Here are excerpts from an article reproduced with permission from the Dec. 2000 issue of the excellent Catholic magazine "Inside the Vatican" (www.insidethevatican.com, 1800-789-9494):
With his visit in Ukraine in June 2001, Pope John Paul II is attempting to make a "breakthrough" in the East, in order to lay down at least the initial bases for an eventual reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, separated since the "Great Schism" in 1054.
The Holy See is making its "way of piety" clear: John Paul wishes to carry the most sacred icon of Russia, thought lost a century ago, found, a half century ago and since brought to his own private apartment, back to Russia. And he wants to do it himself, in person, before he dies.
by Marguerite Peeters
The icon of Our Lady of Kazan is one of Russia's most venerated icons, inseparable from that nation's long Christian history, and an image linked to the deepest sources of Russia's religious life. Now, as events involving the Kazan icon during the 20th century are becoming better known, it seems that this sacred Russian image may be destined to play a pivotal role in Christian history in the 21st century.
Consider these events: the icon was stolen a few years prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, was the spoil of thieves and international profiteers for many years, then surfaced on the wall of a castle of a British nobleman at mid-century only to be purchased a few years later by an organization of devout Catholics who managed to raise millions of dollars to ransom it and take it to Fatima, where it remained for many years in a Byzantine chapel built especially to house it. Then, in 1981 (just two months after Pope John Paul was nearly shot to death by an assassin) the organization voted to entrust the icon to him for safe-keeping. And so, after many wanderings, it is now in the Pope's private apartment.
And now John Paul is planning to return the icon to Russia.
What was for centuries a symbol of the Virgin's care and solicitude for Russia in times of trial has thus become symbolically connected with Mary's Fatima prophecy of the conversion of Russia, and of a subsequent time of world peace.
For Russia, for Christianity around the world, and for all of humanity, this icon and its fate could be of unexpected importance in this new millennium.
In 1904, the icon was stolen from the Cathedral of Kazan in St. Petersburg, and Russians immediately feared it would be lost forever. Later, when the Bolsheviks seized power, the faithful suspected that it had been destroyed in the anti-Christian purges of Lenin and Stalin.
How its mysterious destiny brought it to a long stay in Fatima is still not fully understood. Likewise, the specific conditions under which it will go back to its homeland are not yet completely known. But its return seems clearly connected with five related events:
(1) with the 1917 promise of Our Lady concerning the downfall of Communism;
(2) with John Paul II's life being spared from an assassin's bullets in 1981;
(3) with his consecration of the world – including Russia – to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984;
(4) with his revelation of the third secret of Fatima on May 13 this year; and
(5) with his consecration of the third millennium to Our Lady in front of the statue of Fatima on October 8 in St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Vatican officials openly speak about the Holy Father's desire to bring the icon back to Russia. How and when that will be done is the subject of delicate negotiations currently underway between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate. Whatever the circumstances of the return, whether during a papal trip to Russia or not, the icon's return would be an extraordinarily meaningful event for Russian Orthodox, whose love for the Mother of God is unsurpassed.
The significance of the "Kazanskaya". Our Lady of Kazan bears the name of the city where it was found, initially kept and venerated: Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, on the banks of the Volga River.... The "Kazanskaya," as it is called, has a special spiritual significance and a special role in Russian history. It is known as the "liberatrix and protectress" of Holy Mother Russia. It accompanied the Russian people in their struggle against all the country's invaders: the Tartars, the Poles, the Swedes, the French. It was used as the standard of the Russian army. Indeed, the Mother of God is called the "invincible general" in many Russian prayers.
For this reason, some in Rome and elsewhere in the West worry that, once back in Russia, the icon of Kazan could become a symbolic rallying point for Russian nationalism. This danger exists. A virulent nationalism, combining elements of both fascism and Communism, is one of the temptations presently facing the Russian people. But many of the most reliable Russian commentators argue that the Russian people really have no heart for such nationalism, and recognize this evil mixture as something inspired by old demons who must definitively be resisted.
The deeper truth is that the icon of Kazan has always been regarded as the mother who protects her children, especially from atheism. She is invoked as "Thou who destroys atheism." A July 9th hymn to Our Lady of Kazan prays to the Mother of God to let "the true light of Christ shine" on Russia, and to lead "Russians on the path of faith." She "guards and maintains Russia in the true faith." She is the "sovereign" of Russia, the "guardian of the Russian land."
Russia is a nation that has greatly suffered. Its population has been decimated on several occasions because of political turmoil in the country. Still, Russians cling to the Virgin for their protection.
The Kjazanskaya is therefore connected with the destiny of Russia as a nation. It has been the source of many miracles, especially for the blind. It is considered as the patroness of households in all Russian families. Even unbelievers often have an icon of Kazan in their home. There are millions of reproductions of the icon in Russia. It is frequently given to girls before their weddings.
