St. Josaphat (1580-1683) is celebrated in our church calendar November 12 as a bishop who worked tirelessly to bring unity among the churches, especially unity between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. He gave his life for it.
Raised Orthodox, Josaphat joined the Uniate Ruthenian church, a church in union with Rome, became a monk, then was made archbishop of Polotsk, in Russia. He pursued Christian unity at a time when relations between the churches united to Rome and the Orthodox churches were particularly strained. He was assaulted by a mob and killed in Vitebsk, Belarus, his body was thrown into the Daugava River.
The path to unity between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches is a difficult one, as Josaphat’s experience reveals. The separation has lasted for centuries and we still experience it. Efforts towards Christian unity among the churches of the east and west need a patient, steady faith that looks more on God’s grace than human skills. It needs leaders who are peacemakers.
Jesus commands we be one.
One thing we might learn as we celebrate this feast is to respect the rich liturgical and spiritual traditions of other Christian churches, especially the eastern churches. It’s so easy to see one’s own tradition of prayer as the only one. Much of Roman Catholic liturgy and spirituality, especially feasts of Mary, comes from the churches of the east. We need to learn Josaphat’s keen appreciation of the common treasure of faith we all share.
Recently, Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato sí recognized the sensitivity of the eastern churches to the environment in their spirituality. The Roman Catholic Church can learn from them.
Holiness is universal; “Holiness is not bound by time and place.” (The Roman Calendar. Text and Commentary, 1976) Josaphat invites us to appreciate the theology, liturgy and spirituality of the churches of the east and give them honor and respect.