Blessed Leonid Fedorov
(1879 St. Petersburg – 1935 Russia)
In 1928, Catholic and Orthodox priests who had been deported to the far north of Russia held ecumenical conferences of exceptional merit and cordiality. With the help of books borrowed from Orthodox monks, a Catholic priest, Father Fedorov, explained the doctrine of papal infallibility. After a long discussion, Archbishop Hilarion, former auxiliary to the Patriarch in Moscow, declared, «Understood this way, I no longer see why this dogma would be repugnant to the Orthodox world.» On June 27, 2001, the Pope beatified Leonid Fedorov, a man for whom Christian unity was a constant concern.
Leonid Fedorov was born on November 4, 1879, into an Orthodox family. His father died prematurely, and Mrs. Fedorov continued to operate the family restaurant in St. Petersburg by herself. Leonid was a gentle and sensitive adolescent. His mother did all she could to introduce him to Christian piety. Possessed of an independent and idealistic temperament, the young man was an avid reader of French, Italian, and German authors. After reading works of Hindu philosophy, he thought, «What's the point of this worthless life? What's the point of activity, bustling, noble impulses, effort? Is not the perpetual rest of nirvana preferable, where all aspiration subsides, where the eternal appeasement of annihilation is established?» But these tendencies of soul were short-lived. Under the influence of an Orthodox priest whose combination of virtue and learning made him a great teacher, the young man's soul was pacified and, upon leaving his secondary studies, in which he had been a brilliant success, he entered the Ecclesiastical Academy, the higher school of theology.
A wished-for reconciliation
Mrs. Fedorov's restaurant was a meeting place for intellectuals. One of them was a young and brilliant professor of philosophy, Vladimir Soloviev, who stressed the responsibility of Christians, preaching passionately on the return to a complete Christianity and Russia's reconciliation with the Papacy. Under his influence, Leonid was enlightened: «I was already twenty,» he would later write, «when, in reading the Fathers of the Church and history, I came to discover the true Universal Church.» But Russian law made it practically impossible for an Orthodox to convert to Catholicism.
Indeed, the Russian national church, the Orthodox Church, was closely connected to worldly power. Having saved the nation many times at crucial moments, the Orthodox Church seemed to be absolutely necessary to Russia's life. To separate from it appeared to be separating from the Russian community itself. In fact, Russian Catholics were almost all of foreign origin and mostly Polish; the language of Catholics was Polish and the rite they followed was the Latin rite. In the eyes of Russian Orthodox, the Latin rite was the rite of those who recognized the primacy of the Pope, and the Byzantine-Russian rite was a sort of inalienable family heritage. The Russian government wanted at all costs to avoid a situation in which churches would be established where the faithful would pray according to the Byzantine rite while recognizing the Pope as the supreme pastor.
In his search for the truth, Leonid spoke with the rector of the main Catholic church in Saint Petersburg. The young man then decided to become Catholic and to go abroad to do so. On June 19, 1902, he set out for Italy. In Lviv, Ukraine, he visited the Catholic Metropolitan of the Eastern rite, Andrej Cheptitzky, who gave him a written recommendation addressed to Pope Leo XIII. Leonid arrived in Rome in July 1902 and on the 31st, the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, made his profession of Catholic faith in Il Gesù, the Jesuit mother church. Shortly thereafter, the Holy Father received him in private audience, blessed him, and gave him a grant for his priestly studies.
