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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

Relations with Orthodox chilly despite icon's return


“Beware of Romans bearing gifts” might well be the phrase that captures the spirit with which the Russian Orthodox greeted a Vatican delegation when it handed over an icon of the Madonna of Kazan that had spent the last decade in Pope John Paul II’s private apartment.

It’s not that the Russians weren’t glad to have the icon, a late-17th- to early-18th-century copy of the famous image of the Madonna of Kazan, the original of which was believed to have miracle-working powers. A Russian army that liberated Moscow in October 1612 from Polish invaders carried the icon before them, and it subsequently became one of the most important symbols of Russian national identity.

The copy, returned to Russia Aug. 27 by a Vatican delegation led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the pope’s top ecumenical expert, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, had surfaced in the United States in the 1960s. It was purchased by the Blue Army, a Catholic group dedicated to the message of Fatima, and transferred to the pope in 1993.

It’s also not that the Russians weren’t cordial. Members of the delegation had ringside seats for an Aug. 27 liturgy for the Feast of the Dormition, or Assumption, of Mary celebrated by Russian Patriarch Alexy II in the Cathedral of the Dormition, inside the Kremlin. (Four of them, including the two cardinals, got actual seats, the rest stood for four hours like everyone else in an Orthodox liturgy.) Members were also treated to lunch by the patriarch.

In a 25-minute private encounter between Alexy, Kasper and McCarrick afterwards, the two sides agreed they needed to meet more often to face common challenges, and vowed to pursue “cultural exchanges.”

Yet any illusions that giving back the icon would unblock relations between Roman Catholics and the Russian Orthodox were quickly disabused.

At the policy level, there are two main disputes between the two bodies. First, the Orthodox accuse Catholics of proselytism in Russia, targeting traditionally Orthodox believers for conversion. It’s a charge Catholics deny, insisting that the handful of Russians who have become Catholic since the collapse of communism have come from the ranks of the nonpracticing. (Conventional estimates are that somewhere between 2 to 5 percent of Russians who are baptized as Orthodox actually practice.)

However exaggerated impressions of conversion may be, many Russian Orthodox can recount experiences that fuel them.

Andrei Zolotov, a Russian journalist, told NCR that he was once invited by a Catholic to a youth gathering with guitars and a sing-along on the eve of the Orthodox Easter.

“In the Soviet era, the one day a year they would put Western music on TV was the Saturday night before Easter, to try to convince youth not to go to vigil services,” he said. “I was surprised that Catholics would be inviting young people, and obviously not just Catholics, on this night of all nights.”

Such experiences, Zolotov said, help explain why Russians tend to believe Orthodox complaints about proselytism.

Second, the Orthodox blame Catholics for the tension in Western Ukraine between the Eastern-rite Greek Catholic church and the Orthodox church (the Moscow Patriarchate regards Ukraine, where Prince Vladimir was baptized in 988, as part of its canonical territory). Plans by the Greek Catholics to declare their own patriarchate in Ukraine have aggravated these concerns.

Russian fears

At a deeper level, however, most analysts agree that the real issue between Orthodox and Catholics is fear: a general Russian fear of outsiders; a specific Russian fear of “the West,” especially in the form of Poles; and a post-Soviet fear that the Orthodox church, weakened by 70 years of state oppression, won’t be able to compete with a big-money, highly-organized Catholic missionary operation. Whether such an operation exists is a matter of debate, but in a way it’s irrelevant -- many Russians believe it does.

John Paul has made improving relations with the Russians one of the capstones of his pontificate, in part because as the first Slavic pope he feels a special providential call to promote East-West unity. More practically, he sees the Orthodox as natural allies in the struggle against secularism from the West and Islam from the East.

The return of the Kazan icon thus is part of a larger papal thrust for détente, and the Catholic side did everything possible to play it up.

“It was a very historic occasion,” McCarrick told NCR outside the Cathedral of the Dormition after the ceremony. “It was wonderful the Holy Father could send this icon back. The Holy Father’s message was beautiful. He speaks of what Our Lady will do to come to the unity of the churches, which has been a great desire of the Lord.”

In presenting the image, Kasper quoted from the message the pope sent to Alexy for the occasion: “This sacred icon appears as a symbol of the unity of the followers of the only-begotten Son of God, the one to whom she herself leads us.”

