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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icon Stands for Unfulfilled Wish

ROME -- A centuries-old Russian Orthodox icon of the Madonna and Child rests in the apartment of Pope John Paul II, the last stop so far in a journey through Europe from its home in Kazan, a city east of Moscow.

The pontiff had the idea to take it back to Kazan himself on the way back from a visit to Mongolia in August. But that didn't happen. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, hostile to Roman Catholicism, vetoed any stopover, dashing the pope's dearly held wish to make a pastoral visit to Russia. The Mongolia trip was ultimately canceled due to what Vatican officials called concerns about John Paul's health.

As John Paul battles with the challenges of age and illness, the disappointment over Russia is a clear example of the unfinished business of his lengthy leadership of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. It is not only that Russia remains a country he has not visited in his extensive travels -- he has made 102 trips abroad -- it is also an important missing piece of his project to reconcile the globe's branches of Christianity, some of which have been feuding for a millennium.

John Paul will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his papacy this month. As the years progress, the once-taboo subject of his mortality has become a topic of comment by top church leaders. And the accounting of John Paul's accomplishments and the jobs left uncompleted has begun in earnest.

His support for anti-Communist movements in his homeland of Poland and in other countries within the Soviet sphere is often mentioned as a key point of his legacy. At a recent conference on John Paul's papacy at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, participants extolled other defining features of his tenure: his use of communication skills to spread Catholic teaching and make the Vatican a more visible presence abroad; his campaigning for the sanctity of marriage and of embryonic life; his focus on the cult of the Virgin Mary; and his extensive writings.

But other projects, such as the pope's aspirations for the post-Cold War world, are viewed more as works in suspension. Inside observers say he is distressed by the turn of formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe toward materialism at the expense of spirituality. The pope harbored hopes that Eastern Europe would infect the wealthy, secularized western half of the continent with a revived piety. The opposite happened.

"This is a big disillusionment for the pope. Instead of a return to faith in the East there was a move to secularism and consumerism," said Vittorio Messori, a journalist whose 1993 interview with the pontiff was published in the book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."

Currently, John Paul is trying to persuade the European Union to at least recognize the historical contribution of Christianity to the continent's culture. He has pressed for a reference to Europe's Christian roots to be included in the preamble to the future EU constitution. This effort is doomed, Messori says.

In part this is because the possible future inclusion of Turkey, with its vast Muslim majority, and Israel, officially a Jewish state, precludes mention of Christianity, Messori notes. "It's absurd," he said. "He is asking only for recognition of the obvious. Without Christianity, there would be no Europe."

In the larger global arena, the pope has found his preaching for peace largely eclipsed by events, especially the United States' war on terror and its practice of pre-emptive military intervention. The bellicose climate interferes with the pope's post-Cold War vision of a peaceful globe that would be fertile ground for a spiritual revival.

The visit to Russia fell through not because of disputes with the Kremlin, but rather problems with the Russian Orthodox Church, which views Russia as its territory. Historically, it has equated being Russian with being Russian Orthodox, and other religions have been declared second-tier.

John Paul envisioned a visit to Russia as the beginning of dialogue with the Russian church. Therein lay a basic difference between the bishop of Rome and the Moscow patriarchate. "The Orthodox side has tended to argue that current problems in Catholic-Orthodox relations need to be solved before a meeting can be held; the Catholics have argued that a meeting should be held as a first step toward resolving the problems," wrote Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine.

While the pope has traveled to other predominantly Orthodox countries in the former Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II has repeatedly blocked his attempts to travel to Russia. Among other issues, the Russian church maintains that an expansionist Vatican wants only to convert Russians.

The Vatican thought it finally had skirted the opposition with a plan to drop in on Kazan, ostensibly to return the precious Our Lady of Kazan icon. The icon first appeared in 1579 and is revered in the belief that it can foster miracles. The Russian Orthodox Church quickly issued a scornful statement rejecting any papal stop in Kazan. "The return of that icon, one of many works illegally taken out of the country during difficult times, can in no way be regarded as a reason for a visit by John Paul II," the statement read.