The Mother of God is the patroness of Russia, and Saint Nicholas her patron. Russian believers like to speak of their country as the house of the Most Holy Mother of God, a Marian garden, in which churches and monasteries dedicated to the Virgin abound. They say that the Mother of God stands at the origin of anything that is Russian.
There are miraculous icons of Our Lady in almost every city. The love of Russians for the Mother of God is unsurpassed in the world. The Mother of God herself is in fact a daughter of the East. All the great feasts of Our Lady were instituted in the East before coming to the West.
Russian history of the icon
In the middle of the 13th century, the Tartars invaded Russia and oppressed the Russians for 300 years. The Tartars made the city of Kazan the capital of their Khanate (principality).
In 1552, Czar Ivan IV the Terrible decided to launch a crusade against the Tartars who were oppressing Orthodox Christians with their laws. On October 1 (that is, on the feast of the Pokrov, the Protection of the Mother of God, a feast specific to the Russian Orthodox Church), the Russians took over the city of Kazan. One hundred thousand Russians were freed, and the Tartars began to be instructed in the Orthodox faith. The city was able to lead a normal life again, rebuild its churches and monasteries, and freely exercise its religious and political life.
In gratitude for the Russian victory, Ivan the Terrible ordered a large basilica in honor of the Mother of God to be built in Kazan. The basilica was dedicated to the mystery of the Annunciation. The Czar also ordered the construction of a cathedral in Moscow in honor of the Protection of the Mother of God (now St. Basil's Basilica on Red Square). Soon after the Kazan victory, all of southern Russia was also liberated from the Moslems.
In 1555, the Moscow synod of bishops elected the first bishop of Kazan and decided to build a cathedral in Kazan. The majority of the Kazan population was still Moslem. After the death of the second bishop, the Moslems revolted against the Christian faith. (These first two bishops of Kazan were later declared saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.) During the struggle, a devastating fire destroyed half of the city (1579).
It is in this context that the Mother of God appeared in a dream to a 9-year-old girl named Matrona.
Our Lady asked the girl to dig in the ruins left by the fire, saying that she would find a miraculous icon. The Virgin indicated the spot where Matrona would find it. Matrona informed her parents of her dream. They did not take her seriously. Our Lady appeared two more times to Matrona, warning her that there would be a punishment if she did not obey. Matrona and her mother then hurried to the Metropolitan residence, but neither Archbishop Jeremias nor his clergy believed their story. Still, Matrona's mother and a few neighbors started digging for the icon. They could not find it. Finally, the child herself found it under the fireplace of a burnt house. The icon "appeared" full of light, as if it had just been painted moments before.
From the start, this event has been considered by Russians as an apparition. It took place on July 8, 1579. A liturgical feast day was established on that date in commemoration of the apparition of the icon.
It is now thought that the icon must have been hidden during the Tartar domination, when the Orthodox were obliged to hide their faith, but the origin of the icon still remains mysterious.
The news quickly spread. Thousands of people gathered on the spot of the "apparition." The archbishop came. A solemn procession carried the icon to the nearest church, St. Nicholas. Later the icon was transferred to the Cathedral of the Annunciation.
The first of many miracles performed through the icon of Our Lady was the gift of sight to two blind people, Josef and Nikita, who found themselves in Kazan on the day of the apparition.
Informed of these miracles, Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of a convent on the spot of the apparition. The icon was later transferred to the convent. Matrona and her mother entered the convent and became nuns. Matrona eventually became hegumen (abbess), with the name of Maura.
After the death of his wife, the priest of St. Nicholas, Father Germogen, took monastic vows, and became the Igumen of the monastery. In 1589, he was consecrated bishop Metropolitan of Kazan, and became later Patriarch of Moscow.
On October 22, 1612, after having prayed in front of the icon, the Russian army, led by Prince Pojarsky, liberated Moscow from the Polish invaders. Pojarsky had a Cathedral of Kazan built on what is now Red Square in Moscow. In 1636, the icon was brought to the cathedral. (The cathedral was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. Under Gorbachev, a small church was allowed to be rebuilt on the spot — the first time permission was granted to rebuild a church under the Soviet regime. On November 6, 1990, Metropolitan Alexi blessed the cornerstone for the new Basilica of Our Lady of Kazan on Red Square.)
The icon was again considered the bringer of victory by Czar Peter the Great following the famous battle of Poltava in 1709 against the army of Carl XII of Sweden.
When Peter transferred the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1710, the icon of Kazan followed him in 1721. The czar had a copy of the icon made to be kept in the Moscow cathedral of Kazan. (This copy was destroyed with the cathedral itself.)
