The Conversion of Russia

The Mother of God, in 1929, forecast to Sr. Lucy, the Fatima seer, that if Russia were consecrated to her Immaculate Heart by the Pope and the world’s bishops in union with him, it would be converted. Ever since then, faithful Catholics have prayed for this as a precondition to promised world peace. However, the immediate object of their prayer, the conversion of Russia, might better be considered the country’s reconversion. That is because, when the nation we now know as Russia became Christian a thousand years ago, it was the One True Church she embraced. The Christian East had not yet gone into schism.

Tragic as was Russia’s defection after Constantinople broke with Rome in 1054, it is understandable on the natural, human level. None of the lands that eventually came to constitute Russia ever lay within the boundaries of the Roman Empire of the West. The highly developed civilization known to the peoples of those lands was that of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire of the East and its great capital, Constantinople. Russia went schismatic in much the manner that European nations never part of the old Roman Empire fell into heresy at the time of the Protestant revolt, commonly referred to as the “Reformation.”

In any event, it is useful to tell the story of Russia’s first becoming Christian, if only to show that when in this century Our Lady of Fatima spoke of the country’s conversion, she was not talking about a development that would arise from nothing at all. A certain historical continuity will be reinforced if we also briefly consider that, similar to the very strong Catholic influence which had existed in early 19th-century Russia, so also a Catholic influence was beginning to grow there again in the years immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Seeds of Russia’s conversion of which Our Lady of Fatima spoke have been planted in the past. The ground has been prepared, more than once.

There is little recorded history of the vast region we now know as Russia before it became Christian. Various peoples, including the Scythians, Sarmatians and Huns, had vied for dominance before the Slavic Russians succeeded in consolidating their own. However, the first Russian ruling dynasty was almost certainly Scandinavian in origin. Its capital was Kiev on the Dnieper River, today the capital of the independent nation of Ukraine, believed to have been founded in the eighth century.

For a long time before then, warrior-traders from the far north had been building fortress cities along the banks of the great south-flowing rivers of the region, like the Dnieper. Kiev became their southernmost bastion.

If the political history of pre-Christian Russia is largely unrecorded, neither have we a great deal of knowledge about missionary activity in the region prior to the conversion in 988 of Vladimir the Great, sainted ruler of Kievan Rus, as the country was then known. We do know that missionaries from the West — from as far away as Ireland — labored among the Eastern Slavs, preaching the Gospel and making some converts. During the eighth century, however, the Byzantine Empire lost its territories in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean to the rise of a militant Islam. This led Constantinople to project her remaining power in a westerly direction into the Balkans, and towards the north — towards Kievan Rus.

The Kievans maintained contacts with the West, but the eastern, Byzantine influence would come to predominate in Rus. The process was assisted by two brothers we in the West venerate as great Apostles of the Church, Saints Cyril and Methodius.

They were Greek, born in the years 827 and 826 respectively, in the city of Thessolonika. Though their family was senatorial in status, the sibling saints elected to become priests. They went to Constantinople for their formation and were living there in a monastery when the Khazars, one of the peoples of the Russian steppe, asked Constantinople for a priest to teach them the Faith. Cyril was chosen, and his brother accompanied him. Cyril and Methodius were working among the Khazars when a Slavic people of the West asked for missionaries. These were the inhabitants of Moravia. We know Moravia today as part of the Czech Republic, but in the 9th century the Moravian Kingdom was more extensive. Cyril and Methodius were dispatched thence.

By way of preparation for their mission, Cyril devised a Greek-based alphabet for the translation of Holy Scripture and liturgical texts into the language of the Western Slavs, known today as Old Slavonic. The alphabet is called by the name of the saint who devised it, the Cyrillic. What is most important to know is that Cyril and Methodius sought Rome’s permission to celebrate the Liturgy (Mass) in Slavonic, and it was granted.

