January 2020 Print

Book Review: Blessed Leonid Feodorov

First Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church, Bridgebuilder Between Rome and Moscow

Fr. Paul Mailleux, S.J.


“The Holy Church will be very reluctant to allow a member of the Eastern Church to go over to the Latin Rite.”—Pope St. Pius X, spoken during a 1907 audience to the Russian Greek-Catholic priest Fr. Alexis Zerchanninov.

In the year 2017, Loreto Publications published a new edition of a book which sheds light upon the history and martyrology of what is by far the smallest of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Although the Russian Greek Catholic Church owes its very existence to Pope St. Pius X’s secret efforts to promote Reunion among the Orthodox, that it exists as a Church remains unknown even to Traditional Catholics who pray for Russia’s Conversion. To cure this unconscionable ignorance will be the purpose of this review.

According to Fr. Christopher Lawrence Zugger, “Vladimir (Volodymyr), Prince of Kiev, converted to Byzantine Christianity in 988 and subsequently introduced it as the State religion in Kiev, which determined the permanent orientation of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarussia toward Eastern Christianity. In 988, Byzantine Christianity was part of an unbroken and universal Catholic Church, in which Rome and Byzantium remained partners.”

Also, according to Fr. Zugger, “It is not possible to precisely date the separation of the Churches of Moscow, Kiev, and Rome. As was true in the Middle East, intercommunion continued on a local level for many years after the supposed “split” of 1054, and even after 1204. The drift was gradual, though anti-Latin Catholic feelings continued to deepen and intensify in the 14th century as the Russian Church (Byzantine Rite), strengthened its alignment with Constantinople.

“As early as 1207, Pope Innocent III asked the Kievan Government to unite with the Roman Church. Dominican friars who came to minister to Latin Catholics in Kiev-Rus’ brought about enmity because of their attempts to Latinize the local Church and proclaim Roman supremacy. On the other hand, Archbishop Petro Akerovych of Rus’ took part in the Council of Lyons in 1247. Bishop candidates from the southwestern eparchies often went to the local Latin Catholic Archbishop to be ordained as bishops. The Latin Catholic residents—both clergy and laity—of Novgorod principality considered themselves and the Rus’ to be in full communion with each other until the Council of Florence in 1439.

“In 1441, Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attempted to reunite the two Churches at Moscow; he was forced to flee for his life. From then on, the Moscow Church was definitely non-Catholic, splitting from the Church of Kiev in 1461. The Mother Church of Kiev retained specifically Catholic leadership from 1458 until 1481, when Symon was installed as Metropolitan of Kiev and Rus’ with the approbation of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

“In 1588, Constantinople yielded to Russian pressures and elevated Moscow to a Patriarchate, which confirmed the city’s sense of being the Third Rome. Moscow became the first new Patriarchate since ancient times, surely a fulfillment of its destiny. By this time, the Schism between Rus’ and Rome was complete. Indeed, many on both sides considered residents on the other side to be heretical.”

Today, 30 holy persons are venerated as saints by both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. From the time of Kievan Rus,’ their number includes St. Olga and her grandson St. Vladimir, who is viewed as a Slavic Arthur or Charlemagne. Other Kievan saints include Boris and Gleb and Antony and Theodosius, who founded the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. Twenty-one of these shared saints date from after the Sack of Constantinople by Latin Rite Crusaders in 1204. The most beloved of these is St. Sergei of Radonezh, who founded the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in the Moscow Province and who urged the Russian people to fight for their independence from the Mongol Horde. The list ends, of course, with the Russian Church’s rejection of the Council of Florence.

On June 27, 2001, however, Leonid Feodorov, who had been appointed in 1917 as Exarch, or Administrator, of the Russian Greek Catholic Church, became the first ethnic Russian whom the Catholic Church has raised to the altar since the 15th century. Although six other Soviet-era martyrs and confessors of the Russian Greek Catholic Church will soon be joining him, Bl. Leonid’s nearly successful efforts to convince Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow to reunite the Russian Orthodox Church to the Holy See make the Exarch a figure with special significance for Traditional Catholics. This is his story.

Leonid Ivanovich Feodorov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 4, 1879. While his father’s side of the family had only recently been liberated from serfdom, by the time of Leonid’s birth his parents were solidly middle class and able to send their son to the same schools as the sons of the Russian nobility.

