Russia today is vengefully returning to international politics after temporarily receding after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Moscow is lashing out with tenacious diplomatic and military support for the brutal regime in Syria that has butchered more than one hundred thousand Syrians to crush a civil war. Moscow too is militarily dismembering neighboring Ukraine by occupying Crimea and sponsoring an insurgency in the eastern part of the besieged country that had longed to integrate into Western civilization. Moscow’s aggression has cowed the United States and European states, while states closer to Russia’s borders fear that they will soon be politically, militarily, and economically coerced by President Vladimir Putin.
These rapidly unfolding and tragic events should jar the memories of faithful Catholics of the promise our Blessed Mother made at her apparitions in Fatima, Portugal at the turn of the last century. According to William Thomas Walsh’s beautiful book Our Lady of Fatima, the Blessed Mother told three children at Fatima on 13 July 1917: “I come to ask the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart and the Communion of reparation on the first Saturdays. If they listen to my requests, Russia will be converted and there will be peace. If not she will scatter her errors through the world, provoking wars and persecutions of the Church.” The series of Fatima apparitions concluded with the famous “dancing of the sun” on 13 October 1917, which was witnessed by tens of thousands of pilgrims.
Two of Fatima’s seers, Jacinta and Francisco, died in childhood, but Lucia lived a long life in anonymous seclusion. Lucia fled the public attention and controversy that surrounded the Fatima apparitions, the likes of which have been all too typical of authentic Marian apparitions throughout the two thousand years of Church history, for life as a cloistered nun.
The Fatima apparitions have been marked by a nearly one hundred year controversy over whether or not the Church has consecrated Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart as Our Lady requested. Sister Lucia, in a 1946 interview with author Walsh, “made it plain that Our Lady did not ask for the consecration of the world to her Immaculate Heart. What she demanded specifically was the consecration of Russia. She did not comment, of course, on the fact that Pope Pius XII had consecrated the world, not Russia, to the Immaculate Heart in 1942.”
Sister Lucia’s understanding of Fatima was enriched by a deep prayer life filled with private revelations. Our Lady appeared to Lucia often until she died on 13 February 2005 at the age of ninety-seven, report Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone with Giuseppe De Carli in their 2008 book The Last Secret of Fatima. As Lucia elaborated to Walsh, apparently drawing on a private revelation she had in 1927, “What Our Lady wants is that the Pope and all the bishops in the world shall consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart on one special day. If this is done, she will convert Russia and there will be peace. If it is not done, the errors of Russia will spread through every country in the world.”
Popes over the subsequent decades have consecrated the world writ large but not specifically Russia and not in unity with all the Church’s bishops of the world. Saint John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on 25 March 1984, for example, consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. More recently, Pope Francis in October 2013 consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in front of some 150,000 pilgrims in Rome, according to the National Catholic Register.
Nevertheless, many observers argue that these consecrations of the world fulfilled the request of Our Lady of Fatima. Most notably one the Church’s highest officials, Cardinal Bertone, who served as both secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as the Vatican’s secretary of state, in The Last Secret of Fatima shared details of his 17 November 2001 interview of Sister Lucia in her convent. By Bertone’s account, Sister Lucia said, “the consecration Our Lady wished for was performed in 1984, and that is was accepted by Heaven.”
The Catholic Church no doubt has been reluctant to specifically consecrate Russia to avoid offending the Russian Orthodox Church. As Bertone and De Carli explain, “The consecration of Russia obviously posed a very tricky religio-political problem for Pope John Paul II. The pope, not wishing to offend the sensibilities of our ‘special brethren,’ the Orthodox, remained cautious. An explicit consecration would have been received by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexi II, as a declaration of war.”
But would a Catholic consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary justifiably be seen by the Russian Orthodox Church as “an act of war”? If the Russian Orthodox Church consecrated the Roman Catholic Church to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, would Rome be offended? Or would Rome be justifiably grateful and extend its brotherly thanks to Moscow recognizing that in this gravely troubled world both east and west desperately need any and all help from our Blessed Mother. Moreover, we Catholics call ourselves members of the “universal” church. Why then should the universal church make a hard stop at Russia’s political borders? Do we fear a Russian Orthodox politically motivated backlash? Are we not told repeatedly to “fear not” in the Holy Bible? Catholics therefore should have no fear and ignore political borders, especially in this time of new evangelization, to do service for our Blessed Mother and the world.
The Russian Orthodox Church, moreover, often acts more as a political instrument for President Putin than as an ethical check on his power. It appears not to be rendering onto the Russian Caesar what is his, but instead seems to be doing Putin’s bidding as an extension of Russia state power. Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill once famously likened Putin’s reign to “a miracle of God” and the Orthodox Church has financially benefited from close ties to political-economic oligarchy that controls Russia to build or restore about 25,000 churches in the past 25 years, according to Reuters reporter Gabriela Baczynska.
