Saint Josaphat, Martyr for Unity

Our Lord seems to have been speaking of our modern crisis when he warns that scandals are sure to come, and woe to him by whom they come, with the finishing touch about millstones and the depths of sea.

It is also a propos that the Apostles then ask that their faith be increased. For the most tragic of scandals are those that lead people not just to sin – which is bad enough – but to give up their faith, the very principle and foundation of everything else.

It was this scandal that our saint today, Josaphat, bishop and martyr, fought with all of his might and main, namely, that of schism, the rending of the very Body of Christ.  Long ago, in the first millennium of Christianity, the Church was more or less one, even if there were struggles and controversies, and transient divisions over discipline and even at times dogma, which were healed, all very complex and fraught.

But this all changed on July 16th, 1054, when Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and the two papal legates of Leo IX ‘excommunicated’ each other – hence, the ongoing division between the two Churches.

To this day, the ‘Orthodox’ continue in a state officially of schism, refusing proper obedience and submission to the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. They still have bishops, priests, the Eucharist and all the sacraments, and hence are a true and proper ‘Church’, but are missing that theological, historical and, most importantly, metaphysical and spiritual connection to the Vicar of Christ, the rock, even if that rock seems at times a bit crumbly from our limited earthly perspective.

It may seem tempting to some to jump on over to the apparent stability of ‘Orthodoxy’, as some prominent Catholics have done of late, driven by our own current scandals. But beware, for the truth is not always what it may seem to be on the surface, and we should not lose faith in the Church Christ founded, even if – especially if  – she is battered and bruised. Without the vicar of Christ, prescinding from the virtues or lack thereof in any given pope, there would be no Church. Ironically, the very papacy they impugn holds the Church – ‘Orthodoxy’ included – in existence and on the straight and narrow path, in some mysterious, sacramental way.

Various reconciliations have been attempted over the years, at the II Councils of Lyons in 1272 and at Florence in 1439, with the final and most definitive one at the Council of Brest in 1596, which formed what we now know as the Eastern Catholics, or ‘Uniates’, who reunited with Rome, keeping all of their noble traditions and liturgies.

It was sometime before this partial re-union of 1596 that our saint, Ioann Kuntsevych, was born, around 1580, into an ‘Orthodox’ family, giving himself from an early age to devotion, study and asceticism. He entered a Basilian monastery in his twenties, and, seeing that full truth lay in union with the Roman See, he was ordained an Eastern-rite Catholic priest. Eventually, his spiritual and intellectual gifts clearly seen, he was chosen as bishop of Vitesbk and coadjutor of the Archeparchy of Polotsk, achieving near-unbelievable apostolic success along the way. In his 1923 encyclical on Saint Josaphat, Pope Blessed Pius XI calls him what his enemies did, the ‘raptor animarum’ – the raptor of souls – which evokes some interesting analogies.

Things were all tangled up in politics, Church-State relations, biases, and historical resentments, and there were those in the schismatical party of the Orthodox who resented Bishop Josaphat’s work in bringing so many souls into the full membership in the Church. For the ‘other’ raptor of souls – the demonic velociraptor, devoid of love, mercy or pity -wants to bring them not to heaven but to the other place where he dwells in his own misery, hates with all his angelic ferocity those who get in his way.

Hence it was that on this day in 1623 an angry mob burst into Bishop Josaphat’s residence and sent him to heaven by splitting his head open with an axe, mangling and dragging his naked body through the streets and plunging it into the depths of the Dvina river, tied down with rocks. Here is the contemporary account:

The ringing of cathedral bells and the bells of other churches spread. This was the signal and call to insurrection. From all sides of town masses of people – men, women, and children – gathered with stones and attacked the archbishop’s residence. The masses attacked and injured the servants and assistants of the archbishop, and broke into the room where he was alone. One hit him on the head with a stick, another split it with an axe, and when Kuntsevych fell, they started beating him. They looted his house, dragged his body to the plaza, cursed him – even women and children. …They dragged him naked through the streets of the city all the way to the hill overlooking the river Dvina. Finally, after tying stones to the dead body, they threw him into the Dvina at its deepest.

His body was fished out, properly buried, and, five years later, was found incorrupt. The saint now rests in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome, fittingly the centre of Christendom, under the altar of the great Eastern Father and Doctor, Saint Basil the Great, whose religious rule he lived to the end. Josaphat was canonized a martyr on June 28th, 1867 by Pope Pius IX. See the latter’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Annos on Pius’ generally dim view of ecumenism, while prohibiting some of its practices.

In an ironic way, if it was ‘scandal’ that Josaphat brought, it was one similar to Christ’s own, that leads not to sin, as real scandals do, but to be released therefrom. An anti-scandal, if you will. As with Christ, Josaphat’s very goodness and sanctity enraged some, leading them to destroy him, as the opening lines of the book of Wisdom prophesied, but also brought many others onto the straight and narrow way.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI pilgrimaged to the Holy Land and reconciled with Patriarch Athenagoras. They embraced each other, and casting into oblivion the excommunications of 1054. At the close of the Second Vatican Council, they together released a statement, which reads in part:

Grateful to God, who mercifully favored them with a fraternal meeting at those holy places where the mystery of salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and where the Church was born through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I have not lost sight of the determination each then felt to omit nothing thereafter which charity might inspire and which could facilitate the development of the fraternal relations thus taken up between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. They are persuaded that in acting this way, they are responding to the call of that divine grace which today is leading the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, as well as all Christians, to overcome their differences in order to be again “one” as the Lord Jesus asked of His Father for them…

And, in a famous phrase that echoes the hopes of the Council:

They likewise regret and remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed these events, the memory of which has influenced actions up to our day and has hindered closer relations in charity; and they commit these excommunications to oblivion.

But, alas, the division – the schism – still persists:

Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I with his synod realize that this gesture of justice and mutual pardon is not sufficient to end both old and more recent differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

But there is hope, that one day soon we may rediscover that initial unity for which Christ prayed, the full communion of faith, fraternal accord and sacramental life which existed among them during the first thousand years of the life of the Church.

Saint Josaphat is an intercessor and source of this hope, that the enduring scandal of this schism may one day soon be healed. As Pope John Paul prayed in a rather fitting analogy, and on which he wrote an encyclical in 1995, may the Church once again breathe with ‘both of her lungs’, East and West, signifying that deep and lasting unity for which Christ prayed at His own Last Supper: Ut Unum sint. And amen to that.

Saint Josaphat, ora pro nobis, et pro unitati!+