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 The Word From Rome

August 27, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 1

global perspective


Handing over the icon represents a "profound unity between East and West, that endures through time despite historical divisions and human errors."

Pope John Paul II
on why he wants to return an Icon of the Madonna of Kazan to Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church

Why the transfer in ownership of a Russian icon is a news story; Opposing forces in Italian church try détente; The bottom line at Lourdes


As this week's column is posted, I'll be arriving in Moscow, where something truly unusual is set to take place in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin in the Kremlin, tomorrow, Aug. 28.

Assumption Cathedral, as it's also called, is the oldest and most historic of the Kremlin's Orthodox churches. It's the place where Russian princes, grand princes and tsars were crowned, and where the metropolitans and patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church have been enthroned and buried.

Even against that distinguished backdrop, however, the ritual set to unfold on Saturday is special. A 10-member Vatican delegation led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Holy See's top ecumenical official, and including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., will return a centuries-old Icon of the Madonna of Kazan, a cherished symbol of Russian national identity, to Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Through an odd series of historical circumstances, the icon has spent the last decade in Pope John Paul II's private apartment, "watching over my daily service to the church," as the pope put it in an Aug. 25 liturgy.

(Note that I wrote "an" icon, not "the" icon, of Kazan -- more on that art-historical debate in a moment.)

Why is a transfer in ownership of a Russian icon a news story? Three primary reasons:

• It's the latest in a long line of efforts from John Paul II to improve relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic church. Bad blood has flowed off and on between the two sides since 1054, and things have heated up again since the collapse of Communism. The Orthodox suspect Catholics of proselytism in Russia, and blame the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, which is loyal to Rome, for difficulties facing the Orthodox church in the western part of that nation. (The Moscow Patriarchate claims Ukraine as its "canonical territory.") The pope, however, sees those disputes as transitory. He believes the third millennium will bring a "new springtime of unity" in Christianity. In a prayer he composed for an Aug. 25 liturgy handing over the icon to his delegation, the pope said it represents a "profound unity between East and West, that endures through time despite historical divisions and human errors." Aside from a Slavic pope's personal interest in East/West reunion, there is also a practical political logic to his desire that Europe "breathe with both lungs." John Paul sees Europe threatened by secularism, moral relativism, and a progressive privatization of religion. The Orthodox, with perhaps as many as 300 million adherents, a fiercely conservative doctrinal streak, and a strong tradition of shaping culture, strike the pope as natural allies in the "culture wars." He also sees unity between Catholic and Orthodox believers as the best way to awaken the "Christian soul" of Europe, an especially urgent task given increasing waves of Islamic immigration. Hence the return of the icon is, in effect, a way of saying: "Let bygones be bygones -- we have bigger battles to fight."

• The return of the icon is either a signal that John Paul II has abandoned his cherished dream of a trip to Russia, or his latest gambit to make the trip happen, depending upon one's point of view. Since the icon was installed in his private apartments in 1993, John Paul has thought of it as a kind of entrance visa, and plans for a papal trip to Kazan even materialized last summer. In the end, however, two kinds of health problems blocked it: the pope's own frailty, and the weakened state of Catholic/Orthodox relations. Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow would not sign off, even though the trip would only have taken John Paul to far-off Kazan (500 miles east of Moscow, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan). Thus one way to read the decision to send back the Madonna is that it's John Paul's grudging acceptance of reality -- he is not going to Russia. As one senior Vatican official put it to me recently: "This icon was carried by the Russians in battle against the Poles. A Polish pope was never, ever going to bring it back to them." Another view, also presented to me by a senior Vatican official, is that on the contrary, John Paul conceives of Mary as his "spokesperson" among the Russians. From this point of view, the return is a good will gesture intended to smooth the path for an eventual visit. Time will tell.

• The return of the icon is a classic example of how John Paul II scandalizes ultra-conservative Catholics, especially those devoted to the Fatima prophecies. (Catholics older than I will remember praying for the conversion of Russia during the rosary because Our Lady of Fatima requested it.) It was the Blue Army, an American Catholic group committed to spreading the message of Fatima, that purchased the Kazan icon in the early 1960s and placed it in a Byzantine chapel in Fatima, awaiting the conversion of Russia. They turned the icon over to the pope in 1993. John Paul, it should be clear, is not one to take the Fatima prophecies lightly. He believes that on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, Mary changed the flight path of a bullet to save him from an assassination attempt. Hence his decision to give the icon back to Russia means that he believes the "conversion" called for at Fatima has already happened -- i.e., the collapse of Communism. He does not believe that Russia needs to "convert" in the ecclesiastical sense, meaning to become Roman Catholic. Indeed, John Paul has made it clear that he believes the salvation of Russia will be through Orthodoxy, and that the future lies not in conversion but in communion - the Latin and Byzantine churches coming together as one family of faith, each preserving its legitimate autonomy. This stance angers some traditionalists. As one Catholic traditionalist writer, Marian Horvat, recently put it: "The Russian schismatic church continues to spread the same heresies and errors that St. Pius X warned us against. Therefore, it did not convert. If some Catholic authorities deny that it is in error, they are denying the true faith." The Kazan story, therefore, is another instance in which the popular label of John Paul as a "conservative" comes up short.

