March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the day that the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce that she would bear Christ. It is a date of great significance to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, one of the major feasts focused upon the Virgin Mary.
The Vatican has announced that this year on the Feast of the Annunciation the Pope will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While it would be unfair to assume bad intentions, it’s yet another glaring misstep in the pontiff’s handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a stark, and extremely public reminder, of the West’s entirely unhelpful—and historically tone deaf—approach to Orthodox Christianity.
The Pope’s decision to carry out the consecration service dates to a series of appearances of the Virgin Mary reported by three shepherd children in the small village of Fatima, Portugal between the spring 1916 and the autumn of 1917. During the appearance, the children received a series of prophecies and requests, among them that Russia (then in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution) would be consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary so that Russia would be converted.
While it’s easy for Western Christians, particularly for Catholics, to see this prophecy and subsequent consecration, as a response to the threat of atheist Communism facing Russia at the time of the apparition, it’s difficult for Orthodox Christians to not see the prophecy that Russia will be “converted” in the light of the now nearly-thousand years of tension (and sometimes open warfare) between Western and Eastern Christendom, a history that’s frequently seen the Catholic Church operate in the role of aggressor or opportunist.
This history begins roughly in 1054, the formal break in communion between the Latin Western Christian Church, headed by the Roman papacy, and the four historical patriarchates of the Eastern Church. The split was preceded by a series of disputes concerning both church governance and theology, chief among them contention over the pope’s claim to universal authority.
A number of violent incidents over two hundred years, from both sides of Christianity’s two halves, helped solidify the separation. These included the Byzantine massacre of Catholics living in Constantinople in 1182, the sacking of Thessaloniki by Catholics in 1185, and their pillage of Constantinople in 1204. Finally, the establishment of Rome-allied episcopacies in traditionally Eastern Christian territory captured by Crusaders further cemented the divide.
While the history of Western Christianity since that time has been a history of relative power and prominence, the Eastern Christian world has had a rockier ride, from Ottoman occupation to Soviet repression. Throughout all this time, it’s difficult not to notice that the West—the rich, powerful twin—has seldom missed an opportunity to leverage Eastern Christian misfortune to its own advantage. The Crusades themselves are an excellent example, but Catholic power grabs in places like Ukraine during the 16th century around the fall of Constantinople also demonstrate this problem.
Which brings us back to Thursday’s consecration. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that the Virgin Mary was free from Original Sin, is not a doctrine shared between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In fact, it’s only been an official part of Catholic teaching since 1854. While the Eastern churches agree with Catholics that Mary was free from personal sin, the fact that the Eastern church has never accepted Augustine’s teaching on Original Sin means that the doctrine is superfluous for Eastern Christian theology.
The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is also one of the most hotly contested theological issues in ecumenical dialogue between East and West, right up there with papal primacy and the filioque (the “and the son” part of the Nicene Creed)—two issues that helped drive the split in the first place.
In light of this history, consecrating two countries with overwhelmingly Orthodox majorities to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, particularly in response to a prophecy that one of those countries will be converted is, at best, problematic. On an entirely pragmatic level, these kinds of actions feed the fears of the most reactionary elements in the Orthodox world, for whom the fear of Western encroachment is very real. As these are the forces that we’re all collectively interested in keeping at bay, adding fuel to their fire seems ill-advised.
Also, not to steal Chrissy Stroop’s gig, but it’s really not okay to make other people your non-consensual missionary project. And it’s nonsensical to try to convert a person—or a country—that’s already converted. Unless you don’t think they really are converted; and as we’ve already discussed, in light of the history of East-West Christian relations it’s easy to see this ritual as implying exactly that.
And that’s ignoring the fact that consecrating Ukraine and Russia at the same time, because of a prophecy about Russia, is probably less than ideal in the midst of a war in which the independence of Ukraine is at issue.
To be clear, there’s almost certainly no ill intent on the part of Pope Francis, the Vatican, or all the well meaning Catholics cheering this on. They all probably believe they’re doing a very good thing. But that’s the problem of making other people—particularly other people with whom your people already have a tense history—your project. Also, it’s genuinely a good idea to check with people before you try to help, whether materially or metaphysically. Sometimes people don’t want your kind of help.
I mean, why didn’t the Vatican suggest special papal-led prayers to the Virgin Mary for Russia and Ukraine, perhaps including the Eastern Christian bishops resident in Rome? That could be worked out, in theory. Marian devotion is shared between the two ancient halves of the Christian world. Why include so explicitly a doctrine that can be seen as a symbol of Catholic attempts to change Orthodox theology? It’s simply tone deaf and insensitive to the wounds of history.
So, (and I genuinely cannot believe I’m writing this) Pope Francis: Russia and Ukraine are #NotYourMissionField. Please try to find another way to help.