Kasper argued that the Kazan icon, which originated in Russia, circulated in the West, and now is returning home, is in effect a perfect symbol of the ties between East and West.

In one potential sign of the ambivalence surrounding the occasion, relatively few of the hundreds of people crammed into the cathedral actually heard Kasper’s words, since there were no microphones, and the German cardinal lacks the booming baritone of the deacons who had chanted the Orthodox liturgy.

There was little immediate indication the Russians were willing to forgive and forget.

Alexy responded by thanking the pope and the delegation, but added: “I hope this demonstrates a desire on the part of the Vatican to seriously return to an attitude of respect with regard to our church.”

McCarrick seemed slightly taken aback.

“I’m hopeful that when the patriarch said that, he saw that this is already the beginning, this act of the Holy Father,” McCarrick said.

Asked later by reporters about the possibility of a meeting with the pope, Alexy was blunt: “The conditions do not yet exist,” he said.

Later, when reporters asked Archpriest Chaplin, the spokesperson for the Moscow Patriarchate, if the return of the icon could be said to mark a new chapter in Orthodox-Catholic relations, he was even more curt: “No.”

“First, we have to cure the pain of some of our believers who still see a lot of unfriendly examples of missionary work of some of the people of the Roman Catholic church,” he said.

Such attitudes, it should be noted, are not restricted to hierarchs.

Alexander Malshev, a real estate agent who attends the Orthodox Chapel of St. Tatyana at Moscow University, told NCR Aug. 26 that he suspects the pope of having a “hidden agenda” in returning the icon.

“It’s like when you ask a girl, ‘Let’s go watch TV,’ but you really want something else,” he said. “The Catholic church wanted an excuse for a meeting with us, because they want to expand their own power. They want to rule over a unified church.

“It’s not right to manipulate the icon like this,” Malshev said.

Alexander Volkov, 22, a seminarian with the Moscow patriarchate, agreed. “It would have been better if the icon had been given back without any political maneuvers, just returned quietly by aircraft,” he said.

Volkov said he was especially turned off by the fashion in which the return of the icon had been linked to the possibility of a papal trip to Russia, almost as if it were being held hostage.

Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls took pains to deny this connection. “From 1993, when the Holy Father received the icon, he decided that this icon will be my gift to the Orthodox church. In no moment during those almost 11 years did he link the idea of the gift with a possible trip to Russia. No connection at all, in any moment.”

Veta Uspenskaya, who teaches English at a Moscow-area school, said she was “sort of suspicious” of the pope’s motives.

“The number of Catholics in Russia is increasing, in places in which there is no traditional Catholic presence, in Siberia, in the Urals,” she said. “They’re taking advantage of bad economic situations and people’s fear.

“Good relations are better than bad,” she said, “but without a hidden agenda.”

Despite those attitudes, Navarro seemed optimistic about the impact of the icon’s return.

“This personal gesture of the Holy Father has touched the hearts of everyone,” he said. “We now have a new hope that any difficulties, historical or otherwise, will be overcome.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

An ‘ironic’ guest

The Russian Orthodox, as it turned out, weren’t the only ones at the Aug. 27 liturgy who have traditionally been a bit suspicious of Pope John Paul II.

A group of Lutheran clergy from Norway who happened to be visiting Russia at the same time were also invited, and they were placed across from the Vatican delegation inside the Cathedral of the Dormition. The arrangement meant that seated immediately across from Kasper was none other than Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, who as a former member of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had opposed the pope’s candidacy for the prize because of his stance on birth control.

“I challenge the Vatican to redefine its attitude to condoms,” Staalseth said in a 2001 interview. “The current Roman Catholic theology is one that favors death rather than life.” Staalseth made the comments after a 2001 meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in Oslo. “Religious leaders must be outspoken,” he said. “Condom use should be tolerated as a way to stop the spread of AIDS.” He predicted that the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to condoms would come back to haunt it in future years as the death toll from the AIDS pandemic rises.

Staalseth did not make any remarks during the Aug. 27 liturgy, and did not speak to the press afterwards. Alexy briefly acknowledged the presence of the Lutheran delegation.

Russian Orthodox officials told NCR they were unaware of Staalseth’s history when they invited the Lutherans to the liturgy. Vatican officials had no comment, though privately one member of the delegation told NCR he found Staalseth’s presence “ironic.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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