Theodore McCarrick, the Blessed Mother and Pope St. John Paul II

COMMENTARY: The disgraced ex-cardinal used his influence in 1993 to send a treasure icon of the Blessed Mother to the Polish Pope for safekeeping.

Icon of Our Lady of Kazan, mid-19th century.
Icon of Our Lady of Kazan, mid-19th century. (photo: Public Domain)

Although June 20 was the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, much of the Catholic news marked a sad anniversary instead.

It was two years ago that the Archdiocese of New York set off an earthquake with the revelation that then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the early 1970s. Subsequent developments led to McCarrick’s dismissal from the clerical state in February 2019.

In October 2018, the Vatican promised a review of the all the files on McCarrick, to answer a troubling question: How did a man with so many rumors about him rise so high?

That report is still being prepared, but the coincidence of the McCarrick anniversary with Immaculate Heart of Mary feast helps answer another, related question. It is already known that McCarrick was skilled at deflecting rumors — which is all that there were until after he was appointed archbishop of Washington. But why did he earn the papal favor of St. John Paul II to get the appointment to Washington in the first place? Part of the reason he was able to delay his day of reckoning was because he was held in good esteem and elevated to the highest offices. Why? What was it about McCarrick that attracted favorable attention under John Paul?

McCarrick was an ambitious young cleric favored with the patronage of Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York in the 1970s. That he would be made a young auxiliary of New York followed, and at age 51, he became bishop of a new diocese, Metuchen in New Jersey. From there he rose to become the archbishop of Newark in 1986. There is nothing unremarkable about a well-connected cleric with a powerful patron becoming an archbishop. But why subsequently Washington and a cardinal?

There is a Marian dimension to the story that helps to explain. It relates to several principal themes of the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II: Marian devotion, ecumenical engagement with the Orthodox, the noble heritage of eastern Christianity and the singular role of Fatima in the life and ministry of the Polish pope.

It’s a complicated tale, but it begins with Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most important icons for the Russian Orthodox. Many Russian churches have images of the Kazan icon — Kazanskaya — and there are cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg named after her. The original Kazanskaya is held to have miraculous powers. It is to Russian Christianity what Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexico or Our Lady of Czestochowa is to Poland.

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, one of the most precious icons of the Kazanskaya was either stolen (for its valuable frame) or smuggled out of Russia for safe-keeping. It ended up in private hands in the West. It was not unknown; arrangements were made with its owners to have it exhibited at the Russian Orthodox pavilion at New York’s World Fair in 1964. (Michelangelo’s Pieta was sent by St. Paul VI for the Vatican pavilion.)

In 1970, the Blue Army of Fatima purchased the Kazanskaya and sent it to Fatima, where it was housed in a Byzantine chapel. The Kazanskaya was to be kept at Fatima until the conversion of Russia — as called for by Our Lady of Fatima — made it possible for the holy image to return to its homeland.

In 1991, the evil empire of the Soviet Union was dissolved. Was it time for the Kazanskaya to return? John Paul fervently hoped that, after the brutal persecutions of Eastern Christianity under communism, the Church could now breathe freely with both lungs.

Russian Orthodoxy’s most important icon was being kept at a Roman Catholic shrine in Fatima, which was historically odd, but also fitting. At Fatima, the Blessed Mother had proposed the consecration to her Immaculate Heart as the supernatural means for the defeat of Russian communism. And the human instrument for the defeat of communism, St. John Paul the Great, was linked to Fatima by the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981.

It made sense then that the Kazanskaya would be at Fatima but, that after the end of Soviet communism, that John Paul would see that it would get home. Thus, the Holy Father made inquiries about the Kazanskaya in Fatima.

Enter Archbishop McCarrick of Newark. He was the apostolic visitor to the Blue Army in 1993. Knowing of John Paul’s interest in the Kazanskaya, he proposed to the Blue Army that they give the precious icon to the Holy Father, who would then be free to determine what would be done with it. So in 1993, the Kazanskaya was given to John Paul.

It was a treasured gift. John Paul kept it in his private study where he venerated it often, the Polish pope invoking the intercession of the Kazanskaya for his brother Slavs, the Russian people.

“It has found a home with me and has accompanied my daily service to the Church with its motherly gaze,” said John Paul in 2004. “How often have I called on the Mother of God of Kazan, asking her to protect and guide the Russian people who venerate her, and to hasten the moment when all the disciples of her Son, recognizing one another as brothers and sisters, will be able to fully restore the compromised unity.”

John Paul fervently desired to give the Kazanskaya back to the Russian Orthodox Church on a visit to that country. But the Russian Orthodox refused, and so finally, in August 2004, John Paul magnanimously decided to send the icon with a delegation, rather than deliver it himself. It was a crushing disappointment that he could not visit Russia but, with his own death less than a year away, he wanted to return the icon in what time he had left.

That delegation was headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That was normal protocol. But the other cardinal in the delegation was none other than Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, an odd choice except that it was his influence that had helped to bring the Kazanskaya to John Paul in 1993.

For more than 10 years, the most important religious object in the papal home — perhaps even more than the relics of St. Peter kept in the Pope’s private chapel — was the Kazanskaya. And it was Theodore McCarrick who had played a key role in bringing it there.

Every day for more than 10 years, the icon, which represented some of the things most dear to John Paul’s heart — love for Mary, love for the East, love for unity, love for freedom — was linked to the New York/New Jersey bishop. In that light, his elevation to Washington and the cardinalate is less mysterious.

The McCarrick report, when finally issued, will deal with the back and forth of many detailed issues. Who reported what to whom and with which evidence? Who did what and when? Who blocked what was done?

The broader question though — Why did McCarrick get favorable attention in the first place? — will not be the subject of the report. The answer there is better indicated by last Saturday’s feast, Fatima and the Russian icon that lived with Pope St. John Paul II for the last decade of his life.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.