An Image of the Former Cathedral of St. Sophia, Polotsk, Belarus, As It Used to Appear
St. Josaphat Kuntsevych (c.1580-1623)
Roman Catholic Bishop of Vitebsk then Archbishop of Polotsk; Martyr
Religion (by itself) is neither inherently good nor bad, it just is. The merits and demerits arise from how people use it. Some approach religion and act out of love and generosity of spirit. Yet others are religious in a negative, hateful way. These individuals are merely unpleasant at best and murderous at worst. Well-intentioned people of good will can disagree on profound points without resorting to hostility and/or murder. This attitude would have prevented an angry mob from killing St. Josaphat.
St. Josaphat Kuntsevych was born to a noble family of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Our story unfolds entirely within that late nation-state.) The saint was a Uniate, an Eastern Rite Roman Catholic. The Uniates had retained their Eastern Orthodox practices while recognizing the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This was controversial at the time. Indeed, it remains so. Search the Internet for “Uniate” to find websites reflecting this controversy.
The saint, baptized John, took the name Josaphat when he entered a Uniate monastery. He became the Abbot at Vilna in 1614. St. Josaphat considered many monks lax in keeping their vows, and insisted therefore insisted on a rigorous monastic rule. Some especially lax monks threatened to throw him (with the intention of drowning him) into the nearby river.
St. Josaphat became Bishop of Vitebsk (now in Belarus) in 1617. This position made him next in line to be Archbishop of Polotsk, a post he assumed three years later. (The Uniate cathedral at Polotsk at the time was St. Sophia.) His competition for the archbishopric in 1620 was Meletius, who favored breaking with Rome and following Eastern Orthodoxy. Some Latin Rite Catholics considered the saint too Eastern; some Orthodox thought him too Latin. His appointment sparked riots and an assassination plot.
St. Josaphat, Archbishop of Polotsk, died at Vitebsk in 1623 when one person shot him and another struck him on the head with an ax. Certainly theological and liturgical disagreements did not warrant murder. As an Episcopalian, I am schismatic from Rome, a fact which would have disappointed St. Josaphat. Yet he would have favored friendly persuasion to try to bring me around to his point of view. He stood for what he believed in, and he did this in a Christian way. Ultimately, he gave his life for it.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
SEPTEMBER 8, 2010 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF NIKOLAI GRUNDTVIG
A Prayer from Lives of the Saints:
God, stir up in your Church the Spirit which strengthened St. Josaphat to be able to lay down his life for his sheep. May we be strengthened by the same Spirit so that through Josaphat’s intercession we may be ready to lay down our lives for our brothers. Amen.
Readings I Have Selected:
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-17