Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day, one of the most important feasts in the Church calendar. Observed almost universally throughout Christianity, it marks the Incarnation of Our Saviour and is a major Marian feast. It appears in documentary records as far back as the fourth century and commemorates the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, during which she was informed that she was to be the mother of the Son of God.
It’s appropriate, therefore, that this day has been chosen by Pope Francis to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The event – which will take place in St Peter’s basilica at around 5pm Rome time (4pm GMT) – is an act of spiritual surrender in which the Pope will recognise the people of both nations as children of God, and will entrust them to Mary’s care. The Holy Father has also invited bishops, priests and the faithful around the world to assemble in solidarity with this gesture calling for the intercession of Mary as the world teeters on the precipice of global warfare.
“This Act of Consecration is meant to be a gesture of the universal Church, which in this dramatic moment lifts up to God, through his Mother and ours, the cry of pain of all those who suffer and implore an end to the violence, and to entrust the future of our human family to the Queen of Peace,” said Pope Francis.
Although the timing of this act – coming after a direct request from the Ukrainian bishops – will be seen to have a political dimension, it is purely religious and is intended to be a healing action for all involved. It is hoped that it will remind all Russians and Ukrainians of their shared roots and unity as children of God. Veneration of the Virgin Mary is a fundamental part of Orthodox Christianity just much as it is for the Latin Church, so at one level it will entrust both people’s to Our Blessed Lady’s care, but on another bring the two peoples together in search of reconciliation and peace.
In its simplest form Consecration means to ‘set aside’ – from an ordinary purpose to a sacred one. Thus objects, individuals, churches, dioceses and even countries can be the subject of an Act of Consecration. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship defines consecration to Mary as an overt recognition of the “singular role of Mary in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church, of the universal and exemplary importance of her witness to the Gospel, of trust in her intercession, and of the efficacy of her patronage.”
Pope St. John Paul II— who consecrated the entire Church and world to Mary three times during his pontificate— explained that by consecrating oneself to Mary, we accept her help in offering ourselves fully to Christ.
Most significantly, during the apparitions at Fatima in 1917 Mary reveal three secrets, the second of which stated that the First World War would end but another would start if people continued to offend God and if Russia were not consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Between May and October 1917, Lúcia de Jesus Rosa dos Santos (later Sister Maria Lúcia of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart) and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto reported visions of a luminous lady, who they believed to be the Virgin Mary, in the Cova da Iria fields outside the hamlet of Aljustrel, near Fátima, Portugal.
Speaking of the second secret Sr Lucia later recalled that Our Lady said: “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father.
“To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the Consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
In the years following, several popes conducted various consecrations of Russia, but the consecration of the world performed by Pope St John II in 1984 – at which time both Ukraine and Russia were part of the old Soviet Union – was officially recognised by Sr Lucia and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as having fulfilled the requirements set out at Fatima.
However, in 2017 some doubt was cast on this when Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, former President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, visited Kazakhstan for its Marian Congress. At the concluding ceremony on 13th May – the centenary of the Fatima apparitions – the cardinal revealed in his homily that John Paul had wanted to mention Russia specifically, but gave way to his advisers who cautioned that such an act might have unwelcome political consequences.
A more mundane explanation might be that Russia existed as a country in 1917 (Fatima apparitions), but had been absorbed in the wider Soviet Union along with Ukraine in 1984 (St John Paul II), but is now a separate country once again.
It was later revealed to St John Paul that the Russian Orthodox bishops had taken the opportunity to add their own specific consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary to that of the Holy Father, and thus it was concluded that the requirements of the second secret of Fatima had actually been met in 1984.
So, if St John Paul II consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984, why are we back here again, and what exactly does a Consecration of a country do?
There are two documents of importance here – the first is the letter sent on Monday (21st March) from Pope Francis to all the Catholic bishops across the world, and the second is the actual consecration text that will be read out across the world today.
In his letter to the bishops, Pope Francis reflects that it has now been a month since the outbreak of Putin’s war in Ukraine: “that is daily inflicting immense suffering upon its sorely tried people and threatening world peace.”
He goes on to say that: “this Act of Consecration is meant to be a gesture of the universal Church, which in this dramatic moment lifts up to God, through his Mother and ours, the cry of pain of all those who suffer and implore an end to the violence, and to entrust the future of our human family to the Queen of Peace.”
Few would question those sentiments, but the content of the Act of Consecration to be read out today is somewhat tougher to swallow. In particular its second paragraph is a blunt and uncompromising mea culpa that puts the blame for most of the world’s ills squarely at our own feet. We have forgotten the lessons of two world wars; we have betrayed people’s dreams of peace; the hopes of the young; we have stopped being our neighbour’s keeper; we have grown indifferent to everything that is good, we have turned our backs on God and we have ravaged our planet.
I’m sure the retort will be “not me!”, especially amongst the many Catholics who have devoted a lifetime to opposing such injustices and human errors. But this plea to Our Lady comes not from us as individuals, but from the whole human family to which we belong, and in that we have certainly fallen short of being good stewards of the world we have been given.
Writing in his social encyclical Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis said that “war is a failure of politics and humanity” and that “every war leaves our world worse than it was before.” On the politics point, I’d want to add that all wars are also generally the product of the greed and vanity of a few weak men, and in most cases men we’ve either appointed or exalted. And when it comes to wars – as differences over property, wealth and personal status inevitably do – we also make a dubious virtue of valour, when really we ought to be preaching about compassion and our common humanity.
The Act of Consecration charges that we have “forgotten the lesson learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of millions who fell in two world wars.” You only have to look at the preoccupation that states and governments have with arms spending to see that the only lessons learned from the death of so many is that we still believe we have no alternative in settling difficult disputes than to resort to warfare. Across 2020, whilst the pandemic forced global GDP to shrink by 4.4 per cent, there was a 2.6 per cent increase in global defence spending– a staggering $1,981 million was wasted on the tools of destruction whilst half the world starved and more than six million perished due to Covid.
And now we have a totally pointless war being fought to satisfy one man’s personal vanity which has killed tens of thousands of innocent people in just 30 days, displaced more than 10 million, and catapulted the world to the very edge of nuclear annihilation. No wonder the Act of Consecration says that we have “broken the heart of our Heavenly Father.”
No doubt many will ask what an Act of Consecration can do in the face of such mindless destruction. Since the start of Russia’s War we have seen dreadful acts of brutality and destruction, but we have also witnessed the unbounded humanity, goodness and dignity of the human person. In all this chaos there is still something worth fighting for, and its not buildings, or land nor global status, it’s the spirit of humanity itself. To quote again the Act of Consecration, we ask of Mary: “May the tears you shed for us make this valley parched by our hatred blossom anew. Amid the thunder of weapons, may your prayer turn our thoughts to peace.”
Physical acts change physical things, and spiritual acts change spiritual things. They have the capacity to soften the hardest of hearts, and to move the most immovable of problems. A shout on earth will always be heard in Heaven if its loud enough, and that’s the intention of today’s coming together of Catholics around the world.
Pope Francis will lead the Act of Consecration during the “24 Hours for the Lord” Lenten penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica, which begins at 5pm Rome time (4pm GMT) today, and will pray the Act of Consecration around 6:30 PM (5pm GMT). Due to international time zones, churches around the world will be broadcasting their solidarity at various different times of the day.
Here at www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk, our website will be live streaming Act of Consecration services throughout the day.
Please do join us on this critically important day for world peace, and say a prayer or two for the good people of Ukraine and Russia as well.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and is founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk