One of many unknown saints in the liturgical calendar is St Josaphat of Polotsk. He is, in no uncertain terms, a martyr in the cause of Christian unity.

Born in the mid-1580s, Josaphat was a young boy when the Synod of Brest Litovsk took place (in what was then part of Poland-Lithuania), at which the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev and five Orthodox bishops decided to recommit the many Christians under their care to reunion with Rome.

As you can imagine, this decision did not go down well. Tension between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox was high. The schism itself in 1054 was the result of centuries of tension and each side unjustly provoked the other at times.

Josaphat was a bridge between the worlds of East and West. He was a lover and promoter of the Byzantine Rite of the liturgy, something the Latin Catholics held against him. He was also a believer in the primacy of Rome as the sign of unity for the universal church, which the Orthodox held against him. As bishop of Vitebsk and Polotsk, however, he had a huge influence on reviving the life of the Church. At the time it was a mess.

Interestingly enough, one of the strategies he used in bringing the Church back to life was the use of synods. He held synods, published a catechism, and worked tirelessly to minister to the needs of his people. Josaphat lived a model Christian life and made sure the clergy did the same; at that time the monasteries were lax and his clergy had sometimes been married several times.

Both in Vitebsk and Polotsk, however, his own people turned against him for different reasons. He was condemned by the chancellor of Lithuania who believed stories about him inciting people to violence when he had done no such thing. He was eventually driven out.

In 1623, he decided to return to Vitebsk despite the tension. He wanted to bring peace himself. The result of this was a mob descending on Josaphat’s house, beating and trampling his friends and servants. Eyewitnesses of the event say that Josaphat was beaten with sticks, his head split open with an axe, and his body dragged naked through the city until he was tossed into the river Dvina.

His life was a heroic one in the cause of unity, and it bears some reflection in light of Pope Francis’ recent announcement that he is going to declare St Irenaeus of Lyon a Doctor of the Church – the Doctor of Unity, to be precise.

Even though St Irenaeus was born in the East (in modern day Turkey) in the second century, he ended up West, in Lyon, where as a bishop he became one of the earliest and most respected theologians. In this way, he is also widely recognised to be a bridge between the worlds of East and West. In him there is no discontinuity between those theological worlds.

Irenaeus frequently pointed to the Apostolic Tradition as something public, not private or secret, something that can be pointed to as a witness to the genuine message of the Gospel handed down from the apostles to their successors.

Pope John Paul II famously wrote in Ut Unum Sint that the Church needs to breathe with both of its lungs again: the Church in the East and the in the West. The Church is stronger with the East and the West together since they complement each other in such brilliant and beautiful ways. As we await Pope Francis’ official declaration of St Irenaeus as the Doctor of Unity, let us continue to pray, through the intercession of St Irenaeus and St Josaphat, that these two lungs of the Church can breathe together once again.

In the Catholic Church, the feast of St Josaphat is celebrated on 12 November, and the feast of St Irenaeus of Lyon on 28 June.