As a little boy, Saint Josaphat and his mother often prayed before the crucifix in their parish church. On one occasion he asked his mother to explain the true meaning of the Cross to him. His mother spoke of the great love of Jesus Who became Man so as to suffer and die for our sins, that we might regain the right to heaven. "At that very moment," Josaphat later told his confessor, "I saw a spark of fire leave the side of Jesus and enter my heart. Suddenly I was filled with indescribable sweetness and love, so that I became motionless, unable to see or hear anything. Such an intense love for Our Savior and our Rite enkindled my heart, that for thirty years I have never missed Church services. My only thought was of how I might better imitate our Savior's life of poverty and suffering.”
Inflamed with the love of Jesus, little John (which was his baptismal name) lived only for the God Who had made the supreme sacrifice of His life for him. When Josaphat was twenty years of age, he joined the Basilian Order, became an exemplary monk in 1604, a Holy Bishop in 1617, and finally a martyr for the Holy Union in 1623.
St. Josaphat was born about 1580 in Vladimir, the province of Volynia when the Church in the Ukraine and Bjelo-Russia was still separated from Rome. He was the son of a poor nobleman, Gabriel Kuntsevych and his wife, Maryna. From his youth, Josaphat showed extraordinary piety and love for prayer and he spent long hours in his parish church of Saint Parasceve, advancing "in wisdom and age and grace with God and men." (St. Luke II:52). Prompted by father's concern for his son's future, Josaphat was sent to learn a trade from a trustworthy merchant in Vilno which was at the time the capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. In obedience to his parents, John (Josaphat) Kuntsevych, tried to be a good apprentice, but his heart was fixed on serving God. Prayer and reading of spiritual books became an obsession with him.
In 1596, the Union of Brest was proclaimed. Only a few families in Vilno accepted the Union, and young Kuntsevych was among them. In the tiny Church of the Holy Trinity, he faithfully attended services, spent long hours in prayer and meditation, studied liturgical books and tried to make a decision. Upon reaching his twentieth year, John entered the Basilian Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Vilno. By special privilege, he was immediately invested in the monastic habit, made a solemn profession of vows, and received the religious name of Josaphat.
Although Josaphat led an almost solitary life and relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit Himself, he progressed so rapidly in the spiritual life that the fame of his saintliness spread afar. At this time he met a bright young man John Velamin Rutsky who had just returned from Rome after completing his studies. Metropolitan H. Potij had refused to ordain Rutsky to the priesthood, but under the influence of Josaphat, he entered the Basilian Order in 1607, assuming the religious name of Joseph. From that day Josaphat and Joseph became the backbone of the very neglected Basilian Order and labored to restore its former glory. Soon, there were more than fifty candidates in the monastery.
After his ordination to the priesthood in 1609, Josaphat increased his spiritual exercises and mortifications. He continued to occupy various offices in the monastery, yet he supplemented his pastoral work to an unbelievable degree. He was the first one to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily, for which he prepared himself with discipline, long meditation, confession, and choral prayers. To be on time for his daily duties, he rose at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. He was very active among the people whom he instructed and brought closer to the Church and to the Sacraments. He consoled and assisted the sick and the prisoners and gave material assistance to the poor. In a short period of time he converted almost the whole town of Vilno to the Holy Union. Because of the increased number of candidates to the Basilian Order, Josaphat was ordered to build a new monastery in Biten, and then another one in Zhyrovytsi. The Monastery in Zhyrovytsi was in possession of a miraculous icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and later became a famous pilgrimage spot.
When J. V. Rutsky was appointed Metropolitan of Kiev, Josaphat replaced him as Superior of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Vilno. Three years later, Josaphat was consecrated Archbishop of Polotsk. The saintly Archbishop soon gained the admiration and love of his flock, and brought thousands of his people to the Holy Union. It was impossible to resist his wisdom, kindness and humility. The unique title of “Soul-Snatcher" was bestowed upon Josaphat by the dissidents.
In 1620, a dissident anti-hierarchy was established in Kiev by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophane. The capable anti-unionistic polemicist, Meletius Smotrycky became Josaphat's antagonist. Under his influence, the entire Archdiocese of Polotsk was incited and defected from the Union. Josaphat, nevertheless, did not lose heart. He began a new drive and shortly after, a majority of the people came back under his jurisdiction. However, the opposition was so incensed by his success that they threatened him with death. During his canonical visitation of Vitebsk, on Sunday, November 12, 1623, Josaphat was axed to death for his defense of the Union. He died a martyr in answer to his frequent prayer: "Grant, O Lord, that I may be found worthy to shed my blood for the Holy Union, and for obedience to the Apostolic See!"
After his death many miracles occurred but the greatest one was the conversion of his arch enemy, Archbishop M. who became a prominent defender of Josaphat and the Union. As early as 1643, Josaphat was proclaimed "Blessed' by Pope Urban VIII. His solemn commemoration in the Liturgy was established on November 12, the day of his martyrdom. Finally, on June 29, 1867, Josaphat was solemnly canonized a "Saint", and proclaimed by the Vicar of Christ the "Protector of the Holy Union”. After several adventurous transfers, his body arrived in Rome in 1949. It was solemnly deposited in St. Peter's Basilica in the Altar of St. Basil the Great on the 25th of November, 1963 in the presence of the Holy Father, Pope Saint Paul VI. One day soon may the body of St. Josaphat be returned to his own people in triumph and exultation, in fulfillment of the pledge, "THAT ALL MAY BE ONE!"