Russia, Our Lady and the Faith of Ukraine
American journalist J.P. Lindsley shares his perspectives from Ukraine.
Ever since the early days of the war, the Ukrainians have been using a specific word to describe the Russian invaders: “Oрки,” translated into English as “Orcs.”
The relevance of this reference to the corrupt race of creatures in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has not been lost on J.P. Lindsley, an American journalist based in Lviv. Before the war, Ukraine was like the Shire, he told the Register: peaceful, low in crime, oriented toward family and community, unthreatening.
That changed when, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military campaign against Ukraine, ravaging cities throughout the Eastern European nation. In just a few weeks, the invasion has claimed hundreds of civilian lives, including many children, and has displaced millions. Included in these attacks is the recent airstrike on a hospital in Mariupol, and, since then, images of its victims being carried through the rubble have been circulating online: women in labor, mothers clutching their newborn infants, and wounded children.
“The analogy to Tolkien is fitting in this battle between good and evil,” Lindsley said.
As Ukraine continues to be battered by Russian forces, the country’s president called upon U.S. leaders to tighten measures against the Kremlin, one day after Pope Francis announced the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed members of Congress on Wednesday, hitting home his urging for sanctions on Russia with a video showing the graphic images of the civilian toll of the war.
Meanwhile, the Pope lamented the attack on the Mariupol hospital during his March 13 Angelus address, a few days before the Vatican announced that he would consecrate Russia and Ukraine to Mary on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
Lindsley is a journalist for Ukrainian Freedom News, which provides regular updates through the Telegram app. In addition to providing news about the Ukraine war in English to Western nations, it facilitates disseminating practical resources to those affected by the crisis.
The Register sat down with him over Zoom on March 16, to discuss the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Our Lady, Zelenskyy’s address to Congress, and the resilient Ukrainian spirit in the midst of this crisis.
Pope Francis has declared that he will be consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25. Have you been able to get a sense from Ukrainian Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians, about their response to this news?
A few Ukrainians have made this important point, and Pope Francis mentioned this in the Angelus on Sunday, how the city of Mariupol, which is named for the Virgin Mary, has been under one of the worst sieges of all time.
People were talking about how this is the city of the Virgin Mary. Here is where we see the absolute cruelty, the women and children’s hospital that was bombed in that city.
Pope Francis picked up on that idea and said: We see the total contrast between the Ukrainian mentality and what the Kremlin is doing.
I noticed in the first couple days of the war that, when Ukrainians speak about the Russians, they called them “Oрки” [pronounced “Orky”], or the “Orcs” from Tolkien. It really hits home on every different level. Before the 24th of February, this was one of the most peaceful countries in the world. Very low crime, streets are safe, and I think the freest country I’ve seen in all my travels. It was a Shire, a place of festivity. We’re a family and community, an unthreatening nation. The analogy to Tolkien is fitting in this battle between good and evil. People feel that very deeply here.
What is the sense from yourself and the people in Ukraine about how the Vatican has been responding to the crisis overall?
There was hope that Pope Francis would come to visit here. He was invited and expressed some interest during the lead-up to the war.
On the matter of the consecration: I’ve heard Catholics talk about this going back to Fatima, but I don’t know much about it myself. I will say, it fits in accord with everything, even with what President Zelenskyy said in his speech to Congress today. Some people call Zelenskyy the leader of the free world right now, but he said to Biden: You’re the leader of the free world, and “Being the leader [of the world] means being the leader of peace.” Many Ukrainians think that this is already World War III, whether or not the West wants to admit it and acknowledge it.
When the Pope said he was going to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Virgin Mary, it shows that this is something absolutely serious. It’s something that affects the whole world, and it is between good and evil. We see that with the Russian attacks on civilians, [which are] indiscriminate. The only connection in history that we can think of is Hitler. There’s no regard for the rules of war. War is barbaric anyway, but this is beyond barbaric.
You look at the city of Kharkiv. It was maybe the most optimistic, hopeful, entrepreneurial city I had ever been to. No one complained. People set their goals and worked toward them. And it was a Russian-speaking city. I think Putin has this jealousy that he doesn’t have a city that is so hopeful and pleasant. It made him look bad. I think that’s why that city has been pounded every single day since this began. I talked to my friends from that city, and they still repeat these lines about how they’re going to keep building, but the zest is gone from their speech. That’s what Putin wants to destroy: their spirits. There we see exactly how evil this is. So, all of the support, especially the spiritual, is much needed.
