The pope’s “Hail Mary” pass

Russia’s brutal military attack on Ukraine continues. And with each passing day Pope Francis appears more and more frustrated that he and his Vatican aides can do nothing to stop it.

No doubt, they are even more irritated that their continuous offers to mediate or facilitate discussions between the two countries, which the Cardinal Secretary of State repeats nearly every day, have been rejected by the Kremlin with a resounding nyet!

The 85-year-old pope is world-famous as a man of peace and dialogue. During his nine years in office he has emerged as one of the globe’s most persistent advocates for fraternal and harmonious relations between all peoples and nations.

And using the moral bully pulpit that is unique to the Roman papacy, he has overtaken the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (often called the “Green Patriarch”) as the planet’s leading religious leader on ecological, environmental and human life issues.

But it seems there is nothing the pope can do right now regarding the abominable situation in Ukraine, except promote humanitarian efforts by donating money and Church personnel. And, obviously, he can pray and urge others to pray for peace.

Francis is the master of symbolic gestures. And one of the earliest ones he performed after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was to personally go to the Russian Embassy in the Holy See.

Many hailed this as breaking with protocol (something the Jesuit pope clearly relishes) and a way to emphasise his displeasure with Moscow for the attack.

But another version of what happened claims he first tried to telephone Putin and then the ambassador. When they refused to take his call, he went and knocked on the envoy’s door, which is located in a Vatican-owned building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Square.

Francis, though rebuffed, did not give up. He continued to appeal for peace, careful not to call out Russia in order to “keep open a door” for negotiations, presumably involving the Vatican in some capacity.

Still nothing, despite his carefully worded remarks aimed at not offending the Russians. Employing linguistic acrobatics, the pope has been increasingly critical and pointed in his appeals, leaving no doubt that he is angered and anguished by Putin’s relentless onslaught.

Getting nowhere with Putin or the Moscow Patriarch

A full three weeks after the invasion, Francis finally turned to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Or did Kirill turn to him?

It is not clear who initiated the video conversation the two Christian leaders had this past Wednesday.

The patriarch also had a similar tete-a-tete the same day with the Archbishop of Canterbury, either before or after his online encounter with the pope.

The Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican issued separated communiques with general information about the conversation Kirill and Francis had. The fact that they did not issue a single, joint statement — whether because they failed or did not even try — is not a promising sign.

The Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church have long mistrusted the Vatican and the Roman Church. The meeting the pope and the patriarch had in 2016 in Cuba was indeed an extraordinary and historic moment. But it was only that — a moment.

Kirill is evidently more interested in promoting Russian imperialism rather than Christian unity.

No one should expect him to do anything to even suggest to Putin that Francis and his Vatican aides can help bring to end what is happening in Ukraine in way that is satisfactory to the Kremlin or the Moscow Patriarchate.

The pope’s “last ditch effort”

That leaves a pope eager to help on behalf of all humanity with few options except to keep hanging around in front of Russia’s door and to continue making symbolic gestures.

Francis has decided it’s time to make a “Hail Mary” pass, a football phrase coined in 1975 that means “a last-ditch effort”.

He’s announced that he intends to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary during a March 25 liturgy in St Peter’s Basilica. And he wants all the bishops in the world to also perform this same pious act simultaneously with him.

According to child visionaries of the Marian apparitions that allegedly took place in 1917 in Fatima (Portugal), the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have called on the pope and all the world’s bishops to consecrate Russia to her “immaculate heart” as a condition for world peace.

Make of this what you will. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pointed out in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “theological commentary”, the alleged apparitions and message of Fatima are considered a “private revelation”.

“Such a message can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time; therefore it should not be disregarded,” he said.

But then he added: “It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use.”

The Fatima fanatics

However, those who do use this message — and, different from Ratzinger, believe all Catholics are obliged to follow it — believe Russia’s consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is essential for world peace and the preservation of the Catholic faith.

Even though the consecration has already been performed numerous times by numerous popes (Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II), Fatima fanatics have always claimed that those were not valid.

They even refused to believe the words of the last surviving visionary — Sister Lucia — who said the consecration John Paul carried out on March 25, 1984 “has been done just as Our Lady asked”.

None of the popes specifically named Russia for political (and ecumenical) reasons, given the geopolitical situation of the post-World War II and Cold War era in which they were living.

But John Paul made it clear in 1984 that Russia was indeed being consecrated. And he insisted that it was done so for once and for all.
Russia is part of “all nations”.

“The power of this consecration lasts for all time and embraces all individuals, peoples and nations. It overcomes every evil that the spirit of darkness is able to awaken, and has in fact awakened in our times, in the heart of man and in his history,” the Polish pope said in the prayer.

The “act of entrustment” and consecration took place during the Holy Year of Redemption, which marked the 1950th anniversary of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jubilee began on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) 1983 and was concluded on Easter Sunday (April 22) 1984.

“In a special way we entrust and consecrate to you those individuals and nations which particularly need to be thus entrusted and consecrated,” John Paul — and all the world’s bishops — said on March 25, 1984.

“From famine and war, deliver us. From nuclear war, from incalculable self-destruction, from every kind of war, deliver us,” said one segment of the prayer.

But the Fatima fanatics — and that is what they are — have not accepted this. They see the alleged apparitions and their message as a magical prophecy of what will happen if certain things — liked consecrating Russia — are not meticulously carried out.

Faith and reason

But Ratzinger rejected this sort of nonsense.

“It should be kept in mind that prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future,” he said.

“A person who foretells what is going to happen responds to the curiosity of the mind which wants to draw back the veil on the future,” he added.

And when the Vatican finally revealed the so-called “third secret” of Fatima, the former CDF prefect and future pope said this:

Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed.

Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity.

What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.

“Allow me to add here a personal recollection,” Ratzinger said at one point in the theological explanation.

“In a conversation with me, Sister Lucia said that it appeared ever more clearly to her that the purpose of all the apparitions was to help people to grow more and more in faith, hope and love — everything else was intended to lead to this,” he said.

Pope Francis will likely reiterate this next week when he consecrates Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And, hopefully, he will insist that this act is symbolic, as were the words and images the child-visionaries at Fatima allegedly heard and saw.

This is not some magic trick or commercial exchange — a consecration in exchange for peace.

The high priests of our time, including the Bishop of Rome, must focus principally on leading the Christian people in prayer and help them grow more firmly in faith, hope and love.

Everything else is in the hands of God. Read more


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