An Icon the Pope Hoped to Deliver Personally; a Host of Problems

Papal Farewell to an Image Bound for Russia

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, AUG. 26, 2004 ( This was not the way it was supposed to happen. John Paul II had a different plan in mind for the return of the Icon of Kazan to Russia—he wanted to deliver it personally to Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, as a sign of rapprochement between the two Churches divided since 1054.

Instead, on Wednesday the Pope said goodbye to the icon, at the Vatican, during an incense-filled Liturgy of the Word celebration in Paul VI Hall.

By handing the icon over to two emissaries, Cardinals Walter Kasper and Theodore McCarrick, who will take it to Russia, the Holy Father has once again shown the world an example of humility in accepting that the most cherished of man’s plans are not always God’s plans.

«How many times have I prayed to the Mother of God of Kazan,» said John Paul II on Wednesday of the icon which has hung over his desk in the papal apartments for the past 10 years, «asking her to protect and guide the Russian people and to precipitate the moment in which all the disciples of her Son, recognizing themselves as brothers, will know how to reconstruct in fullness their compromised unity.»

The icon of Kazan, a jewel-encrusted image of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, is considered the protectress of Russia and was the «carrot» in negotiations by the Vatican for a much-desired papal trip to that country.

Despite repeated Vatican efforts to arrange a meeting with Patriarch Alexy II, an invitation from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Pope never came.

In 2003, Alexy II told President Vladimir Putin that the icon at the Vatican «is one of the numerous copies but not the miracle-making icon that disappeared in the early 20th century, so there is no need for the Pontiff to deliver it himself.»

Though he will not deliver himself, the Pope’s generous gesture may yet have a positive effect on Orthodox-Catholic relations.

«Doubtlessly the return of the Orthodox icon to fatherland is a fair good-will act of the Vatican,» a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, told Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

The date and exact provenance of the icon at the Vatican has been disputed.

According to tradition, the original icon was found on July 8, 1579, by a young Russian girl who was told by the Virgin Mary in a dream that the icon was lying under the ashes of a burnt-out building.

Copies of this icon were made in the early 16th and 17th centuries, and in 2003, a joint Russian-Vatican commission established that the icon of Kazan held in the Vatican is a late 17th- or early 18th-century work.

Although it is not the «original,» the value of this icon lies also in its mysterious history — it has traveled the world, from Russia to England, to San Francisco, New York and Fatima before «providentially,» as the Pope said, ending up in the Vatican.

In 1904, one of the most venerated copies of the icon was stolen from the cathedral of Kazan in St. Petersburg and, according to expert Marguerite Peeters, the Vatican’s icon could well be this one.

How the Icon got out of Russia is unknown. But it appeared at an auction in Poland after World War I and again in the 1950s at an English castle. The Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Leonty, who was living in exile in Paris, traveled to England to see the icon and declared it the original Icon of Kazan.

The icon then made another mysterious trip to the United States, probably sold after the death of the Englishman, though to whom is unknown. It was exhibited at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964-65, and in the 1970s an American organization, the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, raised the money to buy the icon.

The Blue Army entrusted the icon to Fatima where John Paul II venerated it in the Byzantine Chapel there on his first visit, May 13, 1982, exactly one year after the attempt on his life.

In 1993, the Blue Army gave the icon to the Pope, to be kept in his papal apartments until it could be restored to the Russian people.

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On Gluten-free Communion Breads

The question of using gluten-free Communion hosts has been raised recently in the United States and Australia by those suffering from a gluten intolerance known as celiac sprue disease.

In the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, and in Sydney, two families with members who have celiac say they will appeal to the Vatican in order to receive Communion hosts made of something other than wheat.

Officials at the Vatican said this week that the case of Communion for those with gluten-intolerance has already been addressed in several instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and that those suffering from celiac disease can partake of a valid Communion by receiving only the Precious Blood.

The relevant canons on the question fall under the section «The Rites and Ceremonies of the Eucharistic Celebration,» particularly:

Canon 924:2 — The bread must be only wheat and recently made so that there is no danger of spoiling.

Canon 925 — Holy communion is to be given under the form of bread alone, or under both species according to the norm of liturgical laws, or even under the form of wine alone in a case of necessity.

Canon 926 — According to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church the priest is to use unleavened bread in the eucharistic celebration whenever he offers it.

The doctrinal congregation has further issued several instructions on the question including a June 4, 1979, letter to the U.S. bishops’ conference on the nature and matter of the Eucharistic bread; an Oct. 29, 1982, response on Communion of the faithful under only the species of wine; and a June 19, 1995, letter to presidents of episcopal conferences on the use of bread with small quantities of gluten.

The above instructions say that:

a) The «matter» of the Eucharistic host must be bread since this is what Christ instituted at the Last Supper. Bread, by definition, must contain some gluten.

b) Jesus is the same under both species. In the case where one cannot eat the Communion host, receiving the Precious Blood alone can be considered a valid Communion.

It will seem intransigent to some that only bread can be used for the Communion host. But Vatican officials stress that this is not an administrative question but a doctrinal one.

Further, it is a doctrinal question that concerns the sacraments, and the Church, officials note, does not have the authority to change the substance of the sacraments.

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at

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