Russian agencies reported that the day after the Assisi meeting, the Pope had a private talk with two representatives (Metropolitan Pitirim and Bishop Hilarion) of Patriarch Alexy II, and expressed his hope to visit Moscow and his desire to restore the holy image.
Russian sources, and a statement on the patriarchate´s Internet site, explain that Bishop Hilarion reiterated Moscow´s position, according to which the patriarch "in principle agrees to see the Pope."
But, the bishop added, the meeting can only be held "after a common position is reached on the principal questions of inter-ecclesial relations" -- namely, Rome´s alleged proselytism and the issue of Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. He further stated that "the Moscow Patriarchate regards the relations between the two Churches at present as extremely unsatisfactory."
Yet, Bishop Hilarion said the presence in Moscow of the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, might "contribute constructive elements capable of improving in a substantial way" the state of such relations. Cardinal Kasper is due to visit the Russian capital Feb. 21-22.
The cardinal will meet Alexy II and Metropolitan Kirill, director of the Department of Foreign Ecclesial Relations.
The posture of openness was confirmed in statements of the Reverend Andrej Elisejev, director of the patriarchate´s inter-Christian relations, which were published today by the Italian newspaper Avvenire. The Reverend Elisejev spoke of "great hopes."
Regarding the question of the Marian icon, he said: "The return of the Kazan icon would be welcomed by our Church as a very friendly gesture. However, there must be no special conditions."
Legend and mystery surround the icon of Our Lady of Kazan. In 1552 Czar Ivan the Terrible conquered the city, and in 1579 the icon appeared miraculously in Kazan following a devastating fire.
Matrjona Ounicina, a 12-year-old girl, saw the Virgin three times in her dreams, who ordered her to excavate a place. The girl carried out the request, informing Metropolitan Germogen. She then found the icon. The czar had the Assumption Convent for nuns built on the site.
The icon remained in the convent until it was stolen in 1903 or 1904. The image was one of the most venerated in Russia. Many copies of it exist.
There are contradictory versions about the fate of the original. One account says it reappeared in Warsaw, where it was purchased by an English nobleman who then resold it. The icon passed through several hands before reappearing in the United States.
There, a group of Catholics, who were perhaps ignorant of its origin, purchased it and gave it to the Fatima Shrine. Eventually, it was given to the Pope as a gift in 1993.
Another version of the story now circulating in Russia says the icon was stolen in 1903 by a madman who burned it.