By Corinne Winter
On March 25, Pope Francis, together with the bishops of the world, consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He is not the first to do so. The entire world and Russia specifically have been so consecrated a number of times during the 20th century, beginning in 1942. In 1984, Pope St. John Paul II asked all bishops of the world to join him in consecrating the world and Russia especially to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What is the significance of the current Act of Consecration?
Most of us are familiar with images of Mary that illustrate the title Immaculate Heart. In those images, Mary draws attention to her heart, which is surrounded by roses, often bleeding, burned by flames and pierced by at least one sword. The picture calls to mind the words of Simeon at Jesus’ presentation in the temple: “a sword will pierce your own soul (Luke 2:33).” It reminds us that Mary, as mother, shared in the suffering of Jesus. Indeed, pictures of the Immaculate Heart are usually paired with pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Devotion to the Heart of Mary grew alongside devotion to the Sacred Heart and, liturgically, the memorial of the Immaculate Heart follows immediately the feast of the Sacred Heart.
Keeping in mind Mary’s union with the work of Jesus, we understand that Mary’s compassion extends to all for whom Jesus suffered, that is, to the whole world. Many accounts of Marian apparitions and of miracles attributed to her intercession are set among the poor and marginalized of the world. Historically, papal consecration of the world and of particular nations to the Immaculate Heart took place during war times. Three Portuguese peasant children who experienced apparitions of Mary at Fatima in 1917 stated that Mary wanted Russia consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Those apparitions took place during World War I and the Russian revolution. Pope Pius XII consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart during and shortly after World War II and Pope St. John Paul asked all the bishops of the world to join him in so consecrating Russia in 1984 during a time of great concern over the threat of nuclear war.
Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary also builds on the fact that the heart represents a person’s full dedication. Thus, under the title of Immaculate Heart, we recognize Mary’s total devotion and obedience to God. Mary’s whole-hearted cooperation with God’s plan of salvation is also celebrated on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, the day Pope Francis chose for the consecration. Individuals and communities who consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary pledge themselves to fidelity to God and to God’s law, to the work to which God calls us in Christ, and to the care for others. They also ask Mary’s intercession that they may have the grace to be faithful to their pledge. Those were the themes of writings and prayers of medieval saints such as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvoux, Mechtild and Gertrude, early proponents of devotion to the Immaculate Heart.
The consecration of Russia and Ukraine by the bishops together with the pope did not include making such promises on behalf of those being consecrated. Rather, it was an act of entrusting them and their needs to the compassionate intercession of Mary and to the love of God shown in the work of Jesus. It was an act of faith in the power of prayer and an expression of solidarity with the people of Russia and Ukraine, who are suffering because of the invasion.
We are also called to act as instruments of God’s compassion. Faith and prayer move us to action. While Russia and Ukraine are distant from us geographically, we are one with them in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We must consecrate the heart of the Church and our individual hearts to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, Russia and throughout the world.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)