MOSCOW - In a step toward improved relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, Patriarch Alexy II accepted the return yesterday of a centuries-old icon that had been in Pope John Paul II's personal quarters for years.
The pontiff's donation back to Russia of the ornately decorated wooden icon, known as the "Mother of God of Kazan," came after the pope gave up on hopes that Alexy would agree to his visiting Russia to return the icon personally.
"My impression up to now is that this gesture from the Holy Father has gone right to the hearts of the people," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said before a three-hour Orthodox service and handover ceremony in the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral. "It's the beginning of a new framework to overcome the historical difficulties and open a new era."
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have been divided since the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split in what is known as the Great Schism of 1054. They have experienced fresh tensions since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the Orthodox Church complaining about what it sees as Roman Catholic efforts to attract believers from traditionally Orthodox families.
Experts previously concluded that the icon is a high-quality 18th-century copy of an original 16th-century icon that was revered by many Russians for what they believe to be its protective powers. Believers credited it with having helped to secure Russian victories in a series of battles over the centuries against Poles, Tatars and Swedes. The original disappeared about a century ago.
This 12-inch by 10-inch copy was smuggled out of Russia around the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It became part of a private collection, was purchased by a Catholic group in the 1970s and donated to the pope in 1993.
Since then, it has reportedly hung in his private chapel and over his desk.
The Vatican had done initial planning for a papal trip to Mongolia last year, with a proposed stopover in Kazan for the pontiff to return the icon and make his first visit to Russia. But Alexy vetoed the idea of a visit to the city 500 miles east of Moscow, and the plan for a Mongolia trip was dropped, at least partly because of the 84-year-old pontiff's poor health.
The pope has continued, however, to stress better relations with the Orthodox Church as one of his greatest goals and appears not to have given up his desire to visit Russia. Navarro-Valls told Russian journalists yesterday that the return of the icon and a possible papal visit to Moscow were two separate issues. In a message to Alexy delivered with the icon, John Paul stressed the value of the icon as a symbol of reconciliation.
"After a lengthy period of trials and sufferings endured by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people in the last century, the Lord ... today gives us common joy and hope as the Icon of the Mother of God returns to her native land," he wrote.
"Divine Providence made it possible for the people and the Church in Russia to recover their freedom, and for the wall separating Eastern Europe from Western Europe to fall," he added. "Despite the divisions which sadly still persist between Christians, this sacred Icon appears as a symbol of unity."
Speaking with reporters after the service, Alexy expressed thanks to John Paul for the gesture of good will. "Reverence for this icon reminds us of the times when the church was undivided," he said.
He added that he hoped that the return of the icon testified to "the Vatican leadership's determination to return to sincere and mutually respectful relations between the two churches that would be free of competition."
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