The czar then ordered the construction of a Cathedral of Kazan in St. Petersburg on Nevsky Prospekt. It was meant to be a Russian version of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and the chief church for all Russia. The cathedral was consecrated on September 15, 1811.
Napoleon invaded Russia in June, 1812. The icon of Kazan again played a role as protector of the Russian nation.
The icon remained in the cathedral of St. Petersburg until the night of June 29, 1904, when thieves took all the treasures of the cathedral, including the icon. The theft was a national catastrophe. A copy of the icon was put in its place, but it too disappeared during the 1920s.
Under the Bolsheviks, the Cathedral of Kazan in St. Petersburg became a museum of atheism and the official center of militant atheism in the world. The cathedral has now been restored for worship, but there is an empty niche in the place where the icon formerly was.
Western history of the icon
How the icon came out of Russia remains a mystery. The one thing we seem to know with certainty is that the icon appeared at an auction in Poland after the First World War.
In about 1950, the icon re-emerged – on the wall of an English castle. A Russian countess recognized it as the original because of the way the diamonds and rubies were placed on the riza (the silver or gold plaque partially covering venerated icons in Russia). The Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Leonty, living in exile in Paris, was invited to Windsor Castle to see the icon. He declared it to be the original icon of Kazan.
After the death of the British aristocrat who owned the icon, the image was sold to pay taxes. It then traveled to the United States. The icon was exhibited in the Soviet pavilion at the World's Fair in New York in 1964-65. It was, together with Michelangelo's Pieta (which was kept in the Holy See pavilion), the most venerated religious work at the fair.
At the beginning of 1970, the icon was about to be put up to the highest bidder in an open auction when the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, headquartered in Washington, New Jersey, made a commitment to redeem it to return it to the people of Russia, when the promises of Our Lady of Fatima would be fulfilled.
On July 21, 1970, after a solemn rite in the chapel of the apparitions at Cova de Iria (Fatima), the Holy Icon was brought in procession to the Chapel of the Dormition in Fatima by the Bishop of Leiria, Joao Venancio, and Bishop Andrea Katkoff, Apostolic Visitator of Russian Catholics.
In July 1981, Jose Correa, a Brazilian member of the Blue Army, proposed giving the icon to John Paul II, so that he could bring it back to Russia. The Pope had often expressed a desire to visit Russia. Correa presented the idea to the world congress of the Blue Army that summer, which accepted it unanimously.
When the Holy Father came to Fatima for the first time on May 13, 1982, exactly one year after the assassination attempt, to thank Our Lady for saving his life, he venerated the icon of Kazan in the Byzantine chapel. When, on May 13, 1991, he came for the second time on the 10th anniversary of his near assassination, the holy icon was already in his apartment in Rome.
American and English experts had already authenticated the icon at the time it was bought by the Blue Army. These experts dated the icon to the 13th century, and said it was painted on wood in the traditional Greek Byzantine style.
Until recently, the Russian people, perhaps even more deeply attached to the icon of Kazan since the downfall of the Soviet regime, have believed what they were told, that is, that the original icon of Kazan had been lost. But on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's visit to the Holy Father in June 2000, in extraordinary circumstances, Correa was given almost four minutes on Russia's national evening TV news (RTR) to explain what had happened to the icon of Kazan since 1904. He explicitly said that the original was now in the apartment of the Pope. He finished by saying that the idea was that when the Holy Father would be invited to come to Russia, he would bring the icon back to the Russian people.
By wanting to give it back to the Moscow Patriarchate, the Holy Father recognizes that the icon is the spiritual property of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In fact, a consecrated icon may not be sold. In that sense, the icon morally belongs to Russia. But the restitution of the icon is not a legalistic matter: it is a deeply meaningful gesture of love and reconciliation, a prophetic sign that can be interpreted in the light of the message of Fatima.
As the late Irina Ilovajskaya Alberti (founder of the Paris journal Russian Thought, newspaper of the Russian emigration, and of Blagovest Radio in Moscow) used to testify, the Holy Father has immense prestige in Russia. He is known and loved for two main reasons: (1) because his support of the Poles in their struggle against Communism triggered the liberation of all of Eastern Europe; Russians are aware of it and thankful for it; and (2) because, as Russian newspapers emphasize, each time the Holy Father speaks of Russia, he does so with great love: the Holy Father loves Russia.
The message of Fatima has mysteriously become part of the destiny of the icon of Kazan, and vice versa: the venerable icon is part of the history of Fatima.
The prayer in the hearts of many pious Russians today is a simple petition: May the Mother of God of Kazan, the Mother of Russia, bring the promises of Fatima to the country She loves. May She bring to Russia the love of the Holy Father. Through Her powerful intercession, may we all, in the East and in the West, be delivered from atheism in all its forms, and be shown the way to love and unity.