In 1964, the embrace of Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople made all the papers and was hailed as a step toward healing the 900-year-old rift between Rome and the Eastern Church. Today’s saint strove for similar goals 369 years before that momentous embrace.
The Orthodox bishop of Brest-Litovsk (in present day Belarus) and five other bishops sought reunion with Rome in 1595. John Kunsevich, (Josaphat in religious life), would dedicate his life to that cause.
He was a Basilian monk, then a priest, and became well known as a preacher and an ascetic. When he became bishop of Vitebsk as a young man, most monks feared interference in liturgy and customs, did not want union with Rome. By synods, catechetical instruction, reform of the clergy, and personal example, however, Josaphat was successful in winning the greater part of the Orthodox in that area to the union.
Opposition to his initiative grew the following year as his accusers claimed he had “gone Latin.” In addition, the Latin bishops of Poland did not support him. Attempts were made to foment trouble and drive him from the diocese: A priest was sent to shout insults to him from his own courtyard. When Josaphat had him removed and shut up in his house, the opposition rang the town hall bell, and a mob assembled.
The priest was released, but members of the mob broke into the bishop’s home. Josaphat was struck with a halberd, then shot, and his body thrown into the river. It was later recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome.
Josaphat’s death brought a movement toward Catholicism and unity, but the controversy continued, and the dissidents, too, had their martyr. After the partition of Poland, the Russians forced many to join the Russian Orthodox Church.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini