St. Josaphat Kuncevich, OSBM, is a Ukrainian saint who as an apostle for the unity of the Ukrainian people with the See of St. Peter suffered martyrdom. He is recognized as the mediator, protector, and patron of the Ukrainian Church and people.
St. Josaphat was born in 1580, in Vododymyr Volensky. His parents Gabriel and Marianna were poor merchants. When he was about 14 years old he was sent to Vilna, in Lithuania, where he apprenticed with a merchant. But merchandizing was not to be his career or vocation. At the age of 24 he became a Basilian Monk, and devoted himself to a life of sanctity. He fulfilled his duties as a monk, priest, master of novices, superior, and archimandrite with dedication. In this way he became the soul of the renewal of the Basilian Order. Through his joint efforts with Metropolitan Benjamine Rutsky, OSBM, abuses were corrected in the monastery at Vilna in 1607 and later, in other monasteries. In 1617 the reformed monasteries were organized in a new body, the Ukrainian Order of St. Basil the Great.
On November 12, 1617, Metropolitan Benjamin Rutsky, OSBM assisted by other bishops ordained St. Josaphat auxiliary bishop, with the right of succession to Archbishop Gideon Brolnytsky of the Eparchy of Polotsk and Vitebsk. As archbishop, St. Josaphat’s household and Eparchy became noted for efficiency, thrift, and moderation. His care for the beauty of the Eparchy was exemplified by the building and renewing of churches. He spared no expense for the training of church cantors. He revived the spiritual lustre of the clergy, wrote books for them and often instructed the clergy at conferences. Vigorously he strived to regain church properties unlawfully expropriated by outsiders. He toiled zealously to regain those souls separated from the Catholic Church, often meeting with them to talk and preaching about the Church and the faith. Through many did harm to him, St. Josaphat showed them love, kindness and forbearance.
St. Josaphat derived much of his spiritual strength from the Divine Liturgy which he celebrated daily. Before each Divine Liturgy he prepared himself with meditations, self-mortification and confession. While celebrating Divine Liturgy, he was so absorbed in his office, so deeply moved by the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist that he could scarcely breath or speak. From time to time he enjoyed the phenomenon of levitation, that is, to rise into the air without support, remaining there for several minutes in ecstasy. Pious souls often saw Josaphat surrounded by a light and angels. Frequently when St. Josaphat turned with the Chalice to the congregation, they saw the Child Jesus rise above the Chalice to bless the people, while at his side stood and angel in the vestment of a deacon.
St. Josaphat was martyred while making a canonical visitation to Vetebsk. Before leaving Polotsk some of the faithful warned him not to go because there were people in Vitebsk who planned to kill him. But he answered: “I am not afraid of death; I am ready for martyrdom; I only wish to be worthy to give my life for God… I have arranged for my grave to be prepared”. Just before leaving Polotsk, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and exclaimed: “Grant me, o Lord, that I may be worthy to sacrifice my blood for unity and obedience to the Apostolic See”.
In the town of Vetebsk, on Sunday morning, November 12, 1623, the sixth anniversary of his ordination as bishop, at a given signal of the hall bell, thousands of townspeople carrying stones, staffs, axes and guns, converged before the archbishop’s Residence. When St. Josaphat came out to meet the frenzied mob he blessed them with a sign of the cross and said, “If you have anything against me, I am here”. At the same time two villains jumped at him shouting, “Kill him, kill the latin, kill the papist”. One of them struck St. Josaphat over the head with a staff and the other struck him on the left side of his head with an axe. The martyr, with blood streaming for the head, fell to the ground. Quietly he whispered: “O my God!” Hearing this another villain shouted, “He is still alive!” and shot two bullets through the Bishop’s head.
St. Josaphat distinguished himself by his great love for God, his purity of soul, his extraordinary gift of prayer, his love for the Ukrainian rite, his spirit of penance, his humility, his unceasing zeal for the salvation of souls and his filial devotion to the Catholic Church. The true apostolic zeal for the union of his people to the true Church of Christ is a brilliant example for the modern Ecumenism.