Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)

Great Conversion Stories: Blessed Leonid Feodorov

By John Janaro

The special vocation of Blessed Leonid Feodorov was to be a “mustard seed” planted deeply in the volatile ground of 20th-century Russia. It still grows quietly and largely unnoticed, but it stands as a witness to the possibility of ecclesial reunion between Catholics of the Western (Latin) rite and Russian Christians who have inherited the rich liturgical and spiritual traditions of Russian Orthodoxy and want to see those traditions flourish and be renewed while also recognizing the primacy of the pope.

Born in 1879, Leonid was rescued from teenage confusion by his brilliant and devout high school teacher, (Orthodox) Father Constantine Smirnov, who led Leonid to a mature conversion to Christ and awakened his desire to be a priest. Leonid entered the Russian Orthodox seminary and studied with a searching heart, reading deeply in the Church Fathers. Another influential acquaintance was the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who encouraged Leonid to consider seriously the question of papal primacy. Leonid found himself increasingly convinced of the Catholic claims, and he began to confer with a Polish Latin-rite Catholic priest, Father Ivan Stislavsky. 

At the age of twenty-three, Leonid was certain he wanted to be a priest—a Russian priest who offered the Divine Liturgy according to the traditions legitimately passed on from Constantinople in the first millennium by the great missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius. Yet he also wanted full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the chief shepherd of the Universal Church. Was such an aspiration even possible at that time for a Russian man with a peasant ancestry and no powerful connections?

For centuries there had been “Byzantine Catholic” Churches celebrating Eastern forms of the liturgy and observing distinctive traditions while also being in union with Rome. For various complicated political and cultural reasons, however, there was no Russian Byzantine Catholic rite in the Tsarist era. Russians who wanted union with the Catholic Church had to join Polish or other Western churches, become “westernized” (i.e., adopt an inculturation of the faith that was foreign to them), and face harsh civil penalties. The few Russian converts usually went into exile. But Soloviev’s influence did help spark a tiny, disorganized underground movement of Russian Catholics that would eventually grow.

Entrusting his mission to God, Leonid left Russia and traveled to Rome. There he was received into the Catholic Church, but he did not give up his hope for the rise of a church in Russia that was both fully Russian and fully Catholic. (Today, great attention is given to the distinctive Eastern rites, but in 1903 their equal dignity and value were not always clear to Roman Catholics, even though the popes themselves promoted and insisted upon this legitimate diversity).

Leonid’s friend Father Stislavsky accompanied him, even though in his good Polish Catholic heart he thought it more practical for Russians to simply embrace the Latin rite. But first Father Stislavsky brought Leonid to someone who would understand his vision: the great Andrey Sheptytsky—the Ukrainian Byzantine Metropolitan of Lviv (in Galicia in western Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Metropolitan Andrey became Leonid’s chief mentor, and would eventually appoint him Exarch of the new Russian-rite Catholic Church, which flourished briefly in 1917 before Lenin intensified the persecution of Christians. Exarch Leonid and most of his companions were eventually exiled or sent to the gulag. Leonid suffered greatly in Solovki in the Arctic, and died in 1935, several months after his release. He was beatified in 2001. A small flock of Russian-rite Catholics remain in Russia and other parts of the world…a small flock, with a great hope.