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.
The icon — recently determined to be an 18th-century work — toured the United States in the mid-1970s, with members of the U.S.-based 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, Peterson 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 said 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.
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 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 McCar-rick 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.”
Neither Father Miller nor John Hauf, an editor at Soul from 1988 to 2000, could recall exactly how much the Blue Army 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.
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.”