Although his widowed mother tried to instill in him a devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, by the time Leonid was a teenager he had lost his faith in Christianity. The reading of Hindu and Buddhist sutras had caused him to become a nihilist who hoped for a career in the Tsarist officer class. Instead, the example of Fr. Constantine Smirnov, the Orthodox chaplain of Leonid’s high school, brought him back to Christianity and made him decide to study for the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Leonid’s experiences in the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Academy, which more resembled a training college for civil servants than a Catholic seminary, nearly caused him to lose his Faith again. But then, the studying of the Councils and Fathers of the Church convinced him of the truth of Catholicism.

Leaving everything, he traveled to Rome in 1902 and was formally received into the Catholic Church at the Church of the Gesu. Although he had made a promise to the priest who received him that he would switch to the Latin Rite, Leonid soon realized that Pope St. Pius X did not wish him to do so. With the latter’s permission, he chose to seek ordination as a Catholic priest of the Byzantine Rite. His ordination ultimately took place in Constantinople and was conducted by Metropolitan Mikhail Mirov of the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church on Sunday March 26, 1911.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Fr. Leonid returned to St. Petersburg only to have the Tsar’s Governor General exile him to Siberia as a threat to “State Security.” Obeying the Governor’s decree, Fr. Leonid traveled to Tobolsk and remained there until riots in St. Petersburg forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917.

Meanwhile, the Provisional Government of the Russian Empire had also released Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from imprisonment in an Orthodox monastery for immoral priests in Suzdal. When the Metropolitan arrived in St. Petersburg, he decided to finally act upon the powers secretly delegated to him 10 years earlier by Pope St. Pius X.

In a Council of Byzantine Catholic priests and laity, the Metropolitan approved statutes and erected a Canonical Structure for what is now called the Russian Greek Catholic Church. He also appointed Fr. Leonid as the first Exarch, or Administrator, of all Russian Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. After the Council was concluded, the Metropolitan returned to his See in the Austro-Hungarian Crownland of Galicia.

At the same time, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, who had just been freed from the stifling power the House of Romanov had wielded over them, assembled and chose Bishop Tikhon Bellavin as the first Patriarch of Moscow since the 18th century.

For the first time since the 15th century, Orthodox Christians and Catholics of both Rites could openly practice their Faith without government interference or control. But it was not to last.

In October 1917, soldiers and sailors acting under the orders of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin attacked the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and placed the ministers of the Provisional Government under arrest. Persecution of all religions began almost immediately.

Lenin viewed even the belief in a divinity to be “unutterable vileness,” and under his rule Christians of all denominations, practicing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even practitioners of seances found themselves treated as enemies of the State.

In the midst of this, Patriarch Tikhon, a man revered by Orthodox Christians, began to meet with Exarch Leonid Feodorov and openly discuss reunion between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Holy See. The Patriarch also urged the clergy and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church to meet with the Greek Catholics to discuss the same possibility.

Terrified of the possibility of their success, the Soviet State cracked down on both communions with a vengeance. Show trials resulted in the execution of the Orthodox bishop of St. Petersburg and many of the clergy and laity who had participated in the discussions. Then, in a show trial that made headlines throughout the world, Exarch Leonid and the Latin Rite Hierarchy stood charged with counterrevolution. After defending the Catholic Faith before the kangaroo court as the whole world watched, Exarch Leonid Feodorov was sentenced to 10 years in the gulag.

Even while imprisoned in a concentration camp above the Arctic Circle, Exarch Leonid continued to operate as a priest and to spread the idea of Reunion among the Orthodox clergy who were imprisoned with him. After a series of releases in which he continued to violate the terms of his release by preaching the Catholic Faith, Exarch Leonid died in the city now known as Kirov on March 10, 1935. He was beatified during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine in 2001.

The last word is best left to Leonid Feodorov himself. In a prayer for the reunion of the Russian Church with the Holy See, he wrote:

“Cast a glance, compassionate Lord Jesus Our Savior, on the prayers and supplications of Your sinful and unworthy servants who in all humility kneel before You, and unite us all in the one and only Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Shine Your never-declining light into our souls. Dissipate the disorders of the Church. Grant us the grace to glorify You as a single heart and a single mouth so that everyone may recognize that we are Your true disciples and beloved children.

“Merciful Lord, fulfill Your promise without delay that there may be only one flock and a single Pastor in Your Church and that we may be worthy of glorifying Your Holy Name, now and forever. Amen.”

—Brendan D. King