Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Fourth Centenary of the Martyrdom of St Josaphat

Today, the Church marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of St Josaphat, who was killed for his ardent championship of union with Rome among the Byzantine-rite Christians of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A member of the Basilian Order, Josaphat, né John Kuntsevych, was made bishop of Vitebsk in 1617, at the age of only 37, and archbishop of Polotsk the following year. (Both cities are now in Belarus.) In a period of great tension between Catholics and Orthodox, he went to preach at Vitebsk; on the steps of his co-cathedral he was struck in the head with an ax, and then shot by fanatical opponents of the union with Rome, on the sixth anniversary of his episcopal consecration. They then tore off his clothes, and for a moment thought they had killed the wrong man, since he was wearing a hairshirt underneath; the body was thrown into the river, but recovered three days later. The Roman Breviary states that the first beneficiaries of his martyrdom were his own assassins, who were all reconciled to Rome, as was his principal opponent among the Orthodox clergy, Bishop Meleti Smotrytsky. Beatified only 20 years after his death, he was canonized by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1867; originally assigned to November 14th in the Roman Rite, his feast was moved to the day of his death in the calendar revision of 1969.

A few weeks ago, the Gregorian University in Rome inaugurated a special exposition to mark this anniversary; we are grateful to Fr Joseph Koczera SJ for sharing these pictures of it with us.
An eighteenth-century Baroque portrait of the Saint attributed to the Italian artist Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764). 
The official portrait used at his canonization ceremony in 1867.
A 1934 painting of a teenaged St Josaphat and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, by the Italian artist Mario Barberis (1893-1960): created for the chapel of the Pontifical College in Rome named for the Saint, but removed in the 1960s, when the very Latinized style of the work had fallen out of fashion in an era of re-Byzantinization.
A 1946 painting of St Josaphat by Mykola Azovskyj (1903-47), an important 20th-century Ukrainian artist, who offered a modern depiction of the saint that nevertheless stands in continuity with both Byzantine and Latin iconography.
An icon of St. Josaphat by Juvenalij Mockryckj (1911-2002), with the Pochaiv Lavra, one of the most important monasteries in the western part of Ukraine, depicted at the bottom of the image. (The church at the far right was designed in the early 1900s by a Russian architect named Alexei Shchusev (1873-1949), who ironically went on to design Lenin’s mausoleum.)

A prayer card distributed at the event, featuring a reproduction of the earliest-known image of St. Josaphat.

The prayer card bears a striking phrase in Latin attributed to the holy martyr: “Rus’ gave birth to me, Lithuania nurtured me, Polotsk bestowed me with a mitre, Vitebsk bled with my blood.”

The relics of St. Josaphat have a remarkable history. At the time of his beatification, they were enshrined in a silver casket at the behest of the Prince Leo Casimir Sapieha. In 1706, they were brought to the castle of Prince Karol Radzwill in the city of Bila Pidlaska, and then moved to the Basilian church in the same city. In 1873, during Tsarist persecution of the Greek-Catholic Church, the relics were removed from the altar of the church to the crypt, hidden in a wall, and apparently forgotten. However, when Bila Pidlaska was occupied by the German army in 1916, a priest of the Basilian order, Fr. Pavlo Demchuk, was sent by Fr. Platonid Filas, the General Superior of the Basilians, to recover them. Their location in the wall of the crypt was revealed to him by a man, who as a boy had seen them being immured more than four decades earlier. Fr. Demchuk transferred them to Vienna, where they were kept at the Ukrainian Catholic church of St. Barbara; in 1949, they were moved again to Rome. Originally, the Basilians had planned to enshrine them in their monastery on the Aventine Hill; the street from which the church is entered was even renamed “Via San Giosafat” in his honor. However, Pope Paul VI decreed that this “outstanding champion of Catholic communion should not be separated from blessed Peter, to whose See he remained unshakably faithful, nor from his father, lawgiver and master in the monastic life of the East. (St. Basil)” The relics were therefore exposed for the veneration of the faithful in the altar of St. Basil in St. Peter’s Basilica.

This miter was placed on the head of St. Josaphat from 1931 to 1982, accompanying the saint’s relics as they were transferred from Vienna to Rome in 1949, and ultimately replaced by a new one (given by Archbishop Myroslav Marusyn, then secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches) when the relics were revested.

Closer views of the relics within the altar.
St. Josaphat is entombed in what the altar of St. Basil the Great in St. Peter’s Basilica, beneath a mosaic copy of the monumental painting of St. Basil by Pierre Subleyras (1699-1749). It is fitting that he should rest under an altar dedicated to the patron of the monastic order that he founded, the Order of St. Basil the Great.

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