Thursday, November 12, 2009

Saint Josaphat, bishop and martyr (1580?-1623)

In 1967, 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. In 1595, when today’s saint was a boy, the Orthodox bishop of Brest-Litovsk (famous in World War I) in Belarus and five other bishops representing millions of Ruthenians, sought reunion with Rome. John Kunsevich (Josaphat became his name in religious life) was to dedicate his life and die for the same cause. Born in what was then Poland, he went to work in Wilno and was influenced by clergy adhering to the Union of Brest (1596). He became a Basilian monk, then a priest, and soon was well known as a preacher and as an ascetic. He became bishop of Vitebsk (now in Russia) at a relatively young age, and faced a difficult situation. Most monks, fearing interference in liturgy and customs, did not want union with Rome. By synods, catechetical instruction, reform of the clergy and personal example, however, Josaphat was successful in winning the greater part of the Orthodox in that area to the union. But the next year a dissident hierarchy was set up, and his opposite number spread the accusation that Josaphat had "gone Latin" and that all his people would have to do the same. He was not enthusiastically supported by the Latin bishops of Poland. Despite warnings, he went to Vitebsk, still a hotbed of trouble. Attempts were made to foment trouble and drive him from the diocese: A priest was sent to shout insults to him from his own courtyard. When Josaphat had him removed and shut up in his house, the opposition rang the town hall bell, and a mob assembled. The priest was released, but members of the mob broke into the bishop’s home. He was struck with a halberd, then shot and his body thrown into the river. It was later recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome. His death brought a movement toward Catholicism and unity, but the controversy continued, and the dissidents, too, had their martyr. After the partition of Poland, the Russians forced most Ruthenians to join the Russian Orthodox Church.

The seeds of separation were sown in the fourth century when the Roman Empire was divided into East and West. The actual split came over relatively unimportant customs (unleavened bread, Saturday fasting, celibacy). No doubt the political involvement of religious leaders on both sides was a large factor, and doctrinal disagreement was present. But no reason was enough to justify the present tragic division in Christendom, which is 64 percent Roman Catholic, 13 percent Eastern Churches (mostly Orthodox) and 23 percent Protestant, and this when the 71 percent of the world that is not Christian should be experiencing unity and Christ-like charity from Christians!

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke(17.20-25)

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you. Then he said to his disciples, The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. Men will tell you, 'There he is!' or 'Here he is!' Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

The Kingdom
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

I remember the exultation of his followers when Francois Mitterrand won the Presidency of France. A new period in French life was about to start! But somehow the lustre began to fade. Time and again there is great excitement all over a nation when a party captures Government. The same thing can be seen even when a dictatorial party wins a democratic election and slowly manipulates the processes so as to entrench its power for long years ahead. Its followers can be filled with enthusiasm for the utopia that is promised. Enormous atrocities can be perpetrated for the sake of a utopia, imagined as a regime of material and political prosperity. The French Revolution exploded on the scene with the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for all in a nation in which all were to be citizens equally. Citoyens! What in fact took shape was a terrible ogre, a monster with blood and flesh dripping from its vast mouth. Terror was in every neighbourhood and the guillotine became a famed household word. Out of its jaws came the thunder of Bonaparte, and Europe was filled with carnage, fire and sword. It began with the dream of a utopia for this world. A century later another utopia was imposed: that of the Russian Revolution with its millions of dead strewn in its wake. Long, long before, God himself had promised a Kingdom. At the dawn of human history, God had promised that the descendant of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. Abraham was promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. The prophets saw it coming, - a little here, a little there, and gradually the picture formed. A Messiah was coming, one who would fulfil what God had promised for the people and for the world. But how was this interpreted? All too often it was understood as an earthly utopia. Indeed, there are still those who, accepting the revelation that preceded Christ, take the divine promises to mean a world of peace and prosperity here and now. The notion of a Messiah, dead on the cross and calling on all to follow in his footsteps, is a foolishness to them.

In our Gospel today our Lord is asked - by the Pharisees - when the Kingdom of God would come. They knew it would come and the acceptance of historical revelation involves accepting this hope. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness calling on all to repent, and to prepare the way for the Lord, for he was coming. He pointed to Jesus as God’s Man, his Anointed one, the Messiah. Then John’s star was removed from sight and Christ stood forth as the light that had suddenly arrived. He called on all to repent, for the Kingdom of God was at hand. When, then, the Pharisees asked, would it come? The problem with the Pharisees as with so many, was their very notion of the Kingdom of God. Our Lord said to them that it is not as you think it to be. “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you.” The Kingdom of God is within you! What would the Pharisees have made of this? We read in the Gospel of St John of one of the Pharisees who came to Jesus by night to be instructed by him. He was Nicodemus, a secret but faithful disciple, and to him our Lord spoke of the Kingdom of God (John 3). You have to be born again, our Lord said, otherwise you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. It will mean being born of water and the Holy Spirit. Importantly, our Lord went on to tell him that he himself must be lifted up, that those who believe in him may not perish but have life everlasting (John 3: 14). In our Gospel today, having replied to the Pharisees, our Lord speaks to his disciples. Before his glory, the Son of man “must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Luke 17: 20-25). The Kingdom of God is not a utopian kingdom of this world. It involves crucifixion. A person will enter the Kingdom or Rule of God when he follows Christ along that road for love of him. The Rule or Reign of God is found and embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and one enters this Kingdom by entering into union with him. It is this Kingdom which will triumph.

Man’s best happiness here consists in union with Jesus Christ. He is the key and the meaning of the universe. He is the grand linchpin, and we reach the heart of reality by entering into an undying friendship with him, whatever be the cost. The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected in order to enter his glory. The Glory and the Utopia will come, but only through union with him. What he asks is that, for love of him, we renounce ourselves and take up our cross every day and follow in his footsteps. Then comes the Glory. That is what the Kingdom is, and it is found in the person of Jesus, who himself is found in his Church. Go to him, then!

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