The Pope, the Bishop and the Lost Icon of Moscow

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., received a singular honor in Russia on Aug. 28.

At the request of Pope John Paul II he presented to the Russian Orthodox church a highly At the request of Pope John Paul II he presented to the Russian Orthodox church a highly esteemed relic, an ornate 18th-century icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, as a gift from the Holy Father. In a Sept. 3 interview with Register correspondent Ellen Rossini, the cardinal reflected on the experience and how he came to be part of the story of the icon, which had been quietly removed from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.

This icon has been such a symbol of tensions between Moscow and Rome. How did you get so involved in it back when you were in New Jersey?

I had been bishop of Metuchen (N.J.), where the headquarters of the Blue Army is located, and some years after that, when I was changed to Newark as archbishop, I was asked by the Holy See to become apostolic visitator of the Blue Army. They had had some difficulties of organization and other arrangements, so the Holy See wanted to have someone try to look in on them, and I'd work it all out with them. So I was doing that with a couple of other bishops for awhile.

During that period a man in Washington state contacted me and said that he believed that the Blue Army, probably without knowing it, owned the icon of Kazan. I said, well, could you send me information about this and I'll have it looked into. He sent the information and I then contacted the Holy See through the nuncio, and we were able to verify that it did seem to be the real icon of Kazan.

How did the icon get to Rome?

I asked the Holy See if they thought it would be important for us to try to find it and to get possession of it so the Holy Father would be able to do whatever he wanted with it.

They agreed that this would be important to do. So then I found it actually in the (Blue Army) pilgrimage house in Portugal—in Fatima—right in the vestibule of the chapel. I then said to the group, “The Holy Father has been so good to you and has been so careful in trying to foster all the devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. It would be wonderful if we could give him a gift of this beautiful icon.” And they discussed it with the board and decided that yes, they would be willing to do that.

So we then had to take possession of it and very quietly bring it over to Rome. The Holy Father, having taken possession of it, put it in his private office where he venerated it for almost 10 years. It was his desire right from the start, I believe, to return it to Moscow, to return it to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Why was this done in secret?

We were doing this sort of quietly lest some government find out that he had it and say, “Well you'll give it back right away.” The Holy Father was hoping, I think, at the right time, to say to the Russian Orthodox Church, “I have been able to obtain the icon through the generosity of some people who voted and who gave it to me. I would like now to bring it and return it personally to Russia.”

That was where we were in negotiations for a long time. The Russian Orthodox church was actually very anxious to receive it, but not to have it brought personally by the Holy Father.

How did it feel to you to be his emissary?

It was a bittersweet thing. On the one hand I regretted that he was denied the opportunity of bringing it over himself, which he would have so much loved to have done as a sign of his love and respect for the Russian Orthodox church, as he wrote in the letter which accompanied our visit.

On the other hand, when I saw the faces of the people of the Russian Church in Moscow who were so overjoyed to have the icon back, I felt this was the right thing to do.

What were some personal highlights for you during the event?

I would say the Mass, the Russian Orthodox liturgy in the Cathedral of the Dormition. That is the greatest of the cathedrals of Russia. It is not the largest, but it is the most historic. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.

And there in a very ancient church we were able to bring this ancient, sacred image and to see the joy of the people. They did not see it politically, they did not see it competitively; they just saw it as the Holy Father wanting them once again in their land to be able to venerate this image of Our Lady, whom they love so much.

What did you observe about the relations between Orthodox and Roman Catholics?

I think our Orthodox brothers and sisters still may feel threatened by the Roman Catholic Church. I don't really believe that the people feel that way, but I think some of the leadership may feel there are some issues which divide us, and these issues have to be dealt with honestly and frankly. I think certainly that's what the Holy Father always wants to do. He never wants to walk away from issues. He always wants to see if they can be worked out in love and in honesty.

There are always going to be some people in communities who feel troubled by other religious communities, possibly fearing that they're going to proselytize. I think the Holy Father has really been so clear that his role is never to proselytize; his role is to find the key to unity.

What was the state of things in Moscow and some of the concerns of Christians there?

We were there at a tense time in Moscow. The two planes had just blown up a couple of days before. Just the day after we returned to Rome this terrible hostage-taking thing occurred.

I think there are people in Moscow who are troubled and very worried and anxious by the onslaught of terrorism in Russia today, and I think maybe that was one of the reasons they were so happy to be able to be conscious of Our Lady's coming back to them, of feeling the protection of her very wonderful maternal grace there in that land.

The Russian people are a very spiritual people. There's a deep faithfulness in them that I think we all have to recognize and admire. For the common people in Russia Our Lady is so very important. Whatever way she comes to them, they will rejoice in.

I think that as far as the leadership goes, they were very happy to have Our Lady back. Even though they may have some difficulties, they seemed willing to open a door to continuing the discussions and dialogue. I think that is a very important step.

What about your own Marian devotion — did the icon touch you in a particular way?

I think, really, this visit was very special. I said to the Holy Father, “I thank you for this privileged grace of being able to accompany the Madonna back home.” I felt that way. I said to my secretary earlier, “You know we've been so fortunate this year. I was able to be in Ephesus in October offering Mass on that great feast of the Theotokos, of the Mother of God. I was able to be in Lourdes last May with the Knights of Malta and their procession. And now this happened.”

Our Lady has been very especially good to me. I just hope I will participate in that grace and be the kind of man and priest and bishop that she wants me to be in the service of her Son.

Do you anticipate more work on your part in furthering ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics?

I serve as a member of the Pontifical Council of Christian Unity, and Cardinal (Walter) Kasper (the president of the council) knows that if there's anything that I can do, I'd be happy to be part of it. I think this is a work that the Holy Father continues to say is not just an add-on to the life of the Church. This is part of the essential life of the Church as the Lord Jesus founded it.

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.