We gather today on the 400th anniversary of St. Josaphat‘s birth into heaven. His life on earth touched many nations of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, including the peoples of Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. His life began in Volodymyr, he entered the monastery in Vilnius, where his faith life was formed. He was consecrated as coadjutor archeparch of Polotsk exactly six years to the day before his martyrdom, and entered into heaven from the city of Vitebsk. His life touched many peoples and nations, seeking to bring all into unity in Christ. During the present difficulties we face in today‘s world, in Ukraine and elsewhere, of war, migrations and many other crises, Josaphat‘s life gives us hope that the Lord can use each of us as instruments to establish His kingdom here on earth, starting from our own hearts and taking action in the world around us.
In today‘s first reading, Saint Paul describes how through the cross Jesus was able to reunite man with God. He describes that Jesus also united, differing nations, the Gentiles and the Jews, into one people of God in his body. It was through the cross that he saved man from the consequence of the initial sin and restored peace. It was a consequence of evil that separated man from God, and divided peoples one against another. God continues to bring peace to mankind, but asks man to participate in this endeavor. This is the God, who is rich in mercy, but invites man, not only to receive his mercy, but to be merciful as his heavenly father is merciful.
St. Josaphat was a man who took up this invitation from God to be a collaborator in the establishment of this unity and peace. He chose his episcopal motto and mission Ut unum sint „that all may be one“ taken from the Lord‘s prayer for his disciples during the last supper. He took it also as his mission in his ministry.
St. Josaphat was a man of deep prayer. The incident that set the course for the rest of his life happened at a very early age. As his longtime friend and companion in his mission, Archbishop Leon Kreuz recounted during a homily at a liturgy honoring Josaphat given in the cathedral of Polock two years after the saint‘s martyrdom, quoting the saint himself:
„The Servant of God said of himself: ‘When,’ he said, ‘I grew to the age of understanding, once, when my mother and I went to the Orthodox Church, I was looking at the holy icons and saw a picture of a crucified man. I asked my mother who it was, and she said that it was the Son of God, who had become a man for our sins, and who had suffered the greatest suffering as a man. And then I felt that some spark of God’s love had fallen into my heart, and from then on my greatest pleasure was to go to the Orthodox Church and, after learning the rites and chanting, to read and pray and meditate on God’s graces and mercies in such a way that I do not remember if I ever neglected the Orthodox Church service’ .“
This spark of divine love, set his life ablaze with the love of God. As he grew, and this love of God grew in him, he entered the monastery where he cultivated his life of prayer to Jesus, and love for his Blessed mother, and love for God‘s church. Through his prayer life, which included much fasting and austerity, his faith in the Lord increased and grew into a faith that must be put into action. This type of faith we heard about in today‘s gospel. Where Jairus had the faith to ask Jesus to come, and heal his dying daughter, and where the woman with the hemorrhage that many doctors had tried to cure, had the faith that if she only touched Jesus‘ garment she would be healed. They believed the Jesus could do miracles, as Saint Josaphat believed that Jesus could use him to bring more unity in the church, and could save many people who were still outside the church.
As a pastor, Josaphat was zealous for the salvation of souls. He used the sacraments first and foremost, to bring people back to God, and to strengthen them in their journey to heaven. He would often urge the faithful to frequently use the sacraments of confession and reconcilliation, and he himself spent long hours hearing confessions and absolving people‘s sins. He would hear confessions at any time, and almost anywhere. Whether in the monastery, or in the church in the city, while traveling, as well as in prisons and hospitals. As he was waiting for the boat to take people across the river, he would hear confessions of all those who were also waiting to cross the river. He at times would even pay the penitents to go to confession, especially with the poor. If somebody offended him the only request for them to make amends was that they go to confession. And most of the talks through which Josaphat brought orthodox and protestants back into the church ended with them going to confession.
He was also a powerful preacher through whose preaching many repented, and many entered the Catholic Church. He published his own catechism to spread and teach the faith to his people. He was such an effective evangelizer that they called him the thief of souls. But he was a good thief, he stole them in order to save them.
Saint Josaphat‘s martyrdom was no surprise because there had been many attempts on his life previously. One could say that he had a desire for martyrdom. He once said „I know that they want to kill me but also the church fathers were killed for the truth.“ In this, he was in fact, much like the church fathers who desired to be united with Christ‘s suffering, and saw in death the possibility to be finally united with Christ.
Today, as we gather here in St. Peter‘s basilica by his tomb, marking the 400th anniversary of his martyrdom – his birth into heaven, we come to Saint Josaphat as our intercessor, our teacher, and an example for us in life. Let us implore God that our hearts may be touched by that divine spark that set his heart on fire with divine love, and that it may grow in us with our faith being put into action for a reconcilliation with God and our neighbor in the desire for the salvation of souls. A love so great for one‘s enemies, that we desire to convert them and bring them fully into the love of God so that all may be one.
Archbishop Gintaras Grušas
November 12, 2023