“We can help you…”

A holy Catholic priest, a mystical Russian Catholic nun, a wise Orthodox bishop, a miraculous icon. A night train ride into the snow and a talk with the executive director of the St. Gregory Foundation

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Moscow


Night Train to Kazan

I left off my last report, driving to the train station, and snapping a blurry photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the rain.

As I rode the overnight train to Kazan, I remembered that St. Basil’s Cathedral, on the edge of Red Square, the last thing I saw as I was leaving Moscow, was built to commemorate the victory of Ivan the Terrible over the Tartars of Kazan in the mid-1500s — more or less the symbolic moment when Russia became a significant power in the world.

It takes 12 and a half hours by train from Moscow to Kazan, about 600 miles almost due east — halfway to the Ural mountains.

So, if we take the Ural mountains to be the eastern border of Europe, Kazan is hundreds of miles inside Europe.

But Kazan, on the Volga River, is also the gateway to Asia, and to the Middle East.

As we hurtled through the night, the forests of white birches passing by my window in a blur, illuminated by a light carpet of November snow (photo), I thought about the special character of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan.

Here begin the “-stan” countries — beyond Tartarstan is Kazahkstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan… countries which are part of the Muslim world. And Kazan reflects that, as half of its population is Tartar Muslim.

Here also was imperial Russia’s launching point for the conquest of Asiatic Russia, all of Siberia beyond the Urals — a conquest that made Russia the largest country in the world, more than twice the size of the United States.

And the city of Kazan reflects this dual character. Orthodox Russians make up half the population, and Kazan’s Kremlin, or fortress, contains the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption, but just next to the Kremlin, using money from Saudi Arabia, as I was told, the Muslim community has built a splendid mosque, even larger than the cathedral.

This is the first glimpse of Kazan I catch at dawn as the train pulls into the city: the mosque, with its minarets, and the domes of the cathedral, side by side.

But the fascinating thing about Kazan is that it is known throughout the world as a city of tolerant coexistence. There is no evident tension whatsoever between the Muslims and the Christians in this city.

And this, I think, is part of the mystery of the icon of Kazan…

A miraculous icon of Our Lady

I have been here before, most recently in the spring of 2008 with the saintly Italian Roman Catholic noblewoman, Marquese Immacolata Solaro del Borgo, famous for helping organize medical assistance for the children of Chernobyl, Ukraine, made ill by radiation exposure after a nuclear power plant meltdown in 1986.

Immacolata, whose family has inherited a number of saints’ relics, brought a tiny piece of the robe of Mary from Italy to Kazan, in witness of her love of the Russian people and the Russian Orthodox Church.

There is a tiny Catholic community in Kazan of about 300 souls, led by Father Diogenes, 42, a native of Argentina. He meets us at the train station and takes us for breakfast to Giuseppe’s, an Italian restaurant and cafe in the heart of the city.

“I’m so happy you could come to Kazan,” Father Diogenes says. “There’s a lot happening here.” He has been here since 1995.

The Catholic parish is flourishing, he tells us. Most of the Catholics are foreigners working in Kazan, or students from Africa and Asia studying at the University of Kazan. Relations with the city government, which is in Muslim hands, are good, he said. “They built out new church for us,” he said. “I don’t know the cost, but it was said to be about 3 million euros.” Relations with the Russian Orthodox are also ery good,” he said. “We will go visit with Bishop Anastasi this afternoon.

At 11 am, we go to Mass. About 100 people are in attendance. It is in Russian. Father Diogenes preaches on the last things, and tells the faithful they should concentrate less on fears about the chastisements which will accompany the end of the world, and more on the coming of the Lord. “Maranatha,” he tells us. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

One of the young nuns in the parish — Father Diogenes comes from a new 200-member Argentine-based missionary order called the Order of the Incarnate Word, which also has an order of sisters — seems to radiate joy.

“What is your name, and who are you?” I ask.

“My name is Sister Joy of God,” she tells me (photo, with Daniel Scmidt). “I am a Russian from Kazan.”

“And you were not Russian Orthodox?” I ask.

“No,” she said. “I was nothing… My parents were atheists.”

I remember the icon I saw the first night, at midnight, in Archbishop Hilarion Alefeyev’s church — the icon of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow.

This nun seems like a living incarnation of the message of that icon.

“Let’s go to see the icon,” says Father Diogenes. “Dmitri and Maxim are waiting for us there…”

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.


“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan on CD

“The Motu Proprio: Why the Latin Mass? Why Now?”

In order to understand the motu proprio one must understand the history of the Mass. Dr. Moynihan gives a 2000 year history of the Mass in 60 minutes, which is clear and easy to understand. Dr. Moynihan’s explanation covers many questions, like:

– How does the motu proprio overcome some of the confusion since Vatican II?
– Is this the start of the Benedictine Reform?
– The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the Liturgy?

Click here to order

To subscribe to the print edition of the magazine, click here

Facebook Comments