St. Josaphat, Archbishop and Martyr
Feast Day: November 12
St. Josaphat was born in the year 1580, in the city of Volodymyr (today, Ukraine). His parents, Gabriel and Maryna Kuntsevych, named him John. When he was four or five years old, while his mother was explaining the icon of Jesus crucified, he felt a spark of divine love fall into his heart. It never went away. From that day, he always remembered going to church with joy, to read and to sing, to pray and to meditate upon God.
In the year 1604, at the age of twenty-four, John entered the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Vilna, which was in communion with Rome. At his tonsure, he took the name Josaphat. As a monk, he followed the monastic rule faithfully, singing the full cycle of liturgical services and unceasingly praying the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” To all he became an example of a perfect monk. Besides his daily prayers, Josaphat would frequently get up during the night and go to the cemetery where he prayed long hours despite wind, cold, snow or rain. Josaphat even recited prayers in his sleep. When his body rested, his lips uttered words to the prayers of his soul.
Josaphat was ordained a priest in 1609 and dedicated himself to the cause of church unity. Many of the faithful would come to the monastery to hear him preach. His sermons were intelligent, full of spirit, convincing and effective. With zeal, Josaphat spoke about the importance of unity; and celebrating the Divine Liturgy, he took on the appearance of an angel. Eventually he became the hegumen (superior) of the monastery, and with time, the archimandrite overseeing the life of several monasteries.
In the year 1617 Josaphat embarked on the last stage of his life as archbishop. He was consecrated as Archbishop of Polotsk (Belarus). Josaphat worked diligently to bring about renewal within his archeparchy, to promote catechesis, education, formation of clergy, good liturgy, good preaching, charity and service to the poor.
The cellars and store-rooms in Josaphat’s residence were usually empty, because of the generous alms he distributed to the beggars of Polotsk who frequently came to him for help. While helping the poor, he also cared for their spiritual needs. Despite all his duties as a bishop, he remained faithful to his monastic rule.
One of the things that he noticed when he arrived in Polotsk, was that the faithful seldom came to confession and rarely received Holy Communion. He noticed the same during his parish visitations. He began to hear confessions himself, and to instruct the faithful on the importance of the frequent confession and Holy Communion.
To remedy, as least in part, the lack of theological training among the clergy, Josaphat prepared “Rules of Priests.” In this work, he compiled and issued 48 short rules concerning the duties of the priest. To meet the needs of his priests and his faithful, he also published a catechism, which was distributed to all the priests, and they were examined on their knowledge of it at synods.
Having establishing order in the bishop’s palace, Josaphat then concentrated his attention on the churches and monasteries that had fallen into almost total ruin, especially his own Cathedral of St. Sophia in Polotsk, which dated back to the 13th century. Josaphat set about restoring the cathedral, even though he had no funds, because he had great faith and trust in God’s providence. And God did provide. Besides the cathedral, Josaphat renovated and repaired other churches outside of Polotsk. The church in Vitebsk was also renovated. He was also successful in reclaiming the old monastery of Sts. Borys and Hlib, which had fallen into the hands of the Orthodox. He renovated the monastery and brought monks from Vilna to form a monastic community there.
Josaphat’s first three years as archbishop were comparatively calm and marked with great success. He strengthened the Union, not only in Polotsk, the seat of his archeparchy, but also in the city of Vitebsk, where he soon won the sympathy of the people. In the city of Mohyliv, however, which also belonged to his archeparchy, Josaphat met with greater resistance. The brotherhood in Mohyliv, always hostile toward the Union, had traditionally opposed the archbishops of Polotsk as they continued to do when Josaphat became archbishop. When Josaphat first arrived in Mohyliv, the citizens closed the gates of the city and threatened armed revolt. For a long time the city remained defiant, refusing to accept Josaphat as its lawful bishop. Eventually, Josaphat was able to pacify the people of Mohyliv and they finally accepted him as their bishop.
The arrival of the year 1620 marked a turning point in the history of the Church of Kyiv and all Rus’. In that year, the Jerusalem Orthodox Patriarch, Theophane came to Kyiv, on his return from Moscow, where he had stayed for nearly two years collecting alms. While in Moscow, Theophane crowned the new czar, Michael Romano, and made Philaret patriarch of the Church of Moscow. In Kyiv, Theophane, amid great secrecy, consecrated six new Orthodox bishops to the same sees occupied by the Uniate bishops. Thus a rival Orthodox Church of Kyiv was created. This intensified the opposition of the Orthodox to the Union. After consecrating the bishops, Patriarch Theophane left immediately.
The new bishops sent their messengers and letters throughout their eparchies proclaiming that they, and not the Uniate bishops, were the legal ecclesiastical authorities. They began to incite the people against their lawful bishops, and to remove Uniate priests from their parishes. This war against the Union spread throughout the entire Metropolia of Kyiv. Since the Union was not as yet firmly established everywhere among the people, the anti-Union propaganda proved to be very successful. The Uniates became easy victims of the undermining activity of dissident agitators, and in some places, entire communities defected from the Union.
