On Saturday, Pope John Paul’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, announced that the Pontiff has decided to send a Vatican delegation to Russia to return the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
The icon, which has been in the Vatican’s possession for more than 30 years, is one of the most revered images for Russian Orthodox Christians.
The idea of returning the icon to the Orthodox as a gesture of reconciliation had been under discussion since November last year.
John Paul had been hoping to return it himself and become the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit Russia, but complaints from Russian Orthodox leaders that the Catholic Church is “poaching” in “Orthodox territory” have prevented the trip from taking place.
According to the new plans, the icon will be taken to Russia by a Vatican delegation –still to be named - on August 28, feast of the Dormition of Our Lady according to the Orthodox liturgical calendar.
Before returning it, there will be “an act of devotion, not necessarily public, ... an act of farewell which concludes the pilgrimage of the Madonna of Kazan to Rome.” Details about the ceremony will be made available shortly, said Navarro Valls.
The icon, revered as the “protector of Russia,” first appeared in Kazan in 1579 and hung in the Kazan Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square and the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg before being taken to the West after the 1917 Communist revolution. A Catholic group bought the icon in the 1970s and later presented it to the Vatican.
With respect to relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, the Director of the press office told journalists on Sunday that after the visit to Moscow of Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, they “have improved.”
“It is a long process, and the Pope hopes that the restitution of the icon will contribute to further steps forward. The signs of improvement in relations are reflected in bilateral conversations, in the mixed commissions to identify and resolve problems between the Churches in a climate of collaboration,” Navarro Valls concluded.