Leonid went to the seminary in Anagni, 50 kilometers south of Rome and run by the Jesuits. The exuberance of his young southern companions irritated him sometimes, but he took pains not to grumble and submitted to rules that were completely new to him. He introduced his classmates to Russian religious problems. «They know so little about Russia in Rome,» he repeated. «Russia is, in fact, much closer to Rome than the Protestant countries, but every awkward action towards it can result in very serious harm in terms of union.» After three years of sustained effort, he obtained his degree in philosophy and started upon his studies in theology. «My years of studies,» he would later write, «were a veritable revelation to me. The austere life, the regularity, the rational and profound work that was required of me, the companions full of joy and life who were my acquaintances, uncorrupted by the atheistic writings of the age, the Italian people themselves, so lively, so intelligent, and so completely immersed in a true Christian civilization, all this got me back on my feet again and injected a new energy into me.» However, he added, «My eyes were opened to the inequality that reigned in the Catholic Church among the various rites and my soul revolted against the Latins' injustice against people from the East, against their general ignorance of the Eastern spiritual culture.» Indeed, for many Catholic priests at that time, the Latin rite was considered the Catholic rite par excellence, while the other rites were no more than tolerated. Leonid did not share this opinion: «While meditating on what Metropolitan Cheptitzky had taught me,» he would write, «I realized that my true duty as a Catholic was to remain unshakably faithful to the Russian rite and to the Russian religious traditions. The Supreme Pontiff very clearly desired it.» This didn't mean, however, that Leonid was narrow-minded—he was passionate about all the initiatives of the Western Church.
But in Russia, there were rumblings of revolution. At the end of October 1905, the Czar was forced to make concessions, in particular to recognize freedom of conscience. However, when a very courageous woman, Miss Ouchakoff, organized an Eastern-rite Catholic chapel in Saint Petersburg, the government did not want to approve this initiative. «In Russia,» a witness wrote, «they allowed you to build mosques, Buddhist pagodas, all kinds of Protestant chapels, an entire run of Masonic lodges and even Latin-rite Catholic churches, but a Russian rite Catholic church—never! It would have been too popular!»
In 1907, Leonid obtained by pontifical decree official recognition of his membership in the Byzantine rite. This decree by Pope Saint Pius X marked a turning point in the apostolic activity of the Catholic Church in Russia, in that Russian Catholics could from then on be officially recognized by Rome while retaining their own rite, the Byzantine-Russian rite. In June 1907, when Leonid requested an extension of his passport, the Russian government responded, «If Leonid Fedorov does not immediately leave an establishment run by the Jesuits, he will be forever barred from returning to Russia!» Leonid left Anagni for the Propaganda Fide College right in Rome. From then on he found himself in a very cosmopolitan environment that allowed him to experience first-hand the universality of the Catholic Church.
During the summer of 1907, Leonid went to the first Congress of Velehrad, in Moravia, where specialists in Eastern questions met to «open the way of peace and harmony between the West and the East, to cast light on controversial questions, to correct preconceived ideas, to bring together those who are most hostile, and to reestablish full friendship.» He was entrusted with an urgent mission on behalf of the Eastern Greek Catholics who had emigrated to the United States—these faithful, misunderstood by the country's bishops, were turning in very large numbers to Orthodoxy. Leonid interceded for them to the Holy See, which, in May 1913, granted them legal status corresponding to their needs.
At the end of the 1907-1908 school year, upon a new demand by the Russian government, Leonid had to leave Rome. He went incognito to Fribourg, Switzerland, to conclude his studies there. During the summer of 1909, he returned to Saint Petersburg, where he met again with his mother, who had likewise made a profession of Catholic faith. At this same time, Metropolitan Cheptitzky asked for and obtained from Pope Saint Pius X real jurisdiction over the Greek Catholics in Russia, who thereby would no longer be under the Latin-rite Polish bishops.
Getting rid of a diabolical work
On March 26, 1911, Leonid was ordained a priest. On July 27th, he participated in the Congress of Velehrad. The absence of Orthodox prelates at this congress pained him. He wrote to them: «Our intention is to make use of scientific research to prepare the paths for our mutual reconciliation. The Congresses of Velehrad are not an exclusively confessional institution (meaning, reserved for Catholics), but rather a meeting of men of study, motivated by religious thoughts and convinced that dissension is a diabolical work that it is necessary to be rid of.»
However, for several years, Father Leonid had felt attracted to monastic life. In May 1912, he was received into a monastery where life was divided between celebration of the Divine Office according to the Byzantine rite and working in the fields. Thanks to his robust health and his accommodating nature, he submitted to the austerity of the environment without too much trouble. Isolation from the world and meditation delighted him, although he missed studying theology and keeping up-to-date on the political situation. He discovered in his disposition a certain hardness towards his neighbor, which the others did not fail to point out to him, and against which he successfully fought. «He had a very gentle way of speaking,» one of his confreres would say of him. «He was always of a perfect even-temperedness.»
