declined, discerning instead a calling to religious life.

Life and Works as a Religious

At the age of 20 or 24 (recalling the fact that it is unknown for sure whether he was born in 1580 or 1584), Johannes entered a Basilian monastery, the Ukrainian Order of Saint Basil at Vilna in 1604. Here, he lived as a monk and took the name Brother Josaphat. He was ordained a Byzantine Rite priest in 1609.

At some point not too long after his ordination, Josaphat learned of his superiorSamuel's dissident views and works. Samuel had never accepted unity with Rome and sought ways to fight Roman Catholicism and those who brought about and supported union with Rome. Fearing the spiritual damage that could be brought about, Josaphat brought the matter to the attention of Samuel's superiors and the Archbishop of Kiev removed Samuel from his post, replacing him with Josaphat.

Josaphat became a famous preacher, working to bring unity with Rome among the faithful, and to draw strayed Christians back to the Church. He believed unity was in the best interest of the Church and through teaching, clerical reform, and personal example, Josaphat brought many orthodox churches in Lithuania into union with Rome. He was consecrated Bishop of Vitebsk in 1617, and became Archbishop of Polotsk one year later in 1618.

Martyrdom

For years Josaphat worked for unity among the Christians in Lithuania, and his labors were indeed fruitful. However, his successes only increased the hatred of the schismatic, anti-Uniate groups in the area. In 1620, while Josaphat was away attending the Diet of Warsaw, a schismatic group, with the accusation that Josaphat had "gone Latin," set up anti-Uniate bishops to replace the true ordained Uniate bishops. Against warnings, Josaphat returned to his station; the army, which remained loyal to the union-loyal king, attempted to protect Josaphat and his clergy. However, November 12, 1623, an anti-Uniate priest shouted insults at Josaphat and tried to enter his residence. When the priest was removed,  a mob assembled. Josaphat, who tried to ensure that his servants were able to flee to safety,  was martyred by axe and bullet at the hands of the mob.

Read more about modern martyrs of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church here.

 For more information about the Eastern Catholic churches, please visit our Eastern Catholicism specialty store for helpful resources and more.

- Adapted from the New Catholic Encyclopedia

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