For some time after the two brother-saints were gone from this world, Mass in Moravia was celebrated both in Slavonic and in Latin. But, as German cultural influence increased, the people adopted the Roman alphabet, and the Latin Rite came to predominate. Meanwhile, among the Eastern Slavs (apart from the Poles, Slovenes and Croats) the Cyrillic alphabet remained in use. It survives as the alphabet today in Bulgaria and the largest Slavic nation of all, Russia. Old Slavonic is the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church.

St. Vladimir is not the only ruler whose personal embracing of the Faith led to the conversion of his people. Others include Clovis of France, St. Stephen of Hungary, and Harold of Denmark. The Emperor Constantine, founder of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, can also be cited in this regard. As with Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, a maternal influence often helps account for a royal son’s eventual conversion. In the case of St. Vladimir, it was the early influence of his grandmother, St. Olga, that played this role.

Herself a convert from heathenism, St. Olga failed to convert her son Sviatoslav, who raised Vladimir as a pagan. Vladimir, born in 856, was an illegitimate child, whose mother was a mistress of Sviatoslav. The latter did have two legitimate sons, Yaropolk and Oleg. Before he died, Sviatoslav, following the ancient custom of Rus chieftains, divided the territories over which he ruled among his three sons, the least portion going to Vladimir. Although Christian ideas had begun to spread among the Kievan Rus of those days, they still remained a semi-barbaric people easily given to fighting. And indeed, war broke out between Yaropolk and Oleg. The former sibling ruler prevailed and dethroned Oleg. Vladimir, fearing he would be his half-brother’s next target, fled to the north and sought allies among the Scandinavians. Yaropolk proclaimed himself the ruler of all Russia. A few years later, however, Vladimir returned with a large army, reclaimed the territory that had earlier been his, then battled against Yaropolk in his own territories. When Yaropolk was slain after surrendering, Vladimir made himself ruler of all Russia and took as a bride the woman who had been betrothed to Yaropolk. The year was 980.

As a pagan, Vladimir would take four more wives, producing ten sons and two daughters. In Kiev, he erected many shrines and statues to the Slavic pagan gods. While this is hardly an edifying account, it is not unusual for the day and age. Nor are saints at all uncommon who were not sinners first. Some have sunk deeper in sin than ever was St. Vladimir — a thought that should inspire every Christian struggling to secure a place in Heaven for eternity.

Vladimir’s life began to change as he made preparations for a military campaign against the Byzantines. During the course of his planning he became interested in religion. Chroniclers of the day report that he sent emissaries to neighboring lands to gather information on the religions practised there, including Islam and Judaism. As for Christianity, the plain Latin churches of German missionaries were too austere for the taste of Vladimir’s envoys. On the other hand, they were greatly impressed by the solemn splendors of the Greek liturgy celebrated at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Vladimir also remembered that this was the form of the Faith to which his grandmother Olga had converted.

In 988, he besieged and conquered the city of Kherson on the Crimean peninsula, a territory belonging to the Eastern Empire. Thereupon he sent envoys to Emperor Basil II asking for Basil’s sister, Anna, in marriage. If this request were not granted, the envoys said, Vladimir would march on Constantinople. Basil answered that a Christian could not marry a pagan, but if Vladimir were baptized the proposed alliance could take place. Vladimir replied that he had been studying Christian teachings and was ready for baptism.

Some Russian historians speculate that Vladimir was already determined to become a Christian, but hesitated on account of the “scandal” his conversion might provoke among some of his pagan subjects. It is supposed that if his conversion appeared to be for reasons of state, it would be more acceptable. In any event, Basil sent his sister to Kherson, Vladimir was baptized, and the couple wedded.

Legend has it that Vladimir was struck by a mysterious blindness before Anna’s arrival, and that his vision was restored by the water of his baptism. Whether or not this really happened, unauthenticated as it is by historical documents, the story does point up the truth that all men live in the darkness of original sin until the water of baptism makes shine on them the Light of the World.

What is for sure is that Vladimir’s conversion was real. Once baptized, he became a radically different man and ruler. He gave Kherson back to the Byzantines, put aside his pagan wives and, upon returning to Kiev with Anna, proceeded to tear down all the pagan statues and shrines he had erected. The statue of the chief god, Perun, he had dragged through the mud and thrown into the Dnieper.

