Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on November 14, 2017, feast of St. Josaphat (EF), at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
Today, in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, we celebrate the feast of the sixteenth-century martyr for Christian unity – St. Josaphat; the revised calendar commemorates him on November 12, which is the exact date of his death. When Josaphat was canonized, that date was occupied by another saint and thus unavailable to him. With the shuffling of saints in the revision of the liturgical calendar (some good and some less good), Josaphat got his proper date. Unfortunately, he could not be honored in the ordinary form because November 12 was a Sunday, but I am delighted to be able to offer Holy Mass in his honor today for a very personal reason: I am a Catholic because of St. Josaphat.
My mother’s family was Ukrainian, which meant we had a fifty-fifty chance being either Orthodox or Catholic. The efforts of St. Josaphat – indeed, his own movement from Orthodoxy to Catholicism – made Catholicism once more a viable option for Ukrainians. I should note that my maternal grandmother’s baby brother was a priest of only three weeks when he was killed by the Bolsheviks who, in turn, confiscated the family farm because they had a priest in the family.
Josaphat, as a Catholic monk, priest and bishop, worked unceasingly to effect unity between Catholics and Orthodox. Of course, he was merely taking up the challenge of the sixteenth-century Council of Florence, which extended an olive branch to the Orthodox in an attempt to end the schism which had begun in 1054. That initiative bore some fruit but was largely negated with the passage of time. It did serve as the catalyst, however, to bring into corporate reunion significant bodies of various Orthodox communities, including the Ruthenians and Ukrainians.
At times, we hear so-called “traditional” or “conservative” Catholics decry the contemporary ecumenical movement. Regrettably, “ecumaniacs” with little theological grounding have given genuine ecumenism a bad name. The impulse to foster Christian unity, however, imposes itself in a particular way on the Church of Rome in her role as the promoter and guarantor of unity, as the earliest patristic writings attest – starting with St. Ignatius of Antioch and continuing in an unbroken line to the present moment. While much could be said about ecumenism in general, today I would like to confine my reflections to Catholic relations with Eastern Orthodoxy, with whom our bond is the strongest because of their preservation of apostolic succession and thus valid sacraments.
The overtures of the Council of Florence and various popes found accelerated echoes in the papal magisterium and actions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pope Leo XIII in 1894, following the lead of his immediate predecessor Pius IX, devoted an encyclical to the Eastern Churches. In quick succession, we find Benedict XV establishing the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1917 and Pius XI inaugurating the Russian College in 1929 and the Ukrainian College in 1932. The Second Vatican Council promulgated an entire decree on the Eastern Churches – both Catholic and Orthodox – and Pope Paul VI made that concern a priority of his pontificate.
Needless to say, John Paul II as the first Slavic pope was at great pains to do all possible to heal the breach between East and West, dealing with Christian unity in a general way in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint but with greater specificity in his apostolic letter a few weeks earlier in Orientale Lumen, wherein he urged us all to “breathe with both lungs,” East and West. Catholicism in the West has much to learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters, especially as that relates to their indefatigable sense of the sacred and their abiding appreciation of Sacred Tradition. On the other hand, Eastern Orthodox need to re-evaluate their permissive attitude toward divorce and remarriage, their devaluation of clerical celibacy, their tendency to ethno-centrism and their all-too-frequent dalliances with civil authorities which, with disturbing frequency, have made those churches puppets of the State.
The Pew Research Center just released data on a study of Catholic and Orthodox attitudes toward Christian unity. It is a tribute to a truly Catholic sensibility that Catholics warm to the idea of ecclesial reconciliation in greater numbers than Orthodox. On the positive side of the ledger, Catholics and Orthodox understand the major doctrinal convergences between us. Interestingly, most Orthodox do not have a favorable impression of Pope Francis. The survey also reveals that sizeable majorities of Orthodox express strong support for divorce and remarriage, as well as for married clergy. Quite surprisingly, in most countries Orthodox Christians are almost equally divided on the question of female priests but are nearly unanimous in their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Living in the Northeast, we are blessed with the opportunity to encounter Eastern Christians, Catholic and Orthodox alike, on a regular basis. Surely, we should know very well those Eastern Christian communities in full communion with the Apostolic See for they are uniquely poised as a bridge between Latin or Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; unfortunately, they are often misunderstood by their fellow Catholics and distrusted by the Orthodox. In honor of St. Josaphat, make a special effort to “breathe with both lungs” by familiarizing yourselves with Eastern liturgy and spirituality and by befriending these brothers and sisters of ours. This suggestion is not an invitation arising from wide-eyed ecumenism gone wild; it is the desideratum of Pope Pius XI in his 1923 encyclical commemorating the third centenary of the death of St. Josaphat, wherein we find the following exhortation, first addressed to those Vatican II would more endearingly call “separated brethren”:
We invite most sincerely the Schismatics to join with Us in this unity of the Church, and We desire also that all the faithful, following the teachings and in the footsteps of St. Josaphat, may strive, each according to his ability, to cooperate with Us towards the achievement of this purpose. May all realize, too, that unity is not so much promoted by discussions or by other artificial means, as by the example of a holy life and by good works, especially those dictated by charity towards our Slav brethren and all other Easterners. (Ecclesiam Dei, n. 19)
Our saint of the day knew that his commitment to Christian unity did not bode well for his well-being, which prompted him to pray: “Lord, grant me the grace to shed my blood for the unity of the Church and in behalf of obedience to the Holy See.” I suspect it would gladden the heart of St. Josaphat if we made our own the prayer with which the Slavic Pope ended his apostolic letter on this present concern of ours:
May God shorten the time and distance [of the journey toward full ecclesial communion]. May Christ, the Orientale Lumen, soon, very soon, grant us to discover that in fact, despite so many centuries of distance, we were very close, because together – perhaps without knowing it – we were walking towards the one Lord and thus towards one another. (n. 28)