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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Aug-24-2004 (1,050 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

American dream: U.S. Catholics hoped Kazan icon would get to Russia

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For Americans who had a hand in getting the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan back to Russia, its transfer was a prayer answered and a dream denied.

Pope John Paul II had wanted to carry the Russian icon home, and his traveling to Russia, icon in hand, was part of the dream of many people belonging to the U.S.-based Blue Army-World Apostolate of Fatima, which purchased the icon from an Englishwoman in 1970 and gave it to the pope in 1993.

The dream of a papal trip has been set aside, replaced by fervent prayers for better relations between Catholics and Russian Orthodox.

The icon -- recently determined to be an 18th-century work -- had traveled around the United States in the mid-1970s with members of the Blue Army venerating it as they prayed the rosary for the conversion of communist Russia, as Our Lady of Fatima had requested.

Peter Anderson, a member of the Seattle archdiocesan ecumenical commission, remembers reading about the icon in Soul, the Blue Army magazine.

But the icon really began to occupy Anderson's time after a 1989 visit to what was then Leningrad -- now St. Petersburg -- as part of the Leningrad-Seattle Sister Churches program. An Orthodox deacon explained to him how important the icon was for Russian Christians.

When Metropolitan Alexy of Leningrad, the future Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, visited Seattle in 1989, Anderson arranged for him to have dinner with Father Frederick Miller, then-executive director of the Blue Army-World Apostolate of Fatima.

Father Miller, who now is the spiritual director of seminarians at Rome's North American College, said the dinner at Seattle's Space Needle "was strange."

The metropolitan and two priests arrived at the popular restaurant at the top of the Space Needle and "sang grace at the top of their lungs. It was quite impressive. Everyone in the restaurant was silent, forks dropped," Father Miller told Catholic News Service Aug. 23.

Father Miller said the future patriarch was interested in knowing the specific history of the Blue Army's icon -- even then there were doubts that it was the 16th-century original -- and in finding out about the Blue Army.

"I'm sure if they had seen any of the older literature of the Blue Army, they would be very wary of proselytism and a desire to Westernize Russian Christianity, so he kept his distance," the priest said.

Nothing was resolved at the meeting.

By then, the Blue Army had transferred the icon to the Byzantine chapel of the organization's hotel, the Domus Pacis, in Fatima, Portugal.

Anderson was still keen to do something, so he wrote about the icon and its importance to then-Archbishop Edward I. Cassidy, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Although there were signs of greater religious freedom in the Soviet Union in 1989, the Cathedral of the Mother of God of Kazan in Leningrad was still a government-run "museum of atheism," Anderson said.

The Leningrad-Seattle Sister Churches program hoped that if the icon were given to then-Metropolitan Alexy -- especially if Pope John Paul gave it to him -- it would pressure the government to restore the cathedral to its original use as a place of Orthodox worship, Anderson said.

Communications among Anderson, the Blue Army and the Vatican, which still hoped throughout the 1990s that the pope could visit Russia, were "kept top secret," Anderson said.

In 1993 with Father Miller as director of the Blue Army and then-Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., as apostolic visitor of the organization, Pope John Paul asked for the icon.

"The thing that struck me -- powerfully -- was the ease with which the board of directors agreed to transfer ownership to the Holy Father," Father Miller said.

"It was grace. It was so simple," he said.

Father Miller said, "I felt the most important thing I did in my five years as director was to get the icon to the Holy See."

The icon's trip home to Russia, he said, "says something very positive about the Blue Army, despite some of its shortcomings. The organization promoted prayers for Russia and an awareness of the need for full Christian unity for most of the 20th century."

While there was a lot of Cold War rhetoric and even some hints of "McCarthyism" -- seeing a communist plot behind everything wrong in the world -- "the Blue Army promoted a real attentiveness to the Fatima message in the United States," he said.

Neither Father Miller nor John Hauf, an editor at Soul from 1988 to 2000, could recall exactly how much the Blue Army had paid for the icon, although both said they thought it was less than $50,000. The owner apparently drastically reduced her asking price after Russian Orthodox in the United States withdrew their bid for the icon.

Pope John Paul named Cardinal McCarrick, now archbishop of Washington, to be part of his delegation to take the icon to Moscow and return it Aug. 28.

The fact that the pope was not making the trip, the cardinal said, "is a sadness for me because I know he wanted to do this himself for no other reason than to honor the church and people of Russia and their faith and trust in the mother of God."

Although "circumstance will not make that possible," the cardinal told CNS in Rome, "the pope felt that it was time that it be returned to Russia."

In a statement released by his Washington office, the cardinal said it had been his "grace-filled privilege to have some small role" in getting the icon to the pope in the first place.

The cardinal prayed that Mary, "who brought forth the light of the world as she gave birth to the Prince of Peace," would "bring both light and peace to all the churches."

While Anderson, too, is disappointed that Pope John Paul is not carrying the icon to Russia, "I think the important thing is that it is happening, and I pray that it is a time of grace."

"This is better than just keeping the icon, and the Holy Father is making this a major event," he said. "What happens this week can touch a lot of Russian hearts."


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