Blessed Leonid Feodorov
The priest in the gulag
Join me today to meet a martyr who tried to build a new kind of church for his country, and died for it instead.
Name: Leonid Ivanovich Feodorov
Feast: March 7
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In July of 1914, Leonid Feodorov was arrested by the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana. They had been watching him for years, even keeping an eye on him when he was studying abroad. Now that he was back in Russia, they were tailing him, sending him threatening, anonymous letters. They knew his secret: Leonid Feodorov was a priest.
The trouble was that Russia had long been a Russian Orthodox country. Father Feodorov was a Catholic priest. As such, Feodorov was suspected, perhaps correctly, of spelling trouble for the Russian state, for his priesthood was a kind of challenge to the state religion of Russia. And in Feodorov’s case, that challenge was greater than usual, for Feodorov was both a priest and a patriot. He was representing a brand new kind of Catholicism: the Russian Greek Catholic Church. It was a new rite, a way of worship that Russians would find easy and natural. Something similar was gaining ground in Ukraine, in the form of the Ukranian Catholic Church, led by Feodorov’s friend and mentor, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. The Tsar’s secret police were worried about what might happen if it caught on in Russia too.
And so Father Feodorov was arrested and confined to house arrest in July, 1914. It must have seemed like a disappointing ending to a promising career. But Father Feodorov’s story was only beginning, and history was about to come rolling down on Father Feodorov, as well as his captors, with the force of a waterfall.
Leonid Ivanovich Feodorov had been born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1879, the son of a restauranteur.
I have to imagine that Leonid was a moody, philosophical boy. He struggled to figure out what he really believed, at one point deciding he was a Buddhist. But also, at the same time, a nihilist. The more he thought, though, the more he found himself returning to his father’s faith.
Leonid was one of many young men to struggle with faith. Another such struggler was, as it happened, a patron of Leonid’s father’s restaurant. The young man’s name was Josef Vissarionovich Dzughashvili, and he was just one year older than Leonid. He had gone to seminary, but left religion behind and dived into politics. He was working on finding a nom de guerre. He would try on Koba, the name of a Robin Hood figure, before settling on one he liked: Stalin, Joe Steel.
Leonid, though, had returned to Christianity. He enrolled in a Russian Orthodox seminary, but as he studied he began to have a sense of wrongness that he couldn’t shake. The more he read about Catholicism, the more certain he became that the Catholic Church was right. He got a reputation among the seminarians for sounding like a Catholic.
Eventually Feodorov could no longer imagine being a Russian Orthodox priest. And so, the following year, Feodorov found a pretext to travel to Rome. His colleagues could guess why he was leaving. In Rome, Feodorov joined the Catholic Church and entered a seminary. Back in Russia, the Tsar’s secret police kept track.
In Rome, Feodorov continued his studies. He wasn’t really sure what to do next. He wasn’t even sure what sort of Catholic he wanted to be. He started in the Latin Rite, but as a Russian he yearned for the familiarity of the Eastern Rites. Meanwhile he picked up languages and academic accomplishments. His studies took him across Europe, into Switzerland, then to Germany. He became a deacon, then a priest.
As he was trying to discern what God was calling him to do, Feodorov often served the Church in Russia, travelling back and forth. The secret police began to monitor him more closely. But then Feodorov felt a different kind of calling, a call to become a monk. He entered a monastery. After only a year, he realized that was not where he was meant to be. Much later, Feodorov would understand the change of direction. He had been called there, not to stay, but to learn to be a monk, a hermit, to serve God alone. He was being prepared for a life as a prisoner.
By 1913, Father Feodorov finally understood what he was being called to do. It had become clear to him in conversations with the Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. Feodorov was going to do for Russia what Sheptytsky was doing for Ukraine: he would spread the Russian Rite. It was a calling that would satisfy him not only as a Catholic, but also as a patriot. He went back home to begin this work, and that was when the secret police finally caught up with him.
