Holy Man of Russia: Blessed Leonid Feodorov

Blessed Leonid Feodorov, First Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church; Bridgebuilder Between Rome and Moscow, by Paul Mailleux, S.J.

A Review by Eleonore Villarrubia

Do you know the meaning of the title “Exarch?” I did not until I read this excellent and moving account of the holy life of Blessed Exarch Leonid Feodorov, a Russian Orthodox-turned- Catholic whose short and difficult life was lived at the beginnings of the God-hating Soviet Union and the ensuing bitter Gulag years when all of this huge nation became an enormous prison camp. In the vast prison system of this cruel regime the prisoners were not merely common criminals, they were priests, nuns, religious persons of all stripes, even rabbis, Muslims and lay believers who clung to their “superstitions” against the directives of Communist law.

Leonid was born to humble beginnings, his grandfather having been a serf of the Czar, Alexander III. When this reform-minded ruler liberated his serfs, Leonid’s grandfather, Theodore, and his father, John, settled in the St. Petersburg area and opened a small restaurant. Leonid’s mother was of Greek extraction and worked very hard to educate her only child in the classics. She knew that he was a very bright and sensitive boy and saw a good education as his only way out of a rigid system. He attended the Gymnasium (the Russian high school) where he acquired a reputation as an idealist. He was somewhat stand-offish because he refused to engage in the debaucheries of his fellow students. He was well-read at a very young age and knew that he had a vocation as a priest or a monk — of the Russian Orthodox Church, of course.

To better understand the peculiar situation of Catholicism in Russia at the time, one must go back to the original schism of the Orthodox and the Latins. When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire of the fourth century, there eventually came about a distinctive difference between the civil governments of the area and the religious government of the Church under the Pope. As the Western Empire broke up into the various states, the independence of the Western Catholic Church was zealously defended by the successors of Saint Peter, making him the supreme arbiter of all things spiritual.

Because the Empire became so large, Constantine founded a second capital in Byzantium, Constantinople. The head of the Church was also the head of the Eastern Empire, a situation which endured until 1453. There was no distinction between spiritual and political rulers. This philosophy carried over into the Russian Christian areas where the ONLY approved Church was the Russian Orthodox. Here the Divine Liturgy was prayed in Russian and no citizen who was of that persuasion could convert to any other religion without grave consequences. For example, if a Russian subject became a member of the Roman Catholic Church, his property would be confiscated and the priest who welcomed him into the fold would be deported to Siberia, leaving his own Latin congregation without their priest.

During the lifetime of our subject, Blessed Leonid, most of the Latin Catholics living in Russia were foreigners, or descendants of foreigners, mainly Polish. There was great animosity between the Latin Poles and the Russian Orthodox. Many of the Poles or their ancestors had been displaced from their homeland by Russian conquests; so there was that resentment. The Russians, for their part resented the presence in their midst of the Latin “enemies” of the Eastern Church. They had not forgotten the tragic and terrible sack of Constantinople by invading Crusaders in 1204. These supposed soldiers of Christ invaded the holy Church of Santa Sophia, the seat of Saint John Chrysostom, placed a Latin Patriarch there and went on to create great havoc and destruction in the Rome of the East by their brutish behavior.

In turn, Latin Christians remembered the equally brutal massacre of Latin Catholics by the Easterns in Constantinople in 1182. Many considered the occurrences of 1204 in the Fourth Crusade payback for that incident. In short, it was a very complex and long-standing animosity that had been smoldering for centuries. And by some accounts, still exists to this day.

After the Turks invaded and captured Constantinople in 1453, the Christian Empire of the East moved to Moscow, which then became the “Third Rome.”

Leonid Seeks Catholicism

It was generally well-known by his teachers in the gymnasium, and then the seminary, that Leonid had Catholic leanings. He had read the Fathers of the Church and believed in the primacy of the Pope. His greatest desire and wish was to have a genuinely Catholic Russian Church which celebrated the liturgy in the Eastern style and not in Latin. Of course, the ultimate goal of the Russian Catholics was to reunite the Orthodox Church with Rome and end the long-standing schism. To achieve the immediate goal — getting ordained a Catholic priest — he knew that he would have to leave his homeland and seek ordination in a foreign country. It also meant that he would have to leave his beloved mother who had worked so hard for his education. He had the blessing of a few of his teachers to do this. He had also found a small network of other Russians who shared his beliefs and worked tirelessly for the same goal.