During the summer of 1914, the First World War broke out. Father Leonid returned as quickly as possible to Saint Petersburg, which had become Petrograd. A painful surprise was waiting for him—the government exiled him to Tobolsk, Siberia, because he had ties with enemies of Russia. Father Leonid moved into a rented room and found a job in the local government. The years 1915 and 1916 passed in this manner, and were marked by a long period in which he was bedridden with a terrible case of rheumatic fever. But the war had upset the national economy and the people were suffering from the shortage of supplies. In February 1917, the revolution started and, on March 2, Czar Nicholas II abdicated. A provisional government under the presidency of Prince Lvoff proclaimed complete amnesty for violations of edicts pertaining to religion, and abolished all restrictions on freedom of worship. Metropolitan Cheptitzky, who himself had been exiled, was freed, and reorganized the activity of Russian Catholics. He chose Father Leonid as his exarch (representative of his religious authority for the Russian territory). Freed in his turn, Father Leonid returned to Petrograd. The Metropolitan planned to confer episcopal consecration on him, but Father Leonid refused.
Catholic, Russian, of Byzantine Rite
The new exarch tackled his pastoral work with concern for the unity of Eastern and Western Christians. For him, the real solution must be sought in reconciliation through hierarchies. His little community demonstrated through its works that one could be Catholic while remaining completely Russian and preserving the Eastern rite. But on October 25th, the Bolsheviks overthrew the government and implemented a radical upheaval of the social order. Five years of hardship, struggles, and agony began. At the beginning of 1919, Father Leonid wrote to a friend: «I attribute to a miracle of the divine goodness the fact that I am still alive and that our church still exists. A good number of our Russian Catholics have died of starvation. The others have scattered in all directions to avoid cold and hunger.» In 1918, he had the pain of losing first his mother, then Miss Ouchakoff. In return, however, he met a very learned woman, a university professor, Miss Danzas, who, after her conversion to Catholicism, assisted him with remarkable devotedness.
His apostolate was carried out in three centers, Petrograd, Moscow, and Saratov, bringing together around 200 faithful, in addition to 200 others who were spread out across the immense Russian territory. He estimated that 2,000 of his flock had fled Russia or were dead. Miss Danzas would write of Father Leonid: «The exarch's love of God and fervent faith were well shown in his manner of celebrating the Holy Liturgy. This was, above all else, how he won souls. As a preacher, he was not always within his listeners' reach—he was a profound theologian, and he sometimes found it difficult to place himself on the level of an audience of simple men and women... He was admirable as a confessor, and all those who had the opportunity to lay before him the state of their conscience always preserved the touching memory of the way in which he gave himself completely to this ministry.»
The summer of 1921 was marked by an extreme drought that, combined with the government's agrarian policies, resulted in an appalling famine that led to the deaths of about five million people. The Holy See gave Father Walsh, a Jesuit, responsibility for organizing aid, which he sent to the starving through an American association. In several weeks, thousands of Russians were saved, thanks to the generosity of Catholics all over the world. Father Leonid met the Jesuit and a deep friendship was born between them. On the exarch's suggestion, Father Walsh provided supplies to the Orthodox clergy in areas where its priests were suffering from hunger.
The confusion and persecution of Christians in Russia powerfully enlightened them on the advantages of union with the rest of the Christian world and in particular with the Supreme Pontiff. Mutual declarations signed by Orthodox and Catholic prelates, the likes of which had never been seen in the history of Russia, were addressed to the government to defend the common interests. Joint apologetic conferences were planned to fight against the atheists' propaganda. Father Fedorov wrote a brief prayer that could be recited without reserve by Catholics as well as Orthodox.
But the government intensified the persecution. Priests were forbidden to teach religion to children under the age of 18. Atheism was officially taught in the schools. Under the pretext of buying provisions to feed the starving, the civil authorities stripped the churches of their sacred vessels and valuable objects. At the beginning of February 1923, Father Fedorov received the order to go to Moscow, in the company of other clergymen from Petrograd, to appear there before the High Revolutionary Court. He was accused of having stood up to the decree stripping the churches of their sacred vessels, of having maintained criminal relations with foreign countries, of having taught religion to minors and of having indulged in counter-revolutionary propaganda.