Two weeks after Feodorov’s arrest, the world was at war.
Germany had declared war on Russia. The first World War had begun. Russia threw men into the meatgrinder of trench warfare. The huge loss of life caused instability at home. By 1917, that instability had boiled over into revolution. The Tsar was toppled, along with the Tsar’s secret police, and suddenly Father Feodorov was a free man.
The initial revolution toppled the Tsar, but later that year, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik communists, the party of young Josef Stalin, grabbed for power and missed. Russia slid into civil war. These were dangerous times. However, for Father Feodorov, this danger contained an opportunity. Both the provisional government, and then the Bolsheviks, advocated for freedom of religion. This was the moment to build up the Church in Russia.
Feodorov’s work and dedication had not gone unnoticed in Rome. He was made Exarch, a kind of Apostolic Vicar, a leader for the Church in a place where there was not yet much church structure. There were Latin Rite Catholics in Russia. Exarch Feodorov worked alongside them, but separately from them, using this time to build up the Church.
Things went well. None of the Catholics in Russia had any money. Their churches were cheap buildings in the slums, and the priests lived in rented apartments. But Exarch Feodorov’s dedication and management grew the Church. Soon, he was sitting down with representatives of the Patriarch of Moscow, talking about his ideas for a reunion of the Church, East and West, one again after a thousand years.
But as Exarch Feodorov pursued his plans, history was moving fast around him. By 1923, the Russian civil war was over. The communists had won.
The communists set about bringing Russia into line with their vision, beginning to clamp down on those institutions they had left alone while they were at war. To their intense annoyance, they discovered that the Catholic Church, small as it was, would not be controlled. As one observer put it:
The iron rigidity of the Catholic community in Petrograd [now again Saint Petersburg] infuriated [the communists] as far back as 1918. Those Reds had found everything else yield to them. The Russian bourgeoisie had crumbled at their touch. Some of the Orthodox priests acted as their willing instruments. Alone, the Catholic Church remained incorruptible, invulnerable, solid as a rock. Even its laity could not be seduced.
Now that the war was over, though, the communists had plenty of time to take care of troublesome Catholics. Their weekly Moscow newspaper, The Atheist, warned, “We have finished with the earthly Tzars; now we shall deal with the heavenly Tzars.” (Francis McCullagh translation)
And so the new communist government demanded that clergy sign over all Church property to the state, sell all the altar furnishings to feed the poor, and stop teaching religion. The priests of Saint Petersburg, both in the Latin Rite and in the new Russian Rite, refused. The request was politically motivated - all their furnishings were cheap, their buildings were almost worthless, and they were already devoting most of their resources to feeding poor people every month.
The communists responded by simply confiscating the Church properties. But Catholics worshipped in private houses, and the communists realized that they would have to go after the priests. And so the communists swept up the Catholic clergy of Saint Petersburg, and Exarch Leonid Feodorov was charged along with fifteen others.
The charges made no sense. Even if the clergy had been guilty, there had been multiple amnesties for exactly what they were being accused of. But it was a show trial. The judges were so biased that they sometimes joined the prosecutor in accusing the priests. The prosecutor showed open contempt for the defendants, screaming about the punishment they would get, and reading a novel while they spoke on their own behalf.
The outcome was clear from the beginning. Even so, many of the priests took the trial at face value, trying to answer the charges laid against them.
Exarch Feodorov took a different approach.
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Feodorov represented himself. He knew that his sentence was locked in. The point was to show the audience, the international observers, and perhaps the communists themselves that they were in the wrong. Feodorov came across as calm, clear, funny, and a little disappointed. He spoke to the court like a priest, gently showing them why what they were doing was unreasonable and unjust. The communists absolutely hated it. At one point, they tried to dismiss Feodorov because he was among the hated bourgeoisie, asking him whether it was not true that his father had been a skilled artisan. Feodorov agreed that his father was indeed a skilled cook.
