Born in the early 1580s as part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Josaphat was still a young lad during the time of the Synod of Brest Litovsk, better known as the Union of Brest, in 1595-96. Communion with Rome was such a controversial topic at this time that violence often broke out and martyrs died on both sides.
Following his merchant apprenticeship in 1604, St. Josaphat chose to enter the Holy Trinity monastery in Vilna. In 1617, he was made bishop of Vitebsk and archbishop of Polotsk. Upon entering his archbishopric, Josaphat found everything a mess. The priests in that region hardly cared for their own souls much less the souls of their spiritual flock. The saint had his work cut out for him, and after three years of preaching and instructing, St. Josaphat had rebuilt the church. But his problems were only beginning.
Being an advocate of communion with Rome, the archbishop was opposed by those who desired to remain separate from Rome, the separatists. These Orthodox bishops who were against reunification soon set up a rival archbishop to St. Josaphat, which divided the people of the region.
St. Josaphat got no support from Rome because some of the Roman diplomats believed that Josaphat had been inciting the violent riots which were becoming more prevalent.
Then, in October 1623, the archbishop saint went to Vitebsk intending to calm much of the anger in that town. However, the separatists saw this as an opportunity to kill the saint and began plotting against him. They sent a priest to the archbishop’s house in Vitebsk to harass him; and, on November 12, the servants of Josaphat locked the offending priest in a room.
This was all the excuse the separatists needed to create a mob and storm the house of the archbishop, beating and killing whoever they found. St. Josaphat spoke to the mob imploring mercy for his servants saying, “My children what are you doing with my servants? If you have anything against me, here I am, but leave them alone!” (catholic.org). The mob seized the martyr, hit him with an axe, shot him, and threw his body into a river.
The Jewish people of Vitebsk did their best to aid the servants of the archbishop and denounced the violence of the mob.
The violence of November 12th brought many over to the side of unification and even Josaphat’s rival archbishop was reconciled with Rome.
The body of St. Josaphat was rescued from the river and is now resting in St. Peter’s.