Josaphat is one of those figures in history caught in a web of controversy where even good people find it hard to keep their heads. He was caught in a battle between Catholic and Orthodox, Latin and Byzantine, and found himself criticized and opposed on every side: by the Orthodox for being Catholic and by the Latins for being Byzantine. He held firmly to Catholic unity against the Orthodox and just as firmly to Byzantine rights against the Latins. At that period of history, it was a no-win situation, and he is the great martyr to the cause of unity.
St. Josaphat was born in Lithuania about 1580 into a Catholic family and early promoted Catholic unity in a country divided between Orthodox and Catholic. He entered the Byzantine monastery of Holy Trinity in Vilna in 1604 and was elected Catholic archbishop of Polotsk in 1614. While clinging firmly to unity with Rome, he firmly opposed those Latins who saw unity only in Latin terms and would suppress Byzantine traditions in the name of Catholic unity. He firmly opposed the Latinization of his people and made enemies and severe critics among the Latin clergy of Poland.
Politically, the Catholic and Orthodox clergy were rivals in Lithuania, and the archbishopric of Polotsk was one of the contested sees. An Orthodox archbishop of Polotsk was appointed, and Josaphat was accused of taking office invalidly. Many of his Byzantine Catholics were won over to allegiance to Orthodoxy. Even the king of Poland wavered in his support of Josaphat, especially when Polish bishops accused him of betraying his faith by not Latinizing his diocese.
One of the hotbeds of trouble in Josaphat's diocese was Witebsk, and in November of 1623 he went there to bring about peace in his flock, preaching in the churches and trying to reconcile differences. On November 12, a mob broke into the house where he was staying, shouting hatred and violence. When he confronted them, he was struck in the head with a halberd and shot. His mangled body was dragged out and thrown into the river. He was canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1867.
Thought for the Day: It is important to say that there was a martyr for unity on the Orthodox side as well, and even good men were uncertain where truth and justice lay. St. Josaphat died working for reconciliation, and peacemakers often find themselves hated by both sides. It is part of the risk of being a true follower of Christ.
From 'The Catholic One Year Bible': What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. Men of God in days of old were famous for their faith.—Hebrews 11:1-2