Despite his intentions, Cardinal Bertone’s book has not settled the stirring and persistent controversy as to whether or not Our Lady of Fatima’s consecration request has been fulfilled. Indeed, the long running controversy in the ears of Church laymen often has an annoying “he said, she said” ring to it with those saying the promise has been fulfilled trading barbs against those who say it has not.
Instead of chasing down that rabbit hole, perhaps a more constructive and informative contribution to the debate would take a step back and ask central and critically important questions. Does Russia today look and act like it has been converted as Our Lady of Fatima promised would be the case if it were consecrated to her? Or one might put the same question into more theological terms. Do we see the spiritual “fruits” of Russia’s conversion?
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union without the resort to war, hopes were raised that the various consecrations of the world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart were starting to bear spiritual “fruits.” But these hopes have been dashed as Russia rested, recouped, and returned with a new version of its militant nationalism to wreak havoc at home and abroad.
Russia’s alleged return to Christianity after atheistic communist days, like so much of what is Russia, is a Potemkin village. Expert Pew polling shows that there has been an upswing in affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church as the share of Russian adults identifying themselves as Orthodox increased from 31 percent to 72 percent between 1991 and 2008. Despite the increase in religious identification, no more than about one in ten Russians say they attend religious services at least once per month. One out of ten Russians going to church once a month is hardly the massive surge in religious conversion as one might expect from Our Lady’s Fatima promise.
Russia’s demographic crisis that includes the breakdown of nuclear families and widespread abortion also shows it has not been converted. As political economist Nicholas Eberstadt assesses in the Foreign Affairs magazine, “The country’s population is shrinking, its morality levels are nothing short of catastrophic, and its human resources appear to be dangerously eroding. Indeed, the troubles caused by Russia’s population trends—in health, education, family formation, and other spheres—represent a previously unprecedented phenomenon for an urbanized, literate society not at war.” Jonathan V. Last in his book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting paints a grim picture of Russia’s demographic disaster with Russia having the world’s highest divorce rate and abortion so rampant that 13 abortions are performed in Russia today for every 10 live births.
Russia’s massive use of propaganda for political power shows that it has not been converted. Peter Pomerantsev writes in The Atlantic, “On Russian ‘news’ broadcasts, the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current-affairs programs feature apparent actors posing as refugees from eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascists gangs.” Pomerantsev perceptively concludes that “The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than to provide a counternarrative.” The internationally respected Freedom House rates Russia’s press as “not free” and judges that Putin’s government penalizes journalists for not conforming to its increasingly strict definition of acceptable views and is expanding its control over broadcast and print media.
Russia’s military buildup despite its decaying society shows that it has not been converted. Professor Nikolas Gvosdev judges in the pages of The National Interest magazine that a distinguishing characteristic of Putin has been his commitment to revitalizing Russia’s military. If Putin’s conventional weapons buildup was not bad enough, he also is modernizing Russian nuclear weapons while American nuclear forces languish. As reported in Foreign Policy magazine, Russia has tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
Russia’s use of military power to disembowel Ukraine shows that it has not been converted. Astute Russia watcher and journalist Anne Applebaum ably catalogues for the Washington Post Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine following its take over of Crimea earlier this year. Russia sent mercenaries and security service operatives to hide Moscow’s hand to attack police stations and government offices to delegitimize Ukraine’s government. Then the Russians dispatched heavier weapons such as machine guns, artillery, and eventually tanks, armed personnel carriers, and anti-aircraft weapons the likes of which undoubtedly shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and murdered 298 civilians, mostly Europeans. Despite Russian inflicted death and destruction, Europeans and Americans are too fearful of Russia to call the Ukraine crisis what it is: a real and new war in Europe.
A review of Russia’s internal politics, social and spiritual decay, and ruthless foreign and defense policies strikingly shows that the Church has not fulfilled its half of the promise made by Our Lady of Fatima. The Blessed Mother never has, and never will, mislead her son’s Church. If she promises, she delivers true to her word. If we members of the Church had fulfilled our duties and responsibilities, Russia today would be a far different country and the security of many nations would not be imperiled by Russian aggression as it is today. Pope Francis acts boldly as he has done by convening the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. We might hope and pray that our holy father—who displays an intimate bond with Our Lady—would some day flex his inspiring courage and faith to convene a synod on the Fatima apparitions. With the perilous state of the world and the Church, we cannot afford to lose any more years handwringing and failing to courageously seize Our Lady of Fatima’s promise of peace.