Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Catholics in the Russian Ritual and Spiritual Tradition

I have been working on an article about the remarkable Russian priest, exarch, and confessor of the faith (perhaps he may even qualify as a martyr) Blessed Leonid Feodorov (1879-1934). Leonid had a great desire, which he began to realize in his own life, of a reconciliation between East and West in which the Russian Church would keep its special charism and its traditional ("Orthodox") modes of worship and Christian living while also recognizing in a fully Catholic way the Pope's leadership of the Universal Church.

I have decided to share some background and contextual notes that were too long for the final cut of the article (which will be published in May 2022) but which expand our understanding of the ecclesiastical, political, and spiritual factors of Father Leonid's world, and how his hope for unity remains vital in our time and points toward the future.

For centuries there have been “Byzantine Catholic” churches that celebrate ancient forms of the liturgy and observe distinctive traditions while also being in union with Rome. For various complicated political and cultural reasons, however, a "Russian Byzantine Catholic" church did not exist in any way until the 20th century, and it had only a brief time before the advent of the atheistic regime of the Soviet Union. 

Before 1905, Russians who wanted the fullness of Catholic Christianity 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. Often, the only possibility for a Russian to even become Catholic was to go into exile. As the 19th century came to an end, Vladimir Soloviev’s experience had already made it clear that anyone who wanted to be both a papist and a follower of Russia’s spiritual traditions would have great difficulties fitting in, or even being understood, in Russia. By recognizing, openly proclaiming, and vigorously arguing for the claims of the papacy, Soloviev—a lay man and virtually on his own—tried to anticipate Christian unity by regarding himself as a "Russian Orthodox in communion with Rome." He found himself in a very isolated and lonely position. Nevertheless, he spoke freely and had a powerful influence on some young people in his personal circle, including the 20-year-old Leonid Feodorov. By the time Soloviev died in 1900, the great philosopher had lit a spark that led to a small movement of “Russian-Rite” Catholics who tried to evade the repressive laws of the Empire.

The upheavals of the 20th century, however, changed this situation in dramatic ways. Russia’s 1905 revolution created new possibilities for religious freedom. The overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917 expanded them further, but then the Communist revolution in October 1917 led to a persecution of all religious believers.


This left a small “window” of a few years, during which a remarkable (small but publicly lived) reality appeared in the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg: For the first time since the Middle Ages, a Russian Byzantine Catholic Church—in full communion with the Pope—was established, with its thousand-year-old Slavonic Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, its Liturgical Offices, its traditional chant, its calendar and feast days, and everything that would be found in Russian Orthodox Church worship and life—but with prayers for the Pope of Rome restored to the liturgical intercessions, and juridical communion with Rome secured through the Ukrainian Byzantine Metropolitan of Lviv, the great Andrew Sheptytsky. He had received permission from Pope Pius X to take wide-ranging pastoral responsibility for the small flock of Russian Byzantine Catholics—a few former Russian Orthodox priests and some deeply dedicated lay men and women. In May 1917, Metropolitan Andrew established this group as the Russian Byzantine Catholic Exarchate (a kind of “missionary diocese”) and his friend and protege Father Leonid Feodorov became Exarch (with the authority of a bishop, which he retained even though subsequent circumstances prevented his episcopal ordination). From May to October 1917, the new Russian Byzantine church flourished, and engaged in frank, vigorous, and promising diologue with its Russian Orthodox neighbors.

Exarch Leonid had been raised Orthodox, and he had left Russia to become Catholic but was eventually ordained a priest of the Byzantine rite. He returned to Russia after the changes and began his pastoral ministry. He longed for the rise of a Church that was both fully Russian and fully Catholic. He was convinced that the “Great Schism” of Eastern and Western Christendom in 1054 could only be healed by a reunion that retained Russia’s distinctive history of sanctity and profound devotion as it had developed over many centuries within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He insisted that none of the basic features of Russian church life conflicted with submission to the Pope. In this Leonid anticipated Vatican II and an approach which is common today, but was only beginning to enter the minds of Catholics (with the encouragement of the Popes themselves) and Orthodox at that time.

During these same months in 1917 when the Russian Exarchate was blossoming, the Virgin Mary was appearing to the children of Fatima on the other side of Europe, imploring prayers for “the conversion of Russia.” We will never know what might have happened if Europe had accepted Pope Benedict XV’s Peace Plan issued on August 1, 1917 to end their brutal fratricidal war and turn their hearts to conversion and prayer. Instead, the violence continued, and Russia’s Communist revolution began the horrific era of totalitarian ideologies and the unspeakable crimes committed throughout the world in their name. A century later, we have seen Our Lady’s hand at work in Russia's turning away from Soviet Communism, and we must continue to pray for the fulfillment of her plans for her beloved Russian children.

Exarch Leonid and most of his companions were exiled or sent to the Gulag. Leonid suffered greatly in Solovski in the Arctic, and died shortly after his release in 1934. He was beatified in 2001. A small flock of Russian-rite Catholics survived and remain today in Russia and other parts of the world… a small flock, with a great hope.