London, Ukraine and Consecration to the Immaculate Heart
‘You are able to untie the knots of our hearts and of our times.’
LONDON — As I was walking through the bright afternoon sunshine, it appeared that London was returning to normal. Post-COVID Oxford Street was an endless throng of shoppers in sunglasses. The many pubs and restaurants nearby were doing a roaring trade. All looked normal, festive even — a typical spring Friday afternoon in central London.
Only it was no such thing.
A war raged in a distant land; at home, media reports told constantly of atrocities, of millions displaced from their homes, and of an ever-mounting list of casualties. That distant land was Ukraine; but it is not that distant — it is Europe. And the scenes witnessed daily on television screens and in newspapers are all too reminiscent of the last conflict that engulfed Europe and thereafter the world, namely, the Second World War.
Just off Oxford Street is the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family. In earlier, more normal, times, one would not suspect that building belonged to the Catholic Church, still less to one of its Eastern rites. The building dates from 1897 and outwardly has all the hallmarks of Victorian Protestantism, as, originally, it was a Congregationalist church. Since 1967, however, this building has been the spiritual home of the United Kingdom’s 60,000 Ukrainian Catholics. Now, the front gates of the cathedral bear blue-and-gold bunting. And, last Friday, unlike in former more normal times, this building was open throughout the day to the public.
This day was the Solemnity of the Annunciation. And Pope Francis had asked that on this day Catholics pray, in churches if possible, for peace in Ukraine. In addition, the Pope had asked bishops to join him in consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This prayer for peace took place here in the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London, as it would elsewhere across the world.
On entering the cathedral, I was struck by two things: There is the darkness of the interior, curiously intensified by the bright sunshine outside it; and there is the silence. Entering into this hushed darkness from the noisy thoroughfare outside, I felt transported to another realm. My senses were calmed and in turn entranced by the iconostasis, namely, the screen of icons that separate the nave from the sanctuary, something common in Eastern Christian churches. Icons painted in luminous colors illustrate scenes from the Gospels — the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Baptism, the Transfiguration.
The hour before the consecration I spent in prayer, almost alone. When people did start arriving, they were a mix of Ukrainians, who came to their usual place of worship, and others, mostly Catholics of the Latin Rite who perhaps had never been inside an Eastern Rite church. It is good to be reminded that we belong to a “catholic” or “universal” Church; our faith and its practice has never been that of one rite, let alone a national church. It is good to be introduced to a liturgy which, because of its novelty to our eyes, intrigues and baffles even as we realize it still points us to something beyond. There was nothing familiar to me here. But then again, there was nothing to reference what was about to take place.
There had been earlier consecrations to the Immaculate Heart in response to the request of Our Lady when she appeared at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. On July 13 of that year, she had requested the consecration of Russia to Her Immaculate Heart. If this was not carried out, she said, Russia would spread "its errors throughout the world, promoting wars and persecution of the Church.”
On Oct. 31, 1942, Pope Pius XII consecrated the whole world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart; on Nov. 21, 1964, Pope St. Paul VI renewed the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart; on March 25, 1984, Pope St. John Paul II, in union with all the bishops of the world, consecrated all individuals and peoples of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Now, with a particular and urgent reference to Ukraine and Russia, Pope Francis was to renew the consecration.
On the eve of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, I had visited and spoken with Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family of London. Speaking with a Canadian accent — he is originally from Saskatchewan — Bishop Nowakowski explained to me his view of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, prefacing it all with the comment: “God is present in our suffering.” He spoke of the huge numbers made homeless by the conflict: 4 million have fled abroad; 10 million have been displaced internally within Ukraine. He talked of his sense of gratitude for the efforts being made by U.K.-based Ukrainians and the British to help these people. The U.K.’s — its people and government — reaction to the current crisis left him feeling grateful and humbled, he said.
During our conversation, Bishop Nowakowski spoke of Fatima. It is a place well known to Ukrainians. Each year many Ukrainians travel as pilgrims to the shrine. There is a Ukrainian Catholic church there. When it was announced that the Pope was to consecrate both Russia and Ukraine, in particular, to the Immaculate Heart, Bishop Nowakowski was not surprised: He welcomed it, especially as he had “not been looking at events in simple news terms.” He was not so much looking back to the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine with lamentation as looking forward with an air of expectancy to what was to happen next at 4pm London time on Friday, March 25.
It was precisely at that time when the bishop processed into the center of the cathedral, flanked by sky-blue-robed acolytes and priests. The nave was full, standing room only. The small choir, of not more than three or four, began to intone beautifully from the loft above.
After the initial prayers, Bishop Nowakowski spoke: “Today, at the call of His Holiness Pope Francis we are dedicating and consecrating Russia and Ukraine under the protection of, and to, the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We do so recalling the words and the request of Our Lady in Fatima. We do so today at a time even as we are celebrating this particular service, when the bombs are falling on our beloved Ukraine, are killing Ukrainian people ...”
The silence within the cathedral was tangible as he continued speaking: “To consecrate oneself, a people and a nation to someone or an ideal is an important thing indeed. But in consecrating Russia and Ukraine under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Catholic world, all of the bishops throughout the world, in unison with our Patriarch Sviatoslav in Kyiv and our Holy Father Pope Francis, are doing so to ask that not only the hearts of those who are perpetrating this war, not only to open the hearts of our leaders who can work towards ending this war, but also our own very hearts, to open them to conversion.” He then spoke of the need for peace — but not just in Ukraine, or even in Russia, but “on our streets, in our communities, and in our own country. Let this day and this time of prayer and this dedication be our own consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to ask God to allow us to also be peacemakers.”
The consecration was then formally made in Ukrainian: “O Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, in this time of trial we turn to you …”
There, in the center of London, we were united with the Holy Father in Rome, and with every Catholic who was taking part in this global act of consecration. For a moment, it felt as if the universal Church was united in this act; for a moment, too, we experienced something of one of the Church’s marks, namely, its holiness. That was not of our doing, however, but the recognition of Our Lady being with us: “Behold, your Mother.”
With the consecration over, the bishop disappeared behind the iconostasis. There was to be no procession out, no formal ending, nor an informal meeting afterwards of the congregation assembled. This seemed fitting. Maybe because this time of prayer had no ending, it is more of a beginning.
The sun still shone brightly on those leaving the cathedral. The shopping crowds still rushed past on Oxford Street carrying bags with department store logos; the pavements outside the local pubs seemed more crowded than earlier with revellers: People were leaving work and heading home. All about looked and sounded once again so normal. But then, as I glanced back at the blue-and-gold bunting glinting in the sun and at the cathedral doors, doors now opened to reveal a darkened interior with just a hint of a red votive light, I realized that things were not as before: Russia and Ukraine are consecrated to the Immaculate Heart, as the mystery of Fatima continues to play out in this world and in our lives.
“You once trod the streets of our world; lead us now on the paths of peace.”