The Vatican delegation, which also includes the founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, and the founder of the Community of Boze, Fr. Enzo Bianchi, will lunch with Alexy II and other Orthodox leaders after the Saturday ceremony. The delegation returns to Rome on Sunday, Aug. 29.

* * *

Everyone agrees that the icon being returned is not the original that appeared in Russia in 1579. Instead, it is a 17th or 18th century copy, in the Orthodox tradition of copying famous icons. These derivatives often go on to become highly revered themselves.

Beyond that, opinions about the importance of the icon differ.

The Catholic side tends to play up its significance, suggesting that it is the most valuable of all existing copies, perhaps the one that Peter the Great ordered for the Cathedral of Kazan in St. Petersburg. Among other things, that would make this icon the one before which famed Russian poet Alexsandr Puskin passed the last hours of his life prior to being killed in an 1837 duel.

In his Aug. 25 prayer before the icon, John Paul seemed to treat it almost as the original: "Divine providence … has caused your holy icon, lost in distant times, to reappear in the sanctuary of Fatima, in Portugal."

The civic authorities in Tatarstan have also trumpeted the icon's return, in part for the obvious reason that if it ends up in Kazan it could become an important magnet for tourism. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls told NCR Aug. 23, "Twice civil officials from Kazan, even the mayor, have come to the Vatican to ask for the icon. They are very interested in it."

The Russian Orthodox, for their part, have minimized the significance of the icon. A statement from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2003 reads:

"In its size and character, this icon cannot be identified with either the historical miracle-working icon that appeared in 1579 in Kazan or other known and venerated icons. The statement that this icon is 'authentic' is justified only in the sense that it is not a modern forgery and fully corresponds to the time to which it has been dated by specialists."

Alexy II himself recently told Putin that because this was "just one of many existing copies" of the Kazan icon, it's not necessary that the pope bring it back himself; it's enough for two cardinals to do so.

On April 1, 2003, the icon was subjected to historical analysis by a mixed commission of Russian and Vatican experts. Here are the conclusions that commission reached:

• "The icon was painted on a panel of lemon wood, 31.5 by 26.1 centimeters, and presents evidence of a wax flow attributable to its original liturgical and cultural use;

• "Certain stylistic elements of the painting are consistent with the model of the works of the Masters of the Palace of the Armory of the Kremlin at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries;

• "The author must have been a provincial master; the painting is authentic and testifies that the Icon was painted in order to be covered with a metallic cover (riza);

• "Along the borders are found holes for nails of diverse sizes, which permits the thought that there was a cover prior to the current one;

• "The riza is executed in gilded silver, with a simple incision in a provincial style of the late Russian baroque, and specially realized for this Icon in a time not distant from the painting itself;

• "The riza is decorated with numerous precious stones, some applied originally and others in successive phases, which is documented both by the direct examination and by the photographic documentation presented to the commission;

• "At the present moment, the Icon is conserved in a case that seems executed in the 20th century.

"The expert report has confirmed that this is an authentic Icon, attributable to a period not later than the first half of the 17th century, and that the precious cover -- perhaps realized following a particular event -- permits the deduction that the Icon was the object of a cult and of particular veneration."

* * *

McCarrick was the apostolic visitator for the Blue Army in 1993 when the group turned the icon over to John Paul. (In effect, this means the icon was purchased with American Catholic money, and McCarrick's invitation to Moscow is a way of saying "thank you.")

He sat down with NCR at the North American College in Rome after the Aug. 25 liturgy to discuss what the icon means.

McCarrick said he was appointed a visitator for the Blue Army twice, in order to resolve internal problems. It was during one of these commissions, he said, that he received a letter informing him that the Blue Army owned the Icon of the Madonna of Kazan. McCarrick passed the information along to the Holy See, which determined that this was an "authentic icon." The Vatican then asked if the pope could have it, so he could return it to the Russians.

McCarrick took the request to the board of the Blue Army.

"I didn't tell them the whole story, because it was important to protect the Holy Father's freedom of action," McCarrick said. "I simply said that he would be delighted to have it, and they graciously agreed."