One of his Latin Rite contacts in Russia was the good Polish priest, Father Stislavsky, pastor of Saint Catherine’s Church in St. Petersburg, Father Stislavsky accompanied Leonid to the Capital of Christendom. In Rome, at the Church of the Gesu, Leonid Feodorov professed his Catholic Faith and confessed to Father Stislavsky in front of the relics of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, thereby being received into the Catholic Church on that saint’s feast day, July 31, 1902. In Rome, Leonid had the good fortune to meet Pope Leo XIII who offered him a scholarship to the seminary that he had established at Anagni. Leonid gratefully accepted the offer. He excelled in his studies, even though he did not know a word of Italian when he began. He proved to be a quick study in learning to speak, understand and read the language — so well, that “he spoke it like a native,” according to his fellow seminarians.

Meanwhile, Back in Russia

It was a time of great upheaval in the homeland. The Russo-Japanese War brought the Empire to its knees in 1904 and 1905. Also in 1905, the first of the three revolutions occurred, culminating in “Bloody Sunday” when unarmed civilians led by a priest marched on the Winter palace to present a petition to the Czar and were fired upon by soldiers. Many of those protesting citizens died. While this revolt was crushed, it laid the groundwork for the two revolutions that took place in 1917, leading to the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government. In addition, the Empire was mired in World War I and the Russian Army was faring poorly. This led to dissatisfaction with the Czarist rule and the eventual abdication of Czar Nicholas II.

Leonid’s life, as well, was in upheaval. After three years at Anagni, he was warned by the Russian ambassador that he would be banned from the homeland forever, if he “continued to study under the Jesuits” who were considered spies by the Russian government and the Orthodox Church. Since his life’s goal was to live and work in Russia as a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest with the aim of uniting the Orthodox under the Pope, he complied and found a seminary in Switzerland.

Eventually, he was ordained by Bishop Michael Mirov, Bulgarian Greek-Catholic Bishop in Constantinople, on March 25, 1911. His had been a long journey. Little did he know that it was only the beginning of an arduous life as a priest in the homeland. When the Russian Revolution began in 1917, one of the early positive results under the Provisional Government was the declaration of religious freedom and the liberating of all religious prisoners. Immediately, the few Russian Catholic priests opened a little church in St. Petersburg. A few days later, under Pope Benedict XV, the earlier and unpublished proclamation of Pope Pius X was announced which had named Father Leonid Feodorov Exarch (equivalent to bishop) with episcopal jurisdiction in Russia. Sadly, this improved situation was short-lived.

As we know only too well, the godless Bolsheviks made life in Russia hell for all believers. One of the cruelest laws that they enacted was that no children could be taught religion, their aim being to eradicate God from the minds and hearts of the people. Any priest, nun or even parent who spoke of God or religion to children could be jailed or sent to the Gulag. Little by little, the Orthodox and Catholic priests had their religious rights taken away from them. Eventually, after harsh treatment, poor food and other deprivations, most were sent to the island of Anzer in the far north where it was always freezing. Nevertheless, they — both Orthodox and Catholics, Latin and Byzantine rites — were able to hold secret Masses in a huge fort turned prison. Some, including Exarch Leonid, who had been arrested, were made to work cutting down trees in the brutally cold forests and hauling them away. It was work made to break the strongest of men. The mortality rate was very high.

One of the most touching stories of life in the far north is the way these brave priests got the wine for the sacred liturgies. Sometimes they might receive packages from home with a bit of wine. When that was no longer allowed (or the wine was stolen by the guards), they would save raisins from their paltry food supply and make wine. Using just drops of the precious wine to consecrate into Our Lord’s Blood, they were able to have at least one secret Mass in some hidden corner of the vast prison every day.

The touching story of this brave and holy priest is not only uplifting spiritually — to know what Christians and believers of all stripes endured during the awful Communist years in Russia — but it is most interesting from a historical and religious point of view as well. This is a very heart-wrenching and sweet read. Father Leonid was a Catholic who knew what his life’s goal should be and might have succeeded had the Bolsheviks not intervened. It is a well-written book and just the right length. Any Catholic interested in spreading the Faith would gain inspiration from the story of this holy Blessed.

Blessed Leonid was far from the only Catholic priest to suffer under the Bolsheviks. These others include Blessed Basil Hopko, Blessed Theodore Romzha, and Blessed Ivan Ziatyk, martyrs all. In fact, there are so many that in June of 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified twenty-five of them at the same time. Thousands more Christians whose names we will never know were killed in odium fidei. May they wear their crown of glory in Heaven forever!

This book available from our bookstore.