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In Gesture to Russian Church, Vatican Returns Icon

Pope gives up on a visit to present it personally but hopes the move will mend relations.

August 29, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In a step toward improved relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, Patriarch Alexi II accepted the return Saturday of a centuries-old icon that had been in Pope John Paul II's personal quarters for years.

The return of the ornately decorated wooden icon, known as the "Mother of God of Kazan," came after the pope gave up on hopes that Alexi would agree to his visiting Russia to return the icon personally.

"My impression up to now is that this gesture from the Holy Father has gone right to the hearts of the people," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said before a three-hour Orthodox service and hand-over ceremony in the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral. "It's the beginning of a new framework to overcome the historical difficulties and open a new era."

The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been divided since the Great Schism of 1054. Fresh tensions emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the Orthodox Church complaining about what it sees as Catholic efforts to proselytize among traditionally Orthodox families.

Experts previously concluded that the icon is a high-quality 18th century copy of an original 16th century icon revered by many Russians for what they believe to be its protective powers. Believers credited it with having helped to secure Russian victories in a series of battles over the centuries against Poles, Tatars and Swedes. The original icon disappeared about a century ago.

This 12-by-10-inch copy was smuggled out of Russia around the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It became part of a private collection and was purchased by a Catholic group in the 1970s and donated to the pope in 1993.

Since then, it reportedly has hung in his private chapel and over his desk. John Paul has said that the icon is dear to him and that it has "watched over" his daily work.

The Vatican had begun planning a papal trip to Mongolia last year, with a stopover in Kazan for the pontiff to return the icon and make his first visit to Russia. But Alexi vetoed the idea of a visit to the city, 500 miles east of Moscow, and the plan for a Mongolia trip was dropped, at least partly because of the 84-year-old pontiff's poor health.

The pope has continued, however, to say better relations with the Orthodox Church is one of his greatest goals and appears not to have given up his desire to visit Russia. Navarro-Valls told Russian journalists Saturday that return of the icon and a possible papal visit to Moscow were two separate issues.

In a message to Alexi delivered with the icon, John Paul stressed the value of the icon as a symbol of reconciliation.

"After a lengthy period of trials and sufferings endured by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people in the last century, the Lord ... today gives us common joy and hope as the icon of the Mother of God returns to her native land," he wrote.

"Divine Providence made it possible for the people and the church in Russia to recover their freedom, and for the wall separating Eastern Europe from Western Europe to fall," he added. "Despite the divisions which sadly still persist between Christians, this sacred icon appears as a symbol of unity."

Speaking with reporters after the service, Alexi expressed thanks to John Paul for the gesture. "Reverence for this icon reminds us of the times when the Church was undivided," he said.

He said he hoped that the return of the icon testified to "the Vatican leadership's determination to return to sincere and mutually respectful relations between the two churches that would be free of competition."

Alexi said it was not currently possible to return the icon to Kazan because the monastery where the original had hung was turned into a tobacco factory during Soviet times. It will be kept for the time being at his own residence in Moscow, he said.

Worshipers at the service Saturday agreed on the treasure's importance.

"It's a great icon, glorified in Russia, that always helped Russia fight its enemies," Lyudmila Vasilyevna said.

It didn't bother her that the icon wasn't the original. "It's still Our Lady of Kazan.... Even if it is not the original, it is still the Mother of God."

Eugenia Rohdendorf, a retired scholar, described the icon as "the main protector of our country." She said couldn't help having anti-Roman Catholic feelings, in part because of the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s.

"I remember the time of Napoleon, when they were here with horses and everything was stolen," she said. "I can't forget it, even though one-quarter of my blood is Polish."

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