Josaphat Kuntsevych OSBM
Josaphat Kuntsevych, O.S.B.M., (c. 1580 – 12 November 1623) (Belarusian: Язафат Кунцэвіч, Jazafat Kuncevič, Polish: Jozafat Kuncewicz, Ukrainian: Йосафат Кунцевич, Josafat Kuntsevych) was a monk and archeparch (archbishop) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who died at Vitebsk in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now in Belarus), on 12 November 1623, killed by a mob of Orthodox Christians. He has been declared a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church.
He was born Ioann (John) Kuntsevych in 1580 or 1584 in the city of Volodymyr in the province of Volhynia, then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, now in Ukraine . His birth occurred while the Ruthenian Church was nominally unified. It had belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, but in 1596 come under the authority of the pope through the Union of Brest.
Although of noble Belarusian descent (szlachta), his father had embarked in business, and held the office of town-councilor. Both of Kuntsevych’s parents encouraged religious participation and Christian piety in the young John. In the school at Volodymyr he gave evidence of unusual talent; he applied himself to the study of the Church Slavonic language, and learned almost the entire horologion by heart, which from this period he began to read daily. From this source he drew his early religious education, because the clergy seldom preached or gave catechetical instruction in that period.
Owing to the straitened financial circumstances of his parents, Kuntsevych was apprenticed to a merchant named Papovič in Vilnius. In this Polish-Lithuanian city, divided through the contentions of the various religious sects, he became acquainted with men, such as Josyf Veliamyn Rutsky, who supported the recent union with Rome, and under whose direction he furthered his interest in the Catholic Church.
Monk and archbishop
In 1604, in his early 20s, Kuntsevych entered the Monastery of the Trinity of the Basilian monks in Vilnius, at which time he was given the religious name of Josaphat. Stories of sanctity rapidly spread, and distinguished people began to visit the young monk. After a notable life as a layman, Rutsky also joined the Order. When Josaphat reached the diaconate, his regular services and labor for the Church had already been begun. As a result of his efforts, the number of novices to the Order steadily increased, and under Rutsky — who had meanwhile been ordained a priest — there began the revival of Eastern Catholic monastic life among the Ruthenians (Belarusians and Ukrainians). In 1609, after private study under the Jesuit priest, the Blessed Peter Faber, Josaphat was ordained a priest by a Catholic bishop. He subsequently became the hegumen (prior) of several monasteries. On November 12, 1617, he was consecrated as the bishop of the Eparchy of Vitebsk (possibly a titular see created for him), and coadjutor for the Archeparchy of Polotsk. He succeeded as archeparch in March 1618.
Kuntsevych faced a daunting task of bringing the local populace to accept the union with Rome. He faced stiff opposition from the monks, who feared the Latinization of the liturgy of the Church. As archeparch, he restored the churches; issued a catechism to the clergy, with instructions that it should be learned by heart; composed rules for the priestly life, entrusting to the deacons the task of superintending their observance; assembled synods in various towns in the dioceses, and firmly opposed the Polish Imperial Chancellor Sapieha, when he wished to make many concessions in favour of the Eastern Orthodox. Throughout all his strivings and all his occupations, he continued his religious devotion as a monk, and never abated his desire for self-mortification. Through all this he was successful in winning over a large portion of the people.
Kuntsevych’s activity provoked a strong reaction. A rival hierarchy was set up by the Orthodox Church, with the monk Meletius Smotrytsky being appointed the Orthodox Archeparch of Polotsk. Smotrytsky publicly claimed that Josaphat was preparing a total Latinization of the Church and its rituals. The inhabitants of Mogilev revolted against him in October 1618 and chased him out of the city. Kuntsevych then sent a complaint to King Sigismund and the Orthodox revolt was brutally suppressed. All leaders of the revolt were executed, including Bohdan Sobol, the father of Spiridon Sobol, while all Orthodox churches were taken away and given to the Greek-Catholics.
Kuntsevych then became even more fiercely resisted by the Orthodox. During November 1623, despite warnings of unrest, he went to Vitebsk. There, on November 12th, the Orthodox sent a priest to his residence, who stood in the courtyard of his house, shouting insults at him. Archbishop Josaphat had the priest taken away and confined to his house. In response, the town bell was rung, which summoned a mob. They then attacked the archbishop’s residence, in the course of which an axe-stroke and a bullet ended his life and his body was tossed into the river.
Kuntsevych’s body was later recovered and honored. It was eventually transported to Rome, where he was given the honor of burial within St. Peter’s Basilica.
As a boy Kuntsevych was said to have shunned the usual games of childhood, prayed much, and lost no opportunity to assist at the Church services. Children especially regarded him with affection. As an apprentice, he devoted every leisure hour to prayer and study. At first Papovič viewed this behavior with displeasure, but Josaphat gradually won such a position in his esteem, that Papovič offered him his entire fortune and his daughter’s hand. But Josaphat’s love for the religious life never wavered.
Kuntsevych’s favourite devotional exercise was the traditional Eastern monastic practice of making prostrations, in which the head touches the ground, while saying the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Never eating meat, he fasted much, wore a hair shirt and a chain around his waist. He slept on the bare floor, and chastised his body until the blood flowed. The Jesuits frequently urged him to set some bounds to his austerities.
From Kuntsevych’s zealous study of the Slavonic-Byzantine liturgical books he drew many proofs of Catholic doctrine, using his knowledge in the composition of several original works — On the Baptism of St. Volodymyr; On the Falsification of the Slavic Books by the Enemies of the Metropolitan; On Monks and their Vows. Throughout his adult life, he was distinguished by his extraordinary zeal in performing the Church services and by extraordinary devotion during the Divine Liturgy. Not only in the church did he preach and hear confessions, but likewise in the fields, hospitals, prisons, and even on his personal journeys. This zeal, united with his kindness for the poor, won great numbers of Orthodox Ruthenians for the Catholic faith and Catholic unity. Among his converts were included many important personages such as Patriarch Ignatius, former Patriarch of Moscow, and Manuel Kantakouzenos, who belonged to the imperial family of the Byzantine Emperor Palaeologus.
After numerous miracles attributed to 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 Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church keeps his feast day on the first Sunday after November 12. (This Church uses the Julian Calendar, whose November 12 now corresponds to the Gregorian Calendar November 25.) When, in 1867, Pope Pius IX inserted his feast into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, it was assigned to November 14, which was the first free day after November 12, which was then occupied by the feast of “Saint Martin I, Pope and Martyr.” In Pope Paul VI’s 1969 revision of the calendar, this latter feast was moved to Pope Saint Martin’s dies natalis (birthday to heaven), and Saint Josaphat’s feast was moved to that date, his own dies natalis. Traditional Roman Catholics continue to celebrate the feast day of “St Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr” on November 14.
St Josaphat Kuntsevich is the patron saint of a number of Polish parishes in the United States, including the Basilica of St. Josaphat, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and St Josaphat’s parish in Chicago, Illinois. A relic is on display in the “catacombs” of Holy Trinity Polish Mission in Chicago and St. Josaphats Parish of Bayside, Queens, New York. There is a St. Josaphat’s Roman Catholic Church in Detroit.
There is a St. Josaphat Parish located in Cheektowaga, NY which is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo
A St. Josaphat’s Cathedral and Ukrainian elementary school exists in Toronto, Ontario.
Priestly Society of St. Josaphat
Recently, a dissident group of Ukrainian Catholics, who oppose the changes made in the Ruthenian Rite to reduce Roman influence, have formed the Priestly Society of Saint Josaphat. They are linked to the wing of the Society of St. Pius X which has not recognized the authority of the Second Vatican Council.