The icon we are going to see is the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
It is the icon which was kept by Pope John Paul II in his own apartment for 11 years, from 1993 to 2004. I personally saw it there, when don Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope’s personal secretary, now Cardinal Dziwisz of Cracow, invited me once up to the papal apartment to see it.
This revered Russian icon, which depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, was first discovered under mysterious circumstances by a young Russian girl named Matrona in 1579.
Very early on, miraculous healings were attributed to it, and this prompted the Czar to call for it to be brought to Moscow. Over the following centuries, whenever Russia was in grave military danger, including against Napoleon, the Russian Czar and people would pray before the icon, and on each occasion, the nation was preserved from defeat. And for this reason, the icon came to be popularly known as “the Protection of Russia.”
In 1918, during the Bolshevik revolution, when religious objects were being destroyed and churches turned into latrines, the icon was also in danger, but it escaped. It was spirited out of the country and into the hands of an art dealer in Warsaw. Through many twists and turns, the icon found its way, it is believed (the story still needs to be thoroughly reconstructed) from Warsaw to London, from London to New York, and from New York to… Fatima, Portugal.
Yes, for many years, this most famous Marian icon of Russia was in Portugal, in a special chapel built especially for it next to the site of the apparitions of the Madonna to the three children of Fatima in 1917.
During the 1970s and 1980s, many Russians began to hear that it was kept there, and journeyed to Fatima to venerate it.
Then, in 1991, on Christmas Day, Mikhail Gorbachev signed the document dissolving the Soviet Union. Open religious persecution in Russia was over. The icon could return to Russia without danger of being destroyed.
Immediately, Pope John Paul II went into action. He wrote to Fatima, asking that the icon of Our Lady of Kazan be brought to him in Rome. (I have seen copies of the letter.)
The icon left Fatima and came to Rome in 1993. It was placed on the wall of the Pope’s own private study, and I have been told that the Pope prayed before it almost every day, sometimes for half an hour.
For the next 11 years, John Paul sought a way to carry the icon himself back to Russia — to return Mary, “the Protection of Russia,” back to Russia.
But there was resistance in Russia to inviting the Pope to visit the country. And the invitation never came.
Finally, in 2004, knowing that he would die soon, and would never be able to bring the icon back to Russia himself, Pope John Paul decided simply to send the icon back. “Mary wants to return to Russia,” Dan Stanislaw once said to me.
And so, in August 2004, John Paul sent a special delegation to Moscow, and the icon was handed over to Patriarch Alexi II, and returned to Russia on August 28 of that year.
The question then arose of what would be the fate of the icon, now that it was back in Russia.
The decision was made to return it to Kazan, and to build a pilgrimage center there. In this way, the “protection of Russia” could be venerated by the Russian Orthodox, but also by Kazan’s Muslims, who have a great veneration for the icon and for Mary, and also by Catholics and others, making Kazan into a type of symbolic “city of peace” in a world where religious warfare, despite centuries of secularization, seems to loom darkly over our future.
And the planning for this pilgrimage center was entrusted to my two friends, Maxim Gritschkin and Dmitri Khafizov. (Khafizov in 2001 wrote articles for Inside the Vatican about how much the people of Kazan longed for the return of “their” icon, articles I was told were read by the Pope and moved him deeply, perhaps influencing his decision to return the icon to Kazan.)
“Robert!” Dmitri shouted, when we drove up to the sanctuary gate with Father Diogenes. “Welcome!” And he enfolded me in a Russian-style bear-hug.
We entered through the sanctuary gates, and made our way toward the wide stairway which leads up to the second floor where the icon is kept.
I remembered coming here in the summer of 2000 and climbing these same steps, and on the second floor a choir of Russian children had been gathered to sing for us. Their voices had seemed to bring human song to the portals of heaven, and that song had moved me deeply, and was a factor in my decision to try to work for a brighter future for such children, and now I was back again in this same place, experiencing what Walker Percy calls “repetition” — the memory of “then” and the experience of “now” in one place, mirroring and so intensifying one’s experience of reality.
The icon is in the far corner of the upper room, behind protective glass. There are two steps in front of it, and a stand of candles.
Next to the icon is another case which contains the tiny piece of the robe of the Virgin Mary, and other relics, brought last year from Rome by Immacolata. Click for article on Immacolata’s gift.
The moment comes to venerate the icon.
What does veneration mean? Why venerate a painting? Is it something superstitious, or silly?
The iconoclasts of all ages have thought so, and they have destroyed the images and icons which they feel distract men and women from the awesome transcendence of God. This has always been a tendency within Christianity (remember not only the Iconoclasts, but also those Protestant groups which have shattered stained glass windows and religious statues in their righteous zeal for the greatness of God), within Judaism, and especially within Islam, where it reaches its most radical form — no images whatsoever, only geometric patterns.
But an icon is not a painting. No painter paints an icon. The painter disappears, and the Holy Spirit does the painting, and what is painted is not an image, but a window, from this time into that one, from time, into eternity. It is something other than what the iconoclasts imagine, and that is why they can be forgiven, for they know not what they do.
As one draws closer to the icon, one feels a certain warmth, as if from a holy fire.
It isn’t just the candles, although the candles, too, are warm, and bright. How many prayers are contained in the wax of those candles, which are being oxidized by the flame from the wick, which flickers upward toward heaven?
We are never worthy to pray, to ask for the deep things we long for. We long for them, and wish for them, and hope for them. And these are the gifts that prayer brings, even before it rises to God. For it elicits from our own heart the clarity of what our deepest longings are: good things for our families, peace for our friends, prosperity for all, patience for ourselves in the face of many difficulties, joy even in sorrow.
It would be a poor world in which prayers no longer were prayed.
And now I am directly in front of “the Protection of Russia,” the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.