The transfer had to be conducted quietly, McCarrick said, in order not to arouse the interest of governments and other parties. If word got out that the pope had the icon, it could have compromised his capacity to decide where and when it should be given back. (Indeed, when word later leaked that the icon was in the papal apartments, pressure grew for its return).

I asked McCarrick why the return has taken 10 years.

"The Holy Father wanted to deliver it himself," he said. "He wanted to have that encounter with the Russian Orthodox Church. That's part of his charism, to reach out to others."

So, is sending the icon back a signal that John Paul knows a Russia trip is not in the cards?

"From how it looks, it seems as if this is true," McCarrick said.

I asked McCarrick about the grumbling one sometimes hears in the Vatican, to the effect that John Paul's ecumenical overtures to the Russians rarely seem reciprocated. Even now, the Moscow Patriarchate is minimizing the significance of the icon's return. Aside from the nobility of the gesture, I asked, what's the point?

"I don't think you can set aside the nobility of the gesture," McCarrick responded. "It's a sign of the pope's longing for the unity of all the churches.

"He sees things at a deeper level than the rest of us," McCarrick said. "He believes Our Lady is going to be one of the instruments for bringing us all together, because it's what her Son longed for. Whether it takes days, months, or years, the Holy Father believes it will have its effect in God's good time."

What of Orthodox criticism that the pope talks a good ecumenical game, but is not willing to cut the papacy down to size?

"I'm aware of the criticism of the Roman Curia, things like that," McCarrick said. "In some cases, it's probably valid. But in a world that is so fast-moving, so diverse, you need a strong center. … The history of Protestantism has indicated that once you lose that center, the result is more and more division.

"How that center can be more open to cooperation and communication is what the church has to pray about, without sacrificing that which gives strength to the church," McCarrick said.

"That's the role of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity," McCarrick said, "to pray about this, to dialogue, to make suggestions."

I also asked McCarrick about the criticism from some traditionalists that because Russia has not yet "converted," as they see it, handing over the icon is a betrayal of Mary's instructions at Fatima.

"The most faithful witness of Our Lady is the vicar of her Son," McCarrick said. "The Holy Father would not have taken this step without a lot of prayer and thought."

Finally, I asked McCarrick if he thinks there's any special historical significance to an American being part of this delegation, since a whole generation of American Catholics prayed fervently for the "conversion" of Russia.

"We were always warned about Communism, the threat to the peace of the world," he said. "Our Lady is the Queen of Peace, and she brought these prayers of millions of Catholics to her Son, and it happened."

Prior to leaving for Moscow, McCarrick flew to Paris to celebrate a Mass commemorating the liberation of France by the Allies during World War II.

* * *

Tension in Catholic/Orthodox relations means that any time figures from the two sides meet, there are always mini-dramas. The return of the Kazan icon is no different.

AsiaNews -- the Catholic news agency directed by Fr. Bernardo Cevellera, former head of the Vatican's Misna missionary news service -- reported Aug. 23 that Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow, president of the Catholic bishops' conference in Russia, had not been invited to the Aug. 28 ceremony.

If true, it would have been a rather standard maneuver when high-profile Catholic figures visit Orthodox territory. On papal trips to Eastern Europe, for example, it has sometimes happened that local Catholic leaders, including Eastern Rite patriarchs, have been left off the guest list. The point of such freeze-outs, from the Orthodox perspective, is to express disapproval of a Catholic toehold on Orthodox soil.

In fact, however, this time the fears appear exaggerated. From the moment the Vatican side arrives in Moscow, both Kondrusiewicz and the papal nuncio in Russia, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, become official members of the delegation. Kondrusiewicz thus is on the guest list for the Saturday ceremony.

One other question mark was unresolved as of Friday.

Local Moscow Catholics had asked that the icon be exhibited Friday night, before it was handed back, so they could pray before it. Vatican officials, however, felt it would be discourteous to share the icon with anyone else before it's handed over to Alexy II. The icon will be in the custody of the delegation Friday night, and will be displayed in a chapel in their hotel (the Danislovsky, which is owned by the Moscow patriarchate).

A senior Vatican official told NCR Aug. 24 that since the hotel is open to the public, there's theoretically no reason Catholics couldn't stop by to pray. Out of respect for the Orthodox, however, he said he hopes they will act with discretion.

* * *

The Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera recently compared the relationship between Catholic Action and Comunione e Liberazione, probably the two largest and most prominent Catholic movements in Italy, to the relationship between Willy E. Coyote and the Roadrunner (who, parenthetically, is known in Italian as "Beep Beep"). The point of the comparison is that the two groups are seen as natural and eternal rivals.