Newly consecrated by Theophane as the Orthodox archbishop of Polotsk, Meletius Smotrytsky, became Josaphat’s new rival. Smotrytsky endeavoured to incite the entire archeparchy of Polotsk against Josaphat. In his letters, Smotrytsky branded Josaphat as a traitor to his people and to his faith, a heretic, apostate, and papist. At the same time, he proclaimed himself as the only lawful pastor and only legitimate archbishop of Polotsk.
The followers of Smotrytsky together with the Vilna brotherhood aroused the people and nobility against the Union, calling upon them to take up arms against the “papists’ and to drive Josaphat out of Polotsk. The letters of Smotrytsky were imbued with venom and calumny not only against Josaphat, but also against Veniamin Rutsky, the Uniate Metropolitan of Kyiv, and all Uniate bishops.
As a result of this propaganda, the cities of Vitebsk, Mohyliv, Orsha, and Mstyslav revolted against Josaphat. Even in Polotsk, Josaphat’s own see, the majority of the faithful gave their allegiance to Smotrytsky.
Despite the mass defection in his own archeparchy, Josaphat did not abandon his see. On the contrary, he redoubled his efforts to win back the loyalty of his people to the Union. Once again, he began preaching in all the churches of Polotsk, even though very few came to hear him. Through zealous efforts, Josaphat did succeed in bringing many people back to the Union. Others, however, remained hostile to Josaphat.
The last years of Josaphat’s short life were spent in a continual and relentless struggle with the opponents of the Union. In almost every city he visited he met with opposition and defiance, hatred and rebellion, hostility and persecution. Josaphat had a presentiment that God destined him for the crown of martyrdom, therefore he resigned himself beforehand to this manner of death. Actually, his most ardent desire was to give his life for the unity of the Church.
Church of the Annunciation in Vitebsk
Toward the end of October, 1623, Josaphat arrived in Vitebsk, and stayed for two weeks. As a good shepherd, he visited homes, settled quarrels, heard confessions, preached the word of God in the churches, and conducted church services. During this time, the conspirators had met secretly each day as they sought an opportunity to kill him.
On Sunday, November 12, 1623, the bells rung for Matins, and Josaphat and his archdeacon, Dorotheus, went to celebrate the Divine Office at the Cathedral Church of the Annunciation. Have finished Matins, Josaphat and Dorotheus left the church and proceeded to the palace opposite the church, where they found several thousand people gathered in the nearby cemetery ready to attach the bishop’s palace at the given signal. When Josaphat and Dorotheus had entered the palace, the people, using axes, began to chop down the fence around the palace. Those who were armed began shooting. After breaking down the gates, and casting the fencing aside, the attackers entered the bishop’s palace, began to beat all the servants and clergy, and plunder the palace.
Josaphat was in his room, prostrated on the floor, praying. Upon hearing the commotion in the palace, Josaphat left his room and closing the door, made the sign of the cross. At first, no one dared to raise a hand against him. They, two men rushed in from another room, and seeing Josaphat standing before them, with hands crossed over his breast, one of them struck him with a club, while the other split his head open with an axe. The murderers dragged him from the palace hall into the courtyard, where they shot him in the head and continued to beat him long after he was dead. Then, they stabbed the body, trampled on it, and mutilated it in various ways.
Witnesses testified that dark fiery cloud was seen over the palace during the attack, and it disappeared at the death of Josaphat. At his martyrdom, a great light from heaven shone over the palace and above the body of Josaphat.
Afterwards, the murderers dragged the body of Josaphat into the street where they left it, while they returned to the palace to destroy it. After leaving the palace in ruins, they returned to the body of Josaphat, stripped it, and covered only with a hair shirt, dragged it through the streets of the city. Finally, they took the body to a high hill and threw it down to banks of the river. Then, going down to the riverside, they tied rocks to the body and sank it in the river.
By noon, total silence encompassed the bishop’s palace and the surrounding city of Vitebsk. No Divine Liturgy was celebrated that day, neither in the Greek rite or in the Latin rite churches.
The body of Josaphat was recovered from the river by fishermen, and was placed in the church of the Archangel Michael. The face of Josaphat looked even more beautiful in death than it had been in life. The body was then brought back to Polotsk and laid out in St. Sophia Cathedral. The city councilman, Peter Dankovsky, was almost blind and needed a servant to lead him. While praying at the body of Josaphat, he was healed, and his vision was fully restored.
Josaphat’s body laid in state in the Polotsk Cathedral for almost ten days.
After numerous miracles attributed to Josaphat Kuntsevych were claimed and reported to Church officials, a commission was appointed by Pope Urban VIII in 1628 to start inquire for his possible canonization, for which they examined under oath 116 witnesses. Although five years had elapsed since Josaphat’s death, his body was claimed to still be incorrupt. In 1637, a second commission investigated his life and, in 1643, twenty years after his death, Josaphat was beatified. He was canonized on June 29, 1867 by Pope Pius IX.
The relics of St. Josaphat are currently interred at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.