In late August, a Vatican delegation returned a venerable icon of the Madonna of Kazan to Patriarch Aleksy II in Moscow. The “Kazanskaya” had had an interesting journey.
She disappeared from Russia in the turbulence of the Bolshevik Revolution, only to turn up in Fatima in the early 1960s, having been bought from an art dealer by the Blue Army. In 1993, the Blue Army gave the icon to John Paul II, who kept it in his apartment chapel, in the Vatican and at Castel Gandolfo, for years – all the while hoping to be able to return the “Kazanskaya” personally to Russia. Now, after a decade of the Kazansyaka’s “watching over my daily service to the Church” (as he once put it), the Pope decided that, if he would not be permitted the return the icon personally, he would return it anyway. He also sent a moving letter that Cardinal Walter Kasper read to Patriarch Aleksy; here is its central passage:
“By a mysterious design of Divine Providence, during the long years of her pilgrimage, the Mother of God in her sacred icon known as Kazanskaya has gathered around her the Orthodox faithful and their Catholic brethren from many parts of the world, who have fervently prayed for the Church and the people whom she has protected down the centuries. More recently, 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. Despite the division which sadly still persists between Christians, this sacred icon appears as a symbol of the unity of the followers of the only-begotten Son of God, the One to whom she herself leads us.
“The Bishop of Rome has prayed before this sacred icon, asking that the day will come when we will all be united and able to proclaim to the world, with one voice and in visible communion, the salvation of our one Lord and his triumph over the evil and impious forces which seek to damage our faith and out witness of unity.”
The Pope is a saintly man, who could not imagine toting up the “score” of the Kazansyaka affair, one way or another. Those not so far advanced along the path of sanctity may be permitted the thought that all the honors in this instance go to John Paul II. He has bent every effort to accommodate Russian Orthodox sensibilities since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the response, in the main, has been the proverbial cold shoulder or worse. The intransigence of Aleksy II, the single most prominent obstacle to the Pope’s making a pilgrimage to Russia, suggests that the Moscow patriarch may not quite share John Paul’s vision of a Christian Church proclaiming “with one voice and in visible communion the salvation of our one Lord,” although Cardinal Kasper reports some progress in moving the dialogue forward.
Since the USSR imploded in 1991, Catholic friends of the Christian East have told themselves that Russian Orthodoxy, having lived through a horrific twentieth century, would take some time to recover its vitality and self-confidence. Those same friends must now ask whether Moscow’s flirtation with the heresy of ethnicity (that to be “Russian” means, necessarily, to be Orthodox), coupled with historical claims to being the “Third Rome” and the true center of the world Christian reality, compounded by the effects of political corruption past and present, have rendered the Russian Orthodox leadership incapable of responding to calls for fraternal reconciliation with the generosity of spirit with which those calls are made by the Pope.
If true, that would be very sad, and not just for ecumenism. Russia is dying. Its birth rates are far below “replacement level” and its death rate is worse than in the Third World; U.N. figures suggest that life expectancy for Russian men today is lower than male life expectancy in what the U.N. primly calls the world’s “less developed regions” – Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Its seems highly unlikely that Russia can reverse this demographic death-spiral by turning in on itself.
But isn’t that the attitude that Aleksy II has been fostering, wittingly or not?
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.
This article was originally published on The Catholic Difference