Being based in Lviv, what are your observations regarding the status of that city at this point in the conflict, in terms of morale, faith and overall atmosphere?
Lviv is a beautiful city of cobblestone streets and Austro-Hungarian architecture. It’s a café-society city, with buzzing coffee shops. In the first few weeks [of the war], a lot of that life came to a pause. It’s a city where there’s always music in the streets. That music was gone.
The war has hit home here because we’ve had refugees coming through. It is the major logistics center for supplies. It’s also the heart of Ukrainian culture and language. The Soviets and Imperial Russia did a lot to destroy the Ukrainian language, but it was harder for them to destroy it here in the west. Even before the war, Ukrainians from the east would come here to get in touch with their culture. With every speech of Putin, he makes it clearer that he hates Ukrainian culture, and that’s one thing he really wants to destroy. This is the capital of that, so people feel that threat very deeply, even though we are very close to Poland.
On Sunday, there was a very targeted and precise strike by the Russians on the Yavoriv military base, which people on the western side of the city could feel. Their windows and their houses shook with that explosion.
A few hours after that, I was walking around the city. I went into Mass at one of the Greek Catholic churches here. The choir was singing, everyone was standing up, and then I remembered: Wait, none of us have slept. Yet, a few hours later [after the strike on Yavoriv], the church was packed, and the choir was angelic.
Very interestingly, that day, the music returned to the streets. I just took a walk through the city. The beautiful statues in the squares, they’re boarding them up with metal frames around them. But the symphony orchestra was in the main square playing Beethoven earlier today to boost people’s spirits. In the past couple of days, the music has come back, and there’s a sense of focused determination.
What other stories of fidelity to the faith have you heard about or witnessed yourself throughout this conflict?
Most of Ukraine is Orthodox, and there are different permutations of that. But this region of Galicia is majority Greek Catholic. Eastern in style, Eastern in calendar and ritual — they have married priests, for example — but in communion with Rome. The leadership of the Greek Catholic Church issued an edict. His Beatitude [Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk] said the priests must stay with their churches, even if the worst happens, and to keep them open. I don’t think he had to say it, but he did say it.
Yesterday I’m walking, and I see nuns walking around. Women and children can leave, but the nuns are still here. I think the Church gives a great sense of comfort. It has always been like this, but in Lviv they broadcast the liturgies on speakers into the squares of the city. It’s almost like a Christian version of what you would experience in Istanbul, where you can hear the chant. That is the music that has never stopped here.
There are churches all over this city, and so you can feel the prayers and the chants even as you walk the streets. I feel that, and I think it gives a lot of people strength. It always has, but especially now.
What are your thoughts on Zelenskyy’s address to the U.S. Congress today?
Zelenskyy played a video of the horrible carnage, and the soundtrack to the video was the music of [Myroslav] Skoryk, who’s a great Ukrainian composer. He died quite old in 2020. It’s the Carpathian Rhapsody, and I’m sure anyone in that hall of the members of Congress were tearful during that moment.
When I go to the Carpathian [mountains], I stand in the forest, and I always play that piece of music. Skoryk captured so much the innocence and the sweetness of the mountain life in Ukraine. That was the music that Zelenskyy and his team selected. You have this pastoral soundtrack to the horrible scenes of Mordor invading. They’re under fire, but his team knows how to represent the Ukrainian soul incredibly well.
What has been the overall feeling about the U.S. involvement?
There is great appreciation for the Americans who show up here and for the supplies that come in. We still have a big supply problem.
So many Americans have rallied. There’s one American who arrived here who saw one of Zelenskyy’s first speeches of the war and said: “All right, I’m going to get on a plane and go over and see how I can help.” That type of support is appreciated.
At the government level, there’s frustration. People feel that Ukraine has been used. There’s a lot of skepticism. But I think Zelenskyy expresses this well, the hope that America will stand up, and the West will do something, saying: This is not just about Ukraine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.