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Posted by on Nov 12, 2007

Saint of the Day – St. Josaphat Kuncevyc: East Meets West?

Saint of the Day – St. Josaphat Kuncevyc: East Meets West?


November 12 is the feast day of St. Josaphat of Polotsk. St. Josaphat was born John Kuncevyc (Kunsevich) in 1580 or 1584 in Lithuania. He was a successful merchant and an advantageous marriage seemed imminent, when young John Kuncevyc decided to follow a religious vocation. This might have been remarkable enough in itself except that he decided to become a priest in a formerly Eastern Orthodox church that had re-united with Rome in 1596. The Union of Brest led to the entry of millions of Ukrainians and Belorussians in what was then Poland-Lithuania into union with Rome, but preserved many of their customs and forms of worship in the Byzantine Rite. The people were actually called Ruthenians, which is a Latinism for Russian. This act of union actually caused a serious split among the Ruthenians, since the decision was made by their key bishops at a time when the area was under the control of Catholic Poland. Many people and priests were actually opposed to giving up their Orthodox heritage.

St. Josaphat – the name he was given at his religious profession as a monk – came of age and was killed in the maelstrom of Cossack, Polish, and Austrian struggles for dominance in eastern Europe. The Catholic view, as presented by the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907, is that the Orthodox Church had become so corrupt that key bishops felt that the only hope of reform was to leave their affiliation with the Patriarch of Constantinople and place themselves under the Patriarch of Rome, the Pope. The Ukrainian Orthodox view is that religious affiliation was part of nationhood and Poland sought more effective control of Ukraine and Belorussia by “Latinizing” them.

It is interesting to note that although, the Uniate bishops negotiated an agreement with Rome which required little change from their traditional form of worship and organization, western influence became strong, even among the Orthodox, because of the dominance of western education among the ruling elite and the higher clergy. St. Josaphat became a bishop and later archbishop of Polotsk in the eye of a political and cultural hurricane. He was a man of great holiness and learning and he was also a Catholic partisan. Unfortunately, because he did not adopt the Latin Rite, Polish bishops distrusted him. Those members of the Ruthenian public and clergy who resisted the union did not look favorably upon him.

Mattters were made more difficult by the appointment of rival Orthodox bishops. The support of the Polish King for the Uniate bishops, including St. Josaphat, and the removal of the Orthodox bishops by the Polish Crown, only increased the tension.

St. Josaphat made substantial gains in catechizing and reforming the clergy. He also led by his own example. However, his personal austerity became an obstacle. It was a testament to his courage and his commitment to communication that he returned to Vitebsk in October 1623 to address the unrest. St. Josaphat and his staff were attacked by a mob outside his residence and he was killed. The actual heroes of the day were the Jewish community, who moved in to prevent more deaths and break up the fighting. The Catholic side points out that this violence actually helped swing more support for the Uniates. While the Orthodox side regrets the killings, they point out the martyrdom of Athanasius Filipovich, who was tortured and killed by Catholic partisans in 1648.

Given all of this tragedy, what is the best way to achieve Christian unity? How can millions of people overcome centuries of political and cultural conflict and theological differences? Four hundred years after the Union of Brest and over a decade after the fall of the Soviet Empire, Catholic and Orthodox in eastern Europe are still far apart. Perhaps before the next century comes to an end, we will find a way to reach beyond the division, to communicate with respect, love, and repentance, and to build a new united future in which neither Christian tradition is denied or diminished.

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