“But the Moscow cooks owned motor-cars, houses, etc.” said his accuser.
“Perhaps,” Feodorov evenly replied, “but I can only say that we did not. I might have liked to own motor-cars and houses, but there were none. My grandfather was a serf.”
People in the court began to chuckle.
The real issue, Feodorov said, was freedom of conscience.
“If the Soviet Government orders me to act against my conscience, I do not obey. As for teaching the Catechism, the Catholic Church lays it down that children must be taught their religion, no matter what the law says. Conscience is above the law. No law which is against the conscience can bind.”
“We do not want to hear any more about your conscience.” One of the judges shouted, “Your conscience does not interest us.”
Feodorov sat down, but not before saying, “But it interests me very much.”
By the time the trial came to an end, no one who was watching had any illusions about communist justice. International observers declared it was an outrage. The communists were embarrassed. The prosecutor screamed at the defendants:
“The Catholic Church has always exploited the working classes. … No Pope in the Vatican can save you now. … Your religion, I spit on it”
Father Feodorov was sentenced to ten years in prison. For others, the sentence was death. The communists in the court applauded.
As it happened, the last day of the trial was Palm Sunday. Feodorov accepted his punishment without fear and without apology.
If Almighty God deigns to accept our sacrifice on this Palm Sunday, if from our bodily sufferings the good seed shall grow and ripen to be received and cherished by our dear country, which I love so much, my heart’s desire is by means of this experience, sad as it may be, she may come to know that the faith of Christ and the Catholic Church are not a political organization, but a community of love. Herein I see the providence of God, the will of God; and in this faith I accept all that He shall send.
And then, Father Feodorov was taken into the system of communist prison camps. Finally, he understood his brief time at the monastery. It was preparation for this.
Over the coming years, Feodorov was moved from prison to prison. The conditions were brutal. Prisoners were forced to work during the day, cutting down trees and processing the wood in the cold. Barracks for four or five hundred often held several thousand prisoners. Many prisoners did not survive their sentences.
Exarch Feodorov continued to pray, saying daily Mass. Finding bread wasn’t so difficult. Wine was harder to come by. Feodorov and other priests rationed their wine, using just a few drops for Mass, but they ran out. They discovered they could make more by fermenting raisins, making a sort of liturgical prison-alcohol. The Exarch told the other Catholic priests he met in prison of the crucial importance of saying Mass. They were among the few saying Mass for Russia, when she most desperately needed their prayer.
At times, Feodorov was placed with Russian Orthodox priests. That was fine too. Even in prison, he continued to make his case for reunion with the Catholic Church.
Some of the prisons where he was kept were so far North that there were no walls. This let prisoners have contact with the locals, if they wanted it. Exarch Feodorov used this contact to run a secret catechism class.
The show trial had caused such a stir that the International Red Cross lobbied the communist government, and Feodorov was released early, in 1926. But that same year he was rearrested and sentenced to the same punishment again. In 1929 he was released again, then rearrested in 1931. Now he was forced to work in a factory. Feodorov realized that it would not be his destiny to build up the Russian Rite, much less to see a union between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. His life would be something else, a sacrifice, fertilizing the ground to bring new life to the Church in his beloved Russia. He was at peace with that.
By 1933 Feodorov was released from the Soviet prison system. By now his health was destroyed. He was not allowed to return to any major city. He settled in a small town. A Catholic family with three children offered him accommodation from the very little they had. He shared their single room. Soon, Feodorov was too weak even to get out of bed. And then one day, he died. When it was dark, the family carried out the body of the first Exarch of the Russian Greek Catholic Church to bury him as best they could.
The Russian Greek Catholic Church of which Feodorov dreamed remains, for the most part, unbuilt. The Catholic and the Orthodox churches are not reconciled. But I imagine that Blessed Leonid Feodorov might point out that this rift has existed for a very long time. The ground is fertilized. New growth, when it comes, will be in God’s time.
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