On May 13, as Pope Francis canonized at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Fatima, Portugal two of the local shepherd children who first witnessed the appearance of the Blessed Mother at the site in 1917, more than 1,000 pilgrims joined in a grand procession into the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence as Bishop Thomas J. Tobin marked the centenary of the Fatima apparitions. Part of this local commemoration was an Act of Consecration of the entire diocese of Providence to the Immaculate Heart of Mary reflecting the Virgin of Fatima’s deliberate and urgent request to the three favored children. As the world continues to observe the 100th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to the visionaries, a closer reflection on the Blessed Mother’s exact instruction concerning the consecration of the whole world to her Immaculate Heart is appropriate. Mary’s pointed words on the urgency of a worldwide act of consecration on behalf of her Immaculate Heart were spoken 100 years ago today, July 13, 1917. Consider them with an eye to the past 100 years:
“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
The Blessed Virgin’s call for a universal action by the Church consecrating Russia to her Immaculate Heart would seem to be a rather innocent pious event. Yet many Fatima observers claim that the whole Church has never really complied with Mary’s request. Individual bishops and particular popes have consecrated their dioceses and the Church and even Russia to the Immaculate Heart. But this has been done separately and not collectively as Mary’s original word’s seemed to demand. Fatima devotees find this distressing. This caution in making a universal consecratory act might stem from both ecumenical and political considerations.
Mary appeared to the children in 1917 during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV who is little remembered today but who was quite ecumenically active toward the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. To engage these churches fraternally in an ecumenical dialogue while simultaneously praying for their “conversion” must have been a touchy subject. Pope Pius XII took tentative, but incomplete, steps to carry out this consecration. Perhaps defeating the Nazis and the Communists was more pressing than converting the Orthodox. Again, as professor Howard Kainz of Marquette University observes, dramatic developments took place during the 1960s at Vatican II, as hundreds of bishops who advocated the consecration of Russia were sidelined by the Vatican’s subdued Ostpolitik towards the USSR and by the presence of Russian Orthodox hierarchs who had been invited to the Council. Finally, Pope John Paul II, after consulting with Sr. Lucia and working with political movements in Poland and joining with President Reagan to loosen the grip of the Soviets, made the consecration after experiencing what he considered to be Mary’s rescue from an assassin’s bullet. This consecration took place as the Soviet Union eyed Europe’s agreement to accept American medium-range missiles in 1983.
The Soviet Union has since fallen and public religious practice has resumed somewhat in Russia. But exactly what the conversion of a nation with a thousand year history of Orthodoxy entails is quite puzzling. Furthermore, at the present moment, inviting Eastern Orthodoxy to embrace the secularized Christianity of the West is hardly an offer that would quicken the piety of any prospective converts. Still, let’s not forget: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph,” Mary declared defiantly in 1917. The Czar has come and gone since then; the Soviet Union has come and gone since then; Roman Catholic masses are celebrated daily for small congregations in the larger cities of Russia. Eventually Mary’s words will indeed be fulfilled.