Both had their greatest growth in the post-war period. Catholic Action was for decades seen as the quasi-official lay arm of the bishops' conference, while the ciellini, as the followers of Fr. Luigi Guissani are known, were a kind of conservative alternative. Catholic Action kept a deliberate distance from explicit political involvement, which was known as its "religious choice." Comunione e Liberazione, on the other hand, stresses the inseparability of faith from citizenship, which has made its members much less squeamish about engaging in partisan political activity.

In general, the clash might be read as one between the Paul VI-style Catholicism of Catholic Action, emphasizing dialogue and respect for the autonomy of the temporal sphere, and a John Paul approach, more robustly evangelical and determined to shape culture. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the ciellini have been in the ascendant in this papacy.

A sign of Comunione e Liberazione's favor is that one of their most important priests, Angelo Scola, was nominated by John Paul bishop of Grosseto, then rector of the Lateran University, and recently cardinal of Venice. Many observers, myself included, regard Scola as a strong contender for the papacy, though some say the cardinals aren't ready to coronate one of the movements with its own pope.

All of this is background to the surprise appearance this week of Paola Bignardi, president of Catholic Action, at the annual meeting of the ciellini at Rimini. Bignardi invited her historical rivals to join Catholic Action in Loreto at the Shrine of the Holy Family, on Sept. 5 to greet John Paul II. The invitation was widely interpreted as an attempt to heal old wounds.

Italian church historian Alberto Melloni, writing in Corriere, saw the hand of the Italian bishops in the overture.

"One shouldn't take for granted that this solution will work," he wrote. "It could be the first step towards real discussion, after years of one-liners, adulation and gossip; but it could also end up in a definitive transformation of the Italian church into a federation of groups, all equal and all too focused on looking after their own interests."

A cynic might suspect another factor in the push for reconciliation. If some are indeed thinking in terms of a Scola candidacy for the papacy, it would behoove them to smooth out any wrinkles related to his background. By presenting Comunione e Liberazione as no longer an object of division, anxieties about a ciellino pope might be reduced. (The fact that I'm thinking in these terms may simply suggest, however, that I've been in Italy too long).

In any event, this budding détente will be closely followed within the College of Cardinals. The Italian church tends to be the one other than their own that most cardinals know best, and so much of their impressions of ecclesiastical life around the world - what's happening in the priesthood, the movements, parish life - is based to some extent on events here. This experiment, therefore, bears watching.

* * *

Last week I offered a rather lofty interpretation of John Paul's August 14-15 trip to Lourdes as the apotheosis of his transformation into a symbol of human suffering - almost an icon of Christ on the Cross.

Papal trips are not just symbolism and spirituality, however, they are also major logistical undertakings that don't come cheap. No one knows that better than the shrine at Lourdes, which was left with a deficit of almost $1.5 million after the two-day event.

The main problem, according to Bishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes, is that collections from the 200,000 pilgrims who attended the Sunday morning Mass, which were expected to pick up the bulk of the cost, covered only about 15 percent. Perrier said people simply moved through the entrances too fast for volunteers to be able to solicit contributions.

"We thought it would be very slow, like at airport security controls, and we'd have the time to explain to people that they should give a little bit," Perrier told the Europe 1 network. "But there was no waiting time and people got in as quickly as possible to get a good seat."

Collections amounted to just $220,000, barely over $1 for each member of the congregation. The hope was that each pilgrim would leave 10 Euros.

The shrine has set up a special bank account for donations to make up the balance.

"Lots of people were very touched by this event, so I'm sure people will be very generous," Perrier said. "Lourdes will not shut down."

The deficit raises the larger question of how one frames a cost/benefit analysis of papal travel.

Given that one day of a papal trip can cost around $1 million, even without doing all the math one can estimate that John Paul's 543 days outside Italy have cost at least half a billion dollars. That expense, of course, has to be measured against the pastoral, political and humanitarian objectives the trips were designed to achieve.

Alongside those subjective factors, however, there's one other point worth considering. Cities don't clamor to host the pope because they lose money. Denver, for example, said that it got a $100 million bump in travel and tourism from the $700,000 it spent for the pope's 1993 visit. The New York State Department of Commerce and Economic Development concluded that a 1995 Mass at Giants Stadium, all by itself, generated $3.4 million in hotel, concessions and restaurant spending for the city, in exchange for an outlay of $800,000. St. Louis civic officials say the city made $14 million in spending by 54,000 out-of-town visitors when the pope stopped for 24 hours in January 1999. That trip's total cost was pegged at $7 million, so the city doubled its money in one day.

Of course, not every site is positioned to cash in quite this lucratively. I would be interested to know, however, how much extra the restaurants, hotels and gift shops in Lourdes took in over the papal weekend.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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