Josaphat Kuncevyc

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Josaphat Kuncevyc (in Belarusian Язафат Кунцэвіч, Jazafat Kuncevič) is a martyr and saint of the Roman Catholic Church, born in the little town of Volodymyr in the region of Volhynia, then part of Lithuania, in 1580 or — according to some writers — 1584; died at Vitsebsk in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now in Belarus), 12 November, 1623.

Josaphat's birth occurred in a gloomy period for the then-unified Ruthenian Church. Even as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century the Florentine Union had become a dead-letter; in the case of the Ruthenian Church, complete demoralization followed in the wake of its severance from the Roman see, and the whole body of its clergy has been accused by the Catholic Church of ignorance and viciousness. After the Union of Bierascie in 1596, the Ruthenian Church was divided by schism into two contending parties — the Uniates, and those sympathetic to the Eastern Orthodox Church — each with its own hierarchy. Among the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox party, Meletius Smotryckyj was conspicuous, and the most celebrated of his opponents was Josaphat.

Although of a noble Belarusian stock (szlachta), Josaphat's father had devoted himself to commercial pursuits, and held the office of town-councilor. Both parents encouraged religiosity in Josaphat. In the school at Volodymyr Josaphat — Johannes was his baptismal name — gave evidence of unusual talent; he applied himself with the greatest zeal to the study of ecclesiastical Slav, and learned almost the entire casoslov (breviary), which from this period he began to read daily. From this source he drew his early religious education, for the clergy seldom preached or gave catechetical instruction. Owing to the straitened circumstances of his parents, he was apprenticed to the merchant Papovič at Vilnia (now Vilnius). In this town, remarkable for the contentions of the various religious sects, he became acquainted with certain men (e.g. Benjamin Rutski), under whose direction he furthered his interest in the Church.

In 1604, at the age of twenty-four, he entered the Basilian Trojicki Monastery, the Monastery of the Trinity, at Vilnia. The fame of his religious devotion rapidly spread, and distinguished people began to visit him. After a notable life as a layman, Rutski also joined the order. When Josaphat reached the deaconate, regular services and labour for the Church had been already begun; the number of novices steadily increased, and under Rutski — who had meanwhile been ordained priest — there began the regeneration of Roman Catholic religious life among the Ruthenians (Belarusians). In 1609, after private study under Fabricius, a priest of the Society of Jesus or "Jesuits", Josaphat was ordained priest. He subsequently became Superior in several monasteries, and on 12 November, 1617, was reluctantly consecrated Bishop of Vitsebsk, with right of succession to the Archbishopric of Polotsk. He became archbishop in 1618.

Each succeeding year witnessed the steady growth of the conflict with the Eastern Orthodox party. Finally on 12 November, 1623, an axe-stroke and a bullet end Josaphat's life. After numerous miracles were claimed and reported, a commission was appointed by Pope Urban VIII in 1628 to inquire into the cause of Josaphat, and examined on 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. His canonization took place in 1867.

As a boy he shunned the usual games of childhood, prayed much, and lost no opportunity of assisting 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 behaviour 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.

His favourite devotional exercise was to make a paklony, i.e. a genuflection, in which the head touches the ground, saying: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner." Never eating meat, he fasted much, wore a hair shirt and an angular chain, 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 his zealous study of the 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. As deacon, priest, and bishop, he was distinguished by his extraordinary zeal in performing the Church services. Not only in the church did he preach and hear confessions, but likewise in the fields, hospitals, prisons, and even on his journeys. This zeal, united with his kindness for the poor, won numbers to the Catholic faith. Among his converts were included many important personages such as Ignatius, Patriarch of Moscow, and Emmanuel Cantacuzenus, who belonged to the family of the Greek Emperor Palologus.

As archbishop 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 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 zeal for self-mortification and prayer.

During the schismatic conflict, he refused to avail himself of the opportunity of flight afforded him. After his death his influence was still greater: conversions were numerous, and veneration for him continued to extend. His feast day is kept on the first Sunday after 12 November, according to the Julian Calendar, and on November 12 on the modern calendar.

This article incorporates text from the public domain CatholicЯзафат Кунцэвіч


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