Even though Jesus repeatedly calls His people to be united, in practice we are quite divided. Presently, and tragically, the divisions in Christendom, which is 64 percent Roman Catholic, 13 percent Eastern Churches (mostly Orthodox) and 23 percent Protestant (with an estimate of over 33,000 denominations), speaks very poorly about the unity that Jesus calls us to.
The divisions started in the 400’s and again in 1054 when the Roman Church and Eastern Church split, with the largest split in the 1500’s with the beginning of Protestantism. Check out the timeline below:
There is no doubt that the division of the Church is not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” John 17:21.
Throughout the ages, there have been many men and women who have worked to bring the Church back together. One of them is Saint Josaphat. We celebrate his feast on November 12th. I thought it would be beneficial for us to take a look at this Saint, who fought hard for, and gave his life for, unifying the Roman and Eastern Churches.
Saint Josaphat was born in Lithuania in 1580 in to an Eastern Catholic family. The country was divided between Catholics and Orthodox. When Saint Josaphat was 15, the bishops of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Churches who lived within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth held a Ruthenian Synod in 1595 and voted to unite with Rome under Pope Clement VIII. The churches were united and those who followed the Byzantine rites were allowed to continue doing that. In 1604 Saint Josaphat entered the Byzantine monastery of The Holy Trinity. In 1614 he was ordained the Catholic Archbishop of Polotsk. He always held firm to unity with Rome, but did not like that some Roman Catholics wanted to replace the Byzantine rites with Roman rites. He believed that unity with Rome was important but that unity did not mean giving up the Byzantine traditions of his people. Many of the other Catholic bishops of his country did not like Josaphat because he refused to “Latinize” his churches. Saint Josaphat worked hard to maintain unity with Rome, while maintaining their Byzantine traditions. He saw no problem with doing that. Rome certainly agreed, but many of the people in his country did not.
There was considerable political friction between the Catholics and the Orthodox. The Orthodox ordained their own Archbishop of Polotsk and the frictions reached the point that violence erupted. While Josaphat was visiting Vitebsk (Belarus), he was cruelly hacked to death on November 12, 1623. He was about forty-five years old.
Josaphat had said before his martyrdom, “I rejoice to offer my life for my holy Catholic faith.” He had prayed, “Grant that I be found worthy, Lord, to shed my blood for the union and obedience to the Apostolic See.” All that Saint Josaphat did, was done for the sake of Unity of the Church.
In May 1643, twenty years after his death, Pope Urban VIII declared him “Blessed.” But it was not until June 29, 1867, that Pope Pius IX canonized him “Saint.” He was the first saint of the Eastern Church to be formally canonized by Rome. On November 12, 1923, the tercentenary of Josaphat’s martyrdom, Pope Pius XI declared him the heavenly Patron of Reunion between Orthodox and Catholics. During the Second Vatican Council, at the express wish of Pope John XXIII, who himself was most interested in reunion, the body of St. Josaphat was finally laid to rest at the magnificent altar of St. Basil in St. Peter’s Basilica. This took place on November 25, 1963. In 1964, newspaper photos of Pope Paul VI embracing Athenagoras I, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, marked a significant step toward the healing of a division in Christendom that has spanned more than nine centuries. The Church is still working on that unity today.
So what does that mean for us today? It has been only a few days since the election of our new President. Newscasters keep telling us that the country is much divided. Even within families there is a great deal of separation. Some family members don’t even talk to each other. The Churches themselves are still much divided and Unity seems almost unreachable. It appears that we are a people who like to separate ourselves into different camps. There is no doubt that Jesus called for unity, especially in His Church. We need to have a certain amount of unity in our country. Unity within our families is much needed. Unity is definitely something we must strive for at so many levels. I know that it is difficult. However, with a great deal of prayer, and with hard work, I hope someday we can. May Saint Josaphat pray to help us achieve that unity.