The urgent request by Ukrainian Latin Rite bishops for Rome to consecrate Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary reminds me of the Apostles’ plea to Our Lord in the storm. While crossing the Sea of Galilee, a violent storm came upon their boat and began swamping it while Jesus slept on a cushion. In two of the three accounts, the Apostles seem to accuse Jesus of being either oblivious or negligent. Only in Matthew do they ask to be saved.
The Apostles’ panicked words are a mix of faith and fear. God is evidently not watching over them and His Messiah. Maybe He needs help in the matter. While they are not yet clear on Jesus being the Son of the Father, the Apostles had seen miracles performed by the man they followed. Jesus arises, rebukes the sea, and a “great calm” ensues. Not just a calm, but a great calm.
The Ukrainian Latin Rite bishops’ request this week has a similar tone. They see their country under grave threat, like a sinking boat. A bad outcome appears inexorable. They call not just for prayers and fasting, but consecration. This seems a worthy call, seeing the spiritual in temporal events of the day and invoking Our Lady.
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Once again, questions are raised about the previous consecration of Russia, its wording, and the apparent lack of an effect. This new request also raises more general questions about consecrating a country.
Consecration is the setting aside of a thing from a common and profane use to a sacred one, dedicating it or a person to the service and worship of God by prayers, rites, and ceremonies. The Church has rites and laws concerning the consecration of certain things. She consecrates bishops, church buildings, altars, altar stones, patens, and chalices.
The intended effect of consecration is to bring graces to the thing or person so consecrated. A church building is thought to have its own assigned guardian angel. A bishop is installed in the line of the Apostles and Melchizedek before them. The hands of a priest are blessed, and an indulgence is granted to the faithful who kiss the hands of the newly ordained. The act of consecration is rooted in Scripture. Exodus has a number of consecrations enjoined on God’s people. Before that, God set aside the Sabbath itself, a consecrated day every week.
So, what happens after an item is consecrated? Objects such as chalices, altars, or even church buildings must truly be set aside and treated with reverence. When no longer usable, they should be destroyed or altered in such a way that they are not recognized for what they were. A chalice is lovingly handled, cleaned, and stored. If it is regilt, it should be reconsecrated. If damaged to the point of being “unbecoming,” it should no longer be used and may be considered desacralized.
Church buildings are treated similarly. If a building is significantly renovated, such as extending walls, it should be reconsecrated. If a building is no longer used, it is desacralized. Most Catholics in America have probably witnessed more church buildings being desacralized than new ones being consecrated. Bishops are supposed to ensure that desacralized buildings are not to be used for sordid purposes. Some old churches are now bars and mosques.
And then there are Sundays. Even if one tries to consecrate the day, our world is madly racing to soccer and golf games, powering up the lawn mower, or buying that new car.
The long history of the Church tells us that consecrated men also fall from grace. Our time is no different. It is hard to miss. Unlike a chalice, a bishop has to live. He has free will and modes of action and must do the “common and profane” to survive the day. A bishop’s hands too often commit unspeakable crimes, let alone mere profane ones. When he falls, he has the gift of the confessional and—God willing—the time to do penance. Even if he forces the Church to remove him from the priesthood, she cannot remove the graces his hands have received. In extremis, the consecrated hands of the evilest man can confer blessings.
There is no rubric for consecrating a country, let alone desacralizing it. A number of countries have been consecrated in the past. These were done a variety of ways for different reasons. Twenty-four countries together were consecrated only two years ago to the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart in response to Covid. It is debatable what effect it had on them. Portugal was one of those countries. In its case, there were two previous consecrations, in 1931 and 1938. Some positive events are claimed from those consecrations. Regarding desacralizing a consecrated country, I have not found any mention of such a concept.
Can a country be properly consecrated in the true sense of the word? While canonical consecrations require certain preparations and are defined by the Church, country consecrations are ad hoc. Unlike chalices or bishops, there also appears to be no defined behaviors for the life of a country after the rite. A country is composed of land, buildings, people, and so many other created things. All those disparate parts cannot be truly set aside, especially the people who have free will and move about. The boundaries may even change.
Take the case of Ukraine. Would Crimea be included? Not in the minds of many Russians. Maybe that is why the bishops’ request included Russia. Do the people involved need to consent? The Orthodox bishops probably would not. Certainly, the small number of Ukrainian Muslims would not. They consider their mosques permanent outposts of their cause, never to be surrendered back to Christianity.
In practice, rather than setting a country aside for sacred uses, consecration appears to merely intercede for them with the hope of garnering graces. For political and other considerations, some prior consecrations were vague or overly broad. They were like my young son when he would tack “and everything else” at the end of his prayers. In 1952, Pope Pius XII used these words:
We consecrated the entire world to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mother of God, in a most special way, so now We dedicate and consecrate all the peoples of Russia to that same Immaculate Heart.
This prayer applies to the whole world then specifies only the Russian people in their various segments versus the whole nation and all its chattels. This was an attempt to strike a delicate balance. Likewise, in 1984 Pope John Paul II consecrated the whole world, especially “those individuals and nations which particularly need to be thus entrusted and consecrated,” and the Vatican has claimed since 2000 that this consecration fulfilled the wishes of Our Lady of Fatima.
The 2020 pandemic consecration was for “ourselves” but went on to list a number of petitions such as help for the poor and release of captives. One could argue it qualifies as intercessions rather than true consecration.
Saint Benedict said “Prayer ought to be short and pure.” In practice, consecrating a country seems like a precision tool applied to crude carpentry. The latest request for a consecration also seems too unlikely and too late. The bishops of the Church ought to make a terse plea, as in Matthew’s account of the storm, “Lord, save us, we perish.” Then heed the words of Joel to call a fast and gather the people; sanctify the Church that the Lord may have pity on his people.
The Apostles, the first bishops, beseeched and awakened Our Sleeping Lord, not knowing what else to do. With an admonishment and a wave of His Holy and Venerable Hands, Jesus brought a great calm. May we also join in prayer and fasting that the people of Ukraine and Russia experience God’s mercy.