In an effort to heal the longstanding rift between the Roman Catholic Church and its eastern counterpart, Pope John Paul II returned a precious icon of “Our Lady of Kazan” to the Roman Orthodox Church, Wednesday, August 25, 2004.
"May this ancient image of the Mother of the Lord speak to His Holiness Alexy II and the venerable Synod of the Orthodox Church, of the affection of the successor of Peter for them and for all their faithful," the pontiff said during the ceremonial return of the piece.
Some 7,000 pilgrims were in attendance as John Paul killed the 11-inch high, 16th century icon that had hung over his office desk for over a decade. John Paul then symbolically entrusted the icon to Cardinal Wlater Kasper, a senior Vatican official assigned with the task to bring the piece safely to Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II on Saturday.
According to separate sources, the icon was “mysteriously spirited away” from communist Russia during the early 20th century, and came into the possession of an English nobleman. Soon afterwards, a right-wing Catholic group bought the icon, and presented it to the Pontiff – one of the longest standing popes in history with 26 years of service to the Holy See. Orthodox Christians attribute “miraculous healing powers” to the piece.
Meanwhile, as he returned the icon, the pope also expressed his hope that the event will hasten the “mutual understanding and reconciliation” between the two churches.
"May it speak to him of the desire and the firm will of the pope of Rome to progress together with them on the path of mutual understanding and reconciliation, to speed the day of full unity of the faithful for which the Lord Jesus ardently prayed,” said John Paul.
In reinforcing his desire for unity, the Pope read the same prayer in Russian and paid a special tribute to the Russian Orthodox Church for its durability under decades of communist rule; a Russian choir sang hymns during the ceremony as well.
"Russia is a nation which has been Christian for many centuries," said the pope. "Even when opposing forces harassed the Church and tried to cancel from the lives of men the holy name of God, this people remained profoundly Christian, testifying in may cases with blood their own faith in the Gospel."
Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, the Russian Orthodox Church “played down the gesture, saying the icon is only one of several copies of the original.”
Relations between the two traditional wings of Christianity had not served well for centuries, but tensions heightened two years ago when the Vatican created four new parishes in Moscow. The Orthodox Church took the gesture as an effort on the part of Catholics to proselytize on traditionally Orthodox grounds. Alexy II, angered by the act, denied the Pope the chance to visit Russia.