No matter what the law says about it...
The trial began on March 21st, and lasted five days. The public prosecutor did not hide his hatred: «I spit on your religion like I spit on all religions...» Speaking to the exarch, he asked, «Do you obey the Soviet government or not?»—«If the Soviet government asks me to act against my conscience, I do not obey. As far as the teaching of the catechism, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is that children must receive religious instruction, no matter what the law says about it.» Towards the end of the trial, the public prosecutor declared, «Fedorov is at the origin of meetings with the Orthodox clergy... He must be judged not only for what he has done, but for what he can still do,» and he asked for the death sentence. Two lawyers were admitted to defend Latin-rite priests—the exarch, for his part, personally set out his defense. He easily demonstrated how this entire trial was just a show prepared ahead of time, but he did it without bitterness, like a man whose position was so solid that he had no need to defend himself. At the end he affirmed, «My heart's desire is that our Fatherland will come to understand that the Christian faith and the Catholic Church are not a political organization, but a community of love.» The decision was handed down—the exarch was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Father Leonid took advantage of his imprisonment to write two catechisms in Russian. «I can attest,» Miss Danzas would write, «after having visited the exarch, that his attitude was even more calm and joyous than usual. He told me that he had never felt so happy.» Since his imprisonment, Father had maintained a regular correspondence with his faithful. He looked after his relationships with the Orthodox. «Here,» he wrote, «there are two bishops and around twenty Orthodox priests. Our relations with them are excellent.» In the middle of September 1923, Father Leonid was transferred to another prison with much harsher regulations, where he was placed in complete isolation. In April 1926, a generous and dynamic lady, a member of the Red Cross, obtained the prisoner's freedom. But in June, he was arrested again and then sentenced to three years' internment in the Solovki Islands in the White Sea, in the far north of European Russia.
The islands of the Solovki archipelago are in a very cold and humid climate, and are covered with forests. The Soviets transformed the Orthodox monastery that had been there since the 15th century into an immense prison. Father Fedorov arrived there in mid-October 1926. Every morning, the prisoners were taken into the forests to work as lumberjacks. The Byzantine Rite Catholics had obtained permission to use a former chapel, a thirty-minute walk from the buildings, to pray. Starting in the summer of 1927, the Holy Sacrifice was celebrated there on Sundays, alternating between the Latin rite and the Byzantine rite.
A priest would write of the exarch: «When we had a bit of a break from our forced labor, we liked to gather around him; he attracted us... He was noted for his exceptional courtesy and simplicity... If he noticed that one or another of us was going through a period of depression, he would bring him round by arousing in him the hope for better times. If by chance he received some sort of material help from outside, he usually shared it with the others.»
On Russian soil, for Russia
But, at the beginning of November 1928, the chapel was closed and everything that could be used for worship was confiscated. «I then asked the exarch,» a priest would report, «if we should continue to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice under the threat of severe penalties. He then answered me with these memorable words: 'Do not forget that the Divine Liturgies that we celebrate in Solovki are perhaps the only ones that Catholic priests of the Russian rite still celebrate on Russian soil for Russia. We must do everything we can so that at least one liturgy can be celebrated every day.'» In the spring of 1929, the exarch's health deteriorated considerably and he was admitted to the camp hospital. At the end of the summer, his three-year sentence in the concentration camp expired, but he still had to remain three years in exile. He spent the last years of his life among the farmers of the far north. In January 1934, he moved to a city 400 kilometers south, to the home of a railroad employee. At the beginning of February 1935, he was exhausted and overcome by a constant cough. On March 7th, he rendered his soul to God.
Heeding the example of Blessed Leonid Fedorov, let us have our hearts set on Christian unity, and follow the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council: «All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love. ... This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name, 'spiritual ecumenism' » (Unitatis redintegratio, 7-8).
Dom Antoine Marie osb.