Just about a year ago, my wife and I, with four Polish and American friends, were having lunch with Pope John Paul II in the papal apartment. An hour into our conversation, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope’s secretary, leaned over the dessert and asked quietly, “Do you think the ladies would like to see the icon?” I said I thought they certainly would, and the rest of the company, too.
I had been shown this astonishing artifact three months earlier, at Castel Gandolfo; there, it had rested on the altar of the Pope’s chapel. Bishop Dziwisz now brought the icon from the apartment chapel and passed it around the table. My wife and friends were stunned by the priceless diamond and ruby-encrusted frame which partially covers the icon itself, whose extraordinary history was then explained.
Our Lady of Kazan is one of Russia’s most venerated religious images. A long list of miracles is attributed to the icon, which depicts Mary and the Christ Child looking, not at each other, but at those contemplating the image. The 13th-century Kazanskaya, as she is known, has long been regarded as the “liberatrix and protectress of Holy Mother Russia.” Brought to the new imperial capital of St. Petersburg in 1721, she was transferred in 1811 to the Cathedral of Kazan, built there especially to house her. On Christmas Day, 1812, the czar offered the “Mother of God of Kazan” the captured flags of Napoleon’s army.
In 1904, thieves stole the icon; a decade and a half later, Lenin’s Bolsheviks turned the cathedral into a museum of atheism. No one knows how the miraculous icon escaped Soviet Russia. The Kazanskaya made her next appearance at an art auction in Poland after World War I. Then she disappeared again, only to re-emerge in the 1950s in an English castle. There, she was recognized by an exiled Russian countess; her claim that this was indeed the original “Mother of God of Kazan” was supported by a senior Russian Orthodox bishop, who came from his Paris exile to examine the icon.
Having subsequently been sold to satisfy estate taxes, the Kazanskaya eventually found her way to the United States, through whom or by what means no one seems to know. When a private art collector decided to put the icon up for sale, it was obtained by the Blue Army, which raised millions of dollars to redeem the Kazanskaya and transfer it to Fatima. Some years ago, the Blue Army decided to give the icon to Pope John Paul II, so that he could bring it back to Russia whenever it became possible for him to make his long-awaited pilgrimage there. Ever since, the icon has never been far from the Pope. When he leaves the Apostolic Palace to go to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, the Kazansyaka goes with him.
John Paul has told the Patriarch of Moscow, Aleksy II, that he has no intention of holding onto this irreplaceable Russian religious treasure. Rather, he would like to return it to the Russian people and the Orthodox Church in person, in Russia, as a sign of his profound regard for the Christian East. Thus far, as we know, the Patriarch has declined to invite the Pope and, so to speak, the Kazanskaya, to Russia.
The December 2000 issue of Inside the Vatican has an extensive cover story on this amazing business. Some will be a little skeptical of the magazine’s attempt to link the drama of the Kazanskaya to various theories of the Fatima apparitions — the saga is remarkable enough in its own right without further embellishment. But the crucial ecumenical point remains: the Pope (who once told me, “Russia is a big part of the story”) burns to bring one of Russia’s holiest images back home, and in doing so, to illustrate Rome’s fraternal love for the largest Church of the Christian East. And no one who believes that Providence acts in history will deny that the incredible journey of the Kazanskaya is, in a word, providential.
Or, as John Paul himself said at Fatima, a year after he was shot in his front yard, St. Peter’s Square, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere ‘coincidences’.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.