Josaphat, a Martyr for Unity

In the Gospel the other day, Our Lord seems to predict 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 not only lead one to sin – which is what a scandal is, an occasion of sin – but that lead someone to give up their very faith, the foundation of everything else.

One scandal that our saint today, Josaphat, bishop and martyr, fought with all of his might and main was that of schism, the rending of the Bod of Christ, here the one between the Churches of the east and the west. This history is complex and fraught, but in a nutshell, the Catholics and the self-styled ‘Orthodox’ parted ways on July 16th, 1054, with a ‘mutual excommunication’ between Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and Pope Leo IX, via his two legates.

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 it seems a bit crumbly from our limited earthly perspective at certain times more than others.

Yes, it may seem tempting to some to jump on over to ‘Orthodoxy’, as some prominent Catholics have done of late, driven by ‘scandal’, 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, 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.

More could be said on that – and those who have jumped from the Catholic ship into the tumultuous and uncertain waters of schism – but back to our story.

Various reconciliations have been attempted over the years, at the Councils of Lyons II 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, sometimes, ‘Uniates’ who reunited with Rome, keeping all of their noble traditions and liturgies.

It was sometime before this that our saint was born, around 1580, into an ‘Orthodox’ family, giving himself to devotion, study and ascetisim from an early age. He entered the Basilian monastery in his twenties, and, seeing the truth of union with the Roman See, was ordained an Eastern-rite Catholic priest, and eventually 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’, 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 who resented Bishop Josaphat’s work in bringing many souls into the full membership in the Church. For the ‘other’ raptor of souls – the demonic velociraptor, devoid of love, mercy or pity – who 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. His body was fished out, properly buried, and was found incorrupt, even after all this travail, five years on. The saint now rests in the Basilica of Saint Peter, under the altar of the great Eastern Father and Doctor, Saint Basil the Great.

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.

Josaphat was canonized a martyr on June 28th, 1867 by Pope Pius IX, and is an intercessor and source of hope that the enduring scandal of the schism between the East and West may one day soon be healed, so that, as Pope John Paul prayed in a rather fitting analogy, and on which he wrote an encyclical in 1995, the Church may once again breathe with ‘both of her lungs’, signifying that deep and lasting unity for which Christ prayed at His own Last Supper: Ut Unum sint. And amen to that.