The powerlessness of the old gods to defend themselves was very striking to Vladimir’s subjects. When he told them they should follow his example and become Christians, most showed themselves ready to be baptized. Eye witnesses report how they would wade out into the river so they could more readily be reached by priests for baptism.

In places once occupied by pagan shrines, Vladimir began to build churches, notably among them the Church of St. Mary Ever Virgin in 989 and that of the Transfiguration in 996. He also established monasteries in Kiev and elsewhere. Gone were his former warlike ways. During the last years of his reign, he was known chiefly for two qualities: the mildness of his rule, and the zeal with which he spread the One True Faith.

Anna, before passing away in 1011, would bear him two sons, Boris and Glib. Alas, some of his older children from earlier marriages caused Vladimir much trouble in his last days. One, Yaroslav, went into open rebellion. On his way to put down the insurgency, Vladimir fell ill and died in 1014.

Still more tragically, a mere forty years after Vladimir’s death, the East went into schism. It cannot be said that the One True Faith embraced by him was torn in two in 1054, for that would suggest that the Oneness of Truth could exist in two churches — a metaphysical impossibility. The Faith would continue to exist, as it always will, in Truth and Oneness. Regrettably, the Orthodox East henceforth would be apart from it.

Popes, saints, ecumenical councils and the prayers of countless Catholic faithful have all aimed to bring an end to Orthodoxy’s separation. From among all of them, no individual has been more dedicated to the cause of reunion than Exarch Leonid Feodorov, one of our century’s most remarkable, if little known, Churchmen, whose life and work will be traced before the conclusion of this article.

First, and as was promised at the article’s beginning, we want to consider a strong Catholic influence that existed in Russia in the early 19th century, one hundred years before Our Lady appeared to the young seers at Fatima. Apart from specialist scholars, few today are aware it existed. Yet it was strong enough that the Tsar of the day, Alexander I, may well have died a Catholic. Did his conversion, like St. Vladimir’s in 988, prefigure millions that would eventually follow?

There were three main sources of the Catholic influence that existed in early 19th-century Russia. One was the presence of the Jesuits in Russia at that time. As is well known, the Society of Jesus had been disbanded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV. What is largely forgotten today is that Tsar Alexander’s predecessor, Tsar Paul, sought and obtained from Pope Pius VII authorization to reconstitute in Russia the previously suppressed Society. So it was that in the early 1800s the world headquarters of the Jesuits was not at Rome but at the Russian capital, St. Petersburg.

Paul, as did Alexander, admired the Jesuits as educators. When the Jesuits began operating schools in Russia, it was natural, given the cachet which imperial backing lent them, that they enrolled many sons of leading Russian families, including top nobility. In 1812, a Jesuit collegium in Polotsk was transformed into a seminary. Thus was begun the formation of Russian Catholic priests in Russia. Further, the seminary had university status with supervisory rights over all secondary education in the part of the Empire known as White Russia.

Another source of Catholic influence in Russia at the time was the presence of thousands of refugees from the French Revolution and its ultimate, Europe-wide expression, the Empire of Napoleon I. Among the Catholic refugees, many of whom entered Russian government and military service (at least two were made provincial governors), were King Louis XVIII and his court. Naturally, such personages moved at the very highest levels of Russian society. As they did, they would inevitably speak of how the Revolution’s true target, beyond the throne, was — as it still is — the Church. They could not speak of that without explaining why the Church was targeted. That is, they would have to explain Church teachings and beliefs. Intentionally or not, they were evangelizing.

That brings us to the third, and not the least, reason for the strong Catholic influence found in Russia two centuries ago. It was the presence, from 1802 to 1817, of Joseph de Maistre. A philosopher, and one of the most brilliant authors ever to write in French; too little of this giant’s work has been translated into English. For instance, there is no complete translation of his masterpiece, Les Soirees de St. Petersbourg. However, he was the veritable father of ultramontanism, as also, politically speaking, the 19th century’s Catholic Counter-Revolution. He did not go to St. Petersburg as a refugee, but as the ambassador of the King of Piedmont and Sardinia to Tsar Alexander.

