St. Josaphat was born John Kuncevic about 1580 in Vladimir, a village of the Lithuanian Province of Volhynia (then a part of the Polish Kingdom begun under the Jagellonian Dynasty). His parents belonged to the Eastern Rite Church of Kyiv (Ukraine) which was then separated from Rome.
When John was just a child, his mother explained the icons in church. Years later he told a friend that he felt a spark of fire leave the wounded side of the Crucified and enter his own heart, which was filled with joy. This event influenced the rest of his life. He began to memorize the Church rituals and psalms. Within him grew the desire to suffer poverty and death for his Savior.
John’s father sent him to Vilno in Lithuania to learn more about the family business. Nevertheless, he spent much of his leisure in reading the lives of the Saints and observing the religious ferment in the local church. The Ruthenians (the ethnic origin of his family) had been evangelized from Constantinople-modern Istanbul-and generally followed the lead of the Byzantine Church there. But because of the absorption of the Ruthenians into the Polish Kingdom, always staunch Roman Catholics, the question of reunion with Rome was hotly debated.
The bishops of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Churches who lived within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth held a Ruthenian Synod in 1595 and voted to unite with Rome under Pope Clement VIII. John Kuncevic was fifteen years old. In 1598 seven bishops signed the Union of Brest, which allowed them to retain their Eastern Rites while in full communion with the Pope. Although most of Vilno refused union, John made his profession of faith, then entered the Basilian Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Vilno, and took the name of Josaphat.
Unable to find adequate spiritual direction among the lax priests of his Order, Josaphat compensated by severe mortifications of reparation for them and for those who had refused communion with Rome. Finally spiritual guidance cam in the person of John Rutsky, a convert from Calvinism and later Bishop of Kiev. In 1609 Josaphat was ordained a priest and began his career of preaching and spiritual direction and providing for the needy and homeless. Over sixty men entered the Basilian Order under his influence.
Josaphat was made the superior of a daughter monastery at Byten, where he revived devotion to the Mother of God at Zirovica. Returning to Vilno as archimandrite of the monastery, he began to reform the monks. There he also compiled texts from the Eastern Fathers and Doctors under the title “A Defense of Church Unity.” All these activities led to his being appointed Coadjutor Bishop to the elderly, ailing Bishop of Plock (Plotsk). Subsequently Josaphat became the Bishop of Plock with the title of Archeparch (Archbishop).
The new appointee at once called a synod to revitalize his diocese. He detached his priests from subservience to the unruly nobility and wrote “A Rule for Priests.” Most of all he pursued the reunion of all with Rome. The major obstacle was the Orthodox Bishop Meletius Smotrytsky, who was aided by schismatic preachers sent from Constantinople to prevent reunion. The latter spread slanders against Josaphat and, during his absence in Warsaw to plead for reunion, agitated for Josaphat’s removal from Plock. Hostility increased when he wrote to prove that St. Vladimir, had actually preached the Catholic, not Orthodox faith.
The Events of His Martyrdom
The mob hostile to reunion broke into the courtyard of the mansion where Archbishop Josaphat was staying. He came out of the house in his black robes and crossed medallions over his breast. He addressed his enemies calmly, “Why are you attacking my servants? Take your anger out upon me!”
Momentarily the mob quieted. Then two schismatics, bolder than the rest, rushed forward and slit his head open with battle-axes. As if that were not enough, they shot him as well, stripped his body, and set wild dogs to tear him apart. Tiring of their terrible sport, the mob threw his body into the river with his penitential hairshirt tied around his neck and loaded with rocks to sink his body. His remains were subsequently recovered and hidden from further desecration.
It has been written that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Church growth. Among the many miracles consequent to Josaphat’s murder was the conversion of those assassins to the Roman union. Thousands of dissidents returned to the Catholic faith. Most significant, even Bishop Smotrytsky became an ardent supporter of the Pope!
Josaphat had said before his martyrdom, “I rejoice to offer my life for my holy Catholic faith.” He had prayed, “Grant that I be found worthy, Lord, to shed my blood for the union and obedience to the Apostolic See.” He had never revoked his childhood experience of the Crucified.
In May 1643, twenty years later, Pope Urban VIII declared him “Blessed.” But it was not until June 29, 1867, that Pope Pius IX canonized him “Saint.” On November 12, 1923, the tercentenary of Josaphat’s martyrdom, Pope Pius XI declared him the heavenly Patron of Reunion between Orthodox and Catholics. During the Second Vatican Council, at the express wish of Pope John XXIII, who himself was most interested in reunion, the body of St. Josaphat was finally laid to rest at the magnificent altar of St. Basil in St. Peter’s Basilica. This took place on November 25, 1963.