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Altar of the Chair in St Peter's Basilica
Thursday, 26 August 2004


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Yesterday, the Holy Father entrusted the venerable and ancient Icon of Our Lady of Kazan to a Holy See Delegation that was to take it to Moscow and present it on Saturday to the Russian Orthodox Church, at the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, which the Orthodox call the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. Today, the famous Icon is standing in this Basilica for public veneration. During this Eucharist celebrated in honour of Our Lady of Kazan, I would like to reflect with you on the significance of this event, expressly desired by the Holy Father.

The Icon of Our Lady of Kazan has deep roots in the history and religiosity of the Russian People and of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since 1500, numerous generations of men and women have prayed before this sacred image, entrusting to her their personal needs in times that were dark and tragic for the Russian People. They were often heard; indeed, many miracles have been attributed to this Icon. Thus, it became a symbol and reference point of the Russian People and of the Russian Orthodox Church, comparable, for example, to Our Lady of Czestochowa for Poland and Our Lady of Guadalupe for Mexico and for the whole of Latin America.

During the 80 years in which the night of atheism enveloped Russia, the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan disappeared from its Land. After a complex odyssey, the Icon reappeared in the United States.

From the World Expo in New York in 1964 to an epoch in which the Iron Curtain separated the West and East of Europe and Russian citizens were forbidden to leave their Country, in the West the Icon represented Russia and the Church in Russia. The sacred image was venerated by many Catholics during the World Expo in New York and subsequently, at Fatima. Thus, Our Lady of Kazan became a cornerstone and reference point for Orthodox and Catholics alike. Our Lady has as it were preceded us on the path of our ecumenical commitment; she has anticipated our journey, uniting in prayer the two separate parts of Christianity.

This work of reconciliation continued until 1993, when the sacred image was entrusted to the Holy Father. Since that moment he has prayed frequently before the Icon for the renewal of faith in Russia and for unity between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. It was the Holy Father's intention from the outset to give the Icon to the Russian Orthodox Church as soon as the time was ripe and the conditions suitable.

Today, when divine Providence has re-opened the routes between East and West, Our Lady of Kazan desires to return to her Land and her People. This event does not pertain to the sphere of the secular; it is an expression of the deep communion of faith between West and East that exists despite the many difficulties, misunderstandings and differences in faith. Thanks to her journey through the West, Our Lady of Kazan, a symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church, has become the symbol of the association in shared faith of Eastern and Western Christianity.

This association is expressed in the equal veneration of Our Lady and in the common faith in her Son, our common Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Son of the Father, made man through the Virgin Mary so that reconciliation and peace might be re-established in the world; in our common faith in the One who prayed on the eve of his death: "that they may be one".

Mary made her own the prayer and witness of the Son, thereby becoming our common Mother and the Mother of the Church; she also became the Mother and Patroness of the unity of the Church. We ardently hope that this venerable Icon, in the past a reference point for the Russian Orthodox Church, may also be in the future a cornerstone of coherence and unity for all the Orthodox and Catholic faithful who ask in prayer for full unity.

I am convinced that Our Lady of Kazan, thanks to her powerful intercession, will be our support and our ally in the commitment to overcome the reservations, difficulties, misunderstandings and differences of faith that unfortunately still exist among us; thanks to her intercession before God's throne, she will gather together perfectly the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in the one and only Church of Christ. The presentation of the Icon to Patriarch Alexei II is an important ecumenical event.

Dear brothers and sisters, I would like to add another thought. Jesus prayed on the eve of his death "that they may all be one... so that the world may believe...". It follows that the unity of Christ's disciples must be a sign and an instrument of the unity and peace of the world. If we reflect on the journey of Our Lady of Kazan in the West, beyond the borders of Russia, and on her return to the Country where she had been so deeply revered, we realize that after the division of the world into two opposing blocs at the time of the Cold War, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and of the Berlin Wall, this Icon is also the symbol of the new Europe and of the process of unification of the continent, to which Russia also belongs, by culture and by religion. The Mother of God of Kazan, with her journey through the world, has become the one who intercedes for and protects Europe, and especially the Christian roots and values of the Continent of Europe.

After two terrible wars, two totalitarian and atheistic dictatorships that marked the 20th century which has just ended, and facing the prevalent phenomenon of secularism, Europe needs a deep renewal in the faith. Our Lady represents all the values that such a renewal presupposes: the dignity of the human person, holiness of life, the protection of marriage and the family, the values of law and justice as the pillars of peace. The life and unity of the community of European peoples can only have stability if it is founded on these values.

I invite you all to accompany with your prayers our journey to Moscow and the presentation of the Icon, so that this mission may be a spiritual event blessed by God and a step towards full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church and reconciliation in Europe.

May the Mother of God of Kazan set us an example of this faith; may it be she who intercedes for us and sustains us on our journey of faith; may she be a blessing for Russia and for all Europe; may she obtain for us a peaceful future for the European Continent, in justice and in freedom; may she be a help for the unity of all Christians. Holy Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, pray for us! Amen.