By 1805 the philosopher-diplomat had become a confidant of the young Tsar. So we learn from The Icon and the Axe, a cultural history of Russia by James H. Billington, the historian who is presently the Librarian of Congress.

De Maistre, Billington says, was “convinced that Russia was an instrument chosen by Providence for the salvation of Europe.” He was “fascinated by the possibility of converting this vast land to Catholicism.” He launched a program towards that end. The essence of it was to evangelize younger aristocrats, future leaders of the land. Doubtless it is a measure of his success that in 1813 the Tsar voiced his personal adherence to the theological position, which is not Orthodoxy’s, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

To quote Billington again, as the possibility of war with Napoleon grew circa 1810, de Maistre “became a leader in the ideological mobilization of the Russian aristocracy, portraying their struggle as that of Christian civilization against the new Caesar.”

In 1812, Alexander offered him the position of official editor of documents published in the Tsar’s name. Unfortunately, that same year Napoleon invaded Russia. Converting a nation by converting its future leaders may be an excellent long-term strategy, but there was not time for it to succeed in Russia. The attack from the West, Napoleon’s invasion, outraged the Russian masses and strengthened the hand of those in leadership circles resistant to the growing western, Catholic influence. In 1815 the Jesuits were expelled from St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in 1820 from all of Russia. De Maistre himself, after one last audience with the Tsar, left in 1817 and died in 1821 in Turin.

As for Alexander, it is not known for a certainty if he converted before he died, no more than it is known for a certainty, but is widely believed, that two post-Reformation kings of England, Charles II and Edward VII, died Catholics. What we do know is that in 1825, the last year of his life, Alexander sent a personal emissary — a Catholic countryman and personal friend of Joseph de Maistre — to Rome on a secret mission: to procure a high-ranking cleric to instruct him in the teachings of the Faith with a view to his entering the Church. We can only pray that his conversion actually took place.

The point was made a few lines ago that the conversion of a nation’s future leaders may be an excellent strategy for converting the nation, but that in Russia there was not time enough for it to succeed. Indeed, the persecution of Catholicism in Orthodox Russia became so intense later in the 19th century that the Russian Catholic Church did not revive until shortly before the outbreak of World War I and the 1917 Revolution. Today, the Holy See has officially promised to try to convert no one in Russia (or elsewhere in the Orthodox East), let alone the nation itself. That promise is the burden of the Balamand Declaration. Information about the Declaration is offered in a sidebar accompanying this article. At this juncture, what wants underlining again is this: When, in this century, Our Lady of Fatima spoke of the conversion of Russia, she was not speaking of a development that would arise from nothing; she was not speaking of a nation always ignorant of the One True Faith suddenly embracing it. It is the One True Faith that St. Vladimir had embraced, and that same Faith had exercised a great influence in Russia one hundred years before.

It ought to be added here that Catholics should not believe, as many seem to do, that when Our Lady spoke of Russia’s conversion, she was talking about Russians starting to worship at Mass celebrated according to the principal historical rite of the Western Church, the one that still prevailed in the West in 1917 and 1929, the so-called Tridentine. Much less would a converted Russia go Novus Ordo. There is a Russian Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite. It has three parishes in the United States.

It was Exarch Leonid Feodorov, more than any other individual, who was responsible for the Byzantine Russian Catholic Church coming into being. He was born in 1879 in St. Petersburg, where his family owned a restaurant frequented by artists and intellectuals. Though brought up by his mother to take his Orthodox religion seriously, young Leonid did not at first aspire to a life in religion. He dreamed of a military career. However, under the influence of his secondary school religion teacher, he chose to enter a seminary.

The same religion teacher also encouraged him to look beyond the narrowness of Russia’s national church toward the Church Universal by studying the Roman Church’s claim that she is its embodiment. If the teacher’s attitude seems surprising, it needs to be known that Catholic ideas had once more begun to percolate in Russian intellectual circles, thanks largely to the influence of the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), often referred to as “the Russian Newman.”

