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SNATCHER OF SOULS

Father Francis's picture
Saint Josaphat

Born in Russia around 1580, Saint Josaphat is very much a saint for our own times. For centuries the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches have gone their separate ways, and many attempts have been made to reunite them. Josaphat bravely gave his life in the cause of reconciliation.

His father, who was a Catholic, apprenticed Josaphat to a merchant. The boy was not interested in trade and spent his spare time studying Church Slavonic so that he could join in the Jesuits who encouraged him in his spiritual studies, and in 1604 he entered a monastery in Vilna. There he observed the rules of monastic life so strictly that he was often asked to modify his extreme asceticism. Josaphat was ordained to the priesthood and soon gained a reputation for his preaching, particularly on the subject of union with Rome. He spent some time in Poland helping monastic houses, and then became abbot of the Vilna monastery.

In 1617 Josaphat became Archbishop of Polotsk. He found the people hostile to the Catholic Church and in fact religious life had almost disintegrated. Churches were in ruins, worship had declined and many of the clergy and religious were living scandalous lives.

Josaphat sent for some of his brethren from Vilna and set about restoring morale. He reformed the clergy, wrote and published a catechism and set an example by visiting the poor and sick, prisoners and the neglected. Everywhere he went he preached, instructed and administered the sacraments. Within three years the whole area was transformed and was solidly Catholic.

Opposition soon came, from both sides. The Orthodox clergy complained that Catholicism was not in keeping with local tradition and they tried to undermine his work. The people were confused and angry, and several riots broke out. The local governor, who was a Catholic, was afraid of serious political upheaval and accused Josaphat of causing discord. A rival archbishop, representing the Orthodox Church, was appointed to Polotsk and some of his followers plotted to kill Josaphat. On 12 November 1623 they sent one of their priests to Josaphat's official residence deliberately to insult and provoke him. Josaphat ordered him to be restrained, and this was the signal for a mob to storm his home. When Josaphat went out to speak to them he was beaten and shot, and his body was thrown into the river. He died at the age of 43.

Saint Josaphat is the first saint of the Orthodox Church to be formally canonised by the Catholic Church. Today, we continue to work and pray for reconciliation, a cause very dear to the heart of our present pope. Let us ask St Josaphat to add his prayers to ours, so that one day soon we may all be one, as Jesus wishes.