In time, Leonid decided to become a Catholic. However, under existing law he could not convert in Russia without losing his citizenship. Further, any Catholic priest who received him into the One True Faith was subject to Siberian exile. Thus, in 1902 he set out for Italy. (A law granting Russian Catholics freedom to practise their religion again would be enacted in 1905.) In Rome, on the Feast of St.Ignatius of Loyola, he made his profession of Catholic faith at the Church of the Gesu. He then enrolled in a Jesuit seminary in Anagni. His studies were conducted in Latin, a language he had learned as a boy and which gave him no difficulty. He was also an active member of a Marian sodality at the seminary. Yet he remained faithful to his Eastern roots. He would spend his vacation periods, for instance, at the Greek monastery of Grottaferata near Rome, a monastery famous for never having gone into schism, not in 1054 or any time since. It was natural enough, therefore, that he would wish to become a priest of the Byzantine Rite. He petitioned Pope St. Pius X to that effect and received the answer: “The Holy Father has favorably agreed to your request . . . whatever may be the objections.” In 1911, on the fifth Sunday of Lent according to the Julian calendar, he was ordained in Constantinople by the Archbishop of Bulgarian Catholics, Msgr. Mirov.

It is beyond the scope of these present lines to give a very detailed account of the life and work of Leonid Feodorov, but when the Byzantine Russian Catholic Church was established, he was made its first head with the title of Exarch. In ancient Byzantine civil and religious law, an exarch was an official who represented imperial authority in a particular territory. As a new title in the Catholic Church, it conveyed the idea of an office which should be considered as temporary, that the Exarch of the Russian Catholics would remain in office only until there was a corporate reunion between the Russian Church and the Roman one.

In this connection, it must be emphasized that Exarch Leonid, harking back to the truth that in the pre-schism age when Russia became Christian it was the One True Faith she embraced, never spoke in terms of his country’s conversion, but always of reunion. That was the cause in which he spent his life.

The difference in the terms may seem irrelevant now inasmuch as both are repudiated by the Balamand Declaration. It speaks of “Sister Churches.” As the toils of thousands of Spanish and French missionaries who labored for centuries to bring the Faith to the Western Hemisphere are made to look futile by modern ecumenism, the ultimate sacrifice of Exarch Leonid is made to look like a waste by such language. Catholics still clinging to the Faith undiluted will know it was not a waste. It will bear its fruit in God’s good time.

Certainly that time had not arrived during the years of Exarch Leonid’s exertions. He could begin his work within Russia itself only after enactment of the 1905 legislation, and only sporadically before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, followed by the Revolution in 1917. It was after the Revolution that his activity within Russia became the most intense, for during these years places of worship were set up, and there were many wonderful conversions. Notably, numerous Orthodox clerics converted. Of course, the work became more difficult and more dangerous as the Communist campaign against all religion intensified. Finally, in November, 1922, Exarch Leonid was arrested. He was imprisoned, hauled before a court on trumped-up charges of “anti-state activity,” and sentenced to three years in the gulag.

He was not alone. Nearly all the priests and sisters he had brought into the One True Faith were with him in the Arctic camps where he suffered and, more than once, nearly died.

In addition to the time the Exarch spent in the camps, he was sentenced to another ten years of deportation in the north. It was in his northern exile, in March, 1934, at the age of 54, that he finally went to sleep in the Lord.

He died knowing that his country had begun its history as a Christian nation within the One True Faith, knowing that a strong Catholic influence had existed there a century before, and still dreaming of reunion. What he did not know was that the reunion of which he dreamt was heaven’s plan announced at the other end of Europe, in Portugal in 1917, even as his personal Calvary began, and confirmed at Tuy in 1929, when his own faith could not be harder tested.

He did not know it, but we do. Which is why we also know his dream will yet be realized.


Latin-rite Catholics who visit a church belonging to their brothers of the Byzantine Rite probably see its many icons as not much more than decoration. However, icons have a special place in the worship of the Eastern Church, whether Eastern-rite Catholic or Orthodox. Eastern Christians do not view them as mere depictions or representations of Our Lord, the Theotokos (Mother of God), or the saints.

According to Rev. Thomas Hopko, a leading theologian of the Orthodox Church in America, an off-shoot of the Russian Orthodox Church: “In the Orthodox Church the icons bear witness to the reality of God’s presence with us in the mystery of faith. The icons are not just human pictures or visual aids to contemplation and prayer. They are the witnesses of the presence of the Kingdom of God to us, and so of our own presence to the Kingdom of God in the Church. It is the Orthodox faith that icons are not only permissible, but are spiritually necessary because `the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (John 1:14.) Christ is truly man and, as man, truly the `icon of the invisible God.’ (Col. 1:15; I Cor. 11:7; Cor. 4:4.)”

The Latin-rite Catholic looks at a church statue and venerates the saint it represents. The Eastern Christian venerates the icon itself. It is holy. The feeling Latin-rite Catholics have for first-class relics is similar to the regard Eastern Christians have for their icons. This is why they fought the iconoclasts (icon-smashers) of the eighth and ninth centuries as they did.

It is also why they grieve that some of the rarest and most ancient icons too often wind up for sale today at exclusive art galleries. (One such icon was bought at a New York City auction a few years ago by a non-Christian who announced while still on the premises, that he would be making the precious object into a coffee table!) It is somewhat as if a relic of the True Cross were to be used as a toothpick.

To understand why icons are venerated as they are, it may help to know that Eastern Christians often speak of them as “windows to Heaven.” They have a strong sense that is where they are looking when they behold the iconic face of a saint. The impression is strengthened by the two-dimensional rendering of the image. It is as if the saint’s face were pressed against the other side of the “window.”

Until a Western artistic influence came to bear in the 19th century, icons were always painted two-dimensionally, and they still generally are. There are different schools of icon-painting, but within each school the style remains the same over the centuries. Because they do not strive to be original, the names of icon painters are seldom known. In fact, the skill of the anonymous painter is judged according to how closely he has kept to the traditional standard.

The Balamand Declaration

The Balamand Declaration is a product of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It takes its name from the location, Balamand, Lebanon, of the School of Theology where the commission met between June 17-24, 1993. This was the commission’s seventh plenary session. Co-presidents of the commission were Archbishop Stylianos of Australia for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Most of the world’s Orthodox Patriarchates and Churches, including the Church of Russia, had delegates on the commission. Other Catholic delegates besides Cardinal Cassidy included Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, President of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and of the Pontifical Council, “Cor Unum.”

The Declaration begins with an historical survey of the separation of the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church, and of past efforts to end it. The survey proceeds to the point of recalling the reunion of some Eastern Christians with Rome, notably Ukrainians, four centuries ago. Then it is stated in Paragraph 10: “Progressively, in the decades which followed these unions, missionary activity tended to include among its priorities the effort to convert other Christians, individually or in groups, so as `to bring them back’ to one’s own Church. In order to legitimize this tendency, a source of proselytism, the Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted.” Thus is the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus presented as not existing until 400 years ago, and as arising out of particular historical circumstances.

Two paragraphs later it is declared: “Because of the way in which Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches, this form of `missionary apostolate’ described above, and which has been called `uniatism,’ can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking.”

A little later, in Paragraph 14, we hear: “According to the words of Pope John Paul II, the ecumenical endeavor of the Sister Churches of East and West, grounded in dialogue and prayer, is the search for perfect and total communion which is neither absorption nor fusion but a meeting in truth and love (cf. Slavorum Apostoli, n.27).”

Accordingly, in Paragraph 15, we read that “in the search for re-establishing unity there is no question of conversion of people from one Church to the other in order to ensure their salvation.”

In the event the point needs further driving home, we are told in Paragraph 22, under the heading “Practical Rules”: “Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Eastern, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other; that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytizing among the Orthodox. It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own faithful and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church.”