The Immaculate Heart From the Trenches

Catholics with knowledge about Ukraine — including a former U.S. Marine who has volunteered in Ukraine — discuss the significance of the papal consecration of Russia, Ukraine and the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

On March 25, Pope Francis consecrated all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, stating that the act expressed complete trust in the Virgin Mary.
On March 25, Pope Francis consecrated all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, stating that the act expressed complete trust in the Virgin Mary. (photo: Vatican Pool - Corbis / Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — With Pope Francis leading the world in consecrating Russia, Ukraine and all of humanity to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one witness of the battlefront outside Kyiv attests to the power of Our Lady’s protection amid the horrors of the war.

“The only reason the world isn’t a giant machine gun is because of women,” said former U.S. Marine Theodore Verona, who has volunteered to support the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion. “If I feel like I want to bring some beauty to the world, the best way to do it is through a female vessel, and that would be the Virgin Mary.”

“I would be lying if I said that every decision I make has Christ in my mind, because I’m not a good Catholic all the time,” Verona told the Register, regarding his motivation to volunteer. “But this time, it really was a moment where I felt like I didn’t have a choice on a spiritual level.”

For six days in the early part of the conflict, Verona joined other foreign soldiers in the trenches north of Kyiv. 

Admitting to not taking the danger at the front seriously at first, the Afghan veteran said that it took less than an hour in the trenches for him to realize that this “will be the most serious thing I’ll ever experience in my life, one in which there’s actually a sharp probability I’m going to die here.”

Over the course of those days on the front, Verona witnessed many horrors for which even his tours in Afghanistan hadn’t prepared him: soldiers suffering from trench foot from not having access to socks, Ukrainians being grievously wounded with little hope of being saved, and the cries of a wounded Russian soldier left to die on the battlefield by his comrades.

Verona recognizes the “supremacy, the divinity, of Jesus Christ,” but explained that, whenever he’s scared — which has happened many times for him as a soldier — he turns to Mary. “I’d sooner run to my mom than run to my dad, for warmth and to not be afraid,” he said.

The Virgin Mary is “the first person I pray to, ​​the one that protects my family,” Verona said.


Sign of Spiritual Unity

Friday’s consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary took place during a penitential service led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Mary. 

“In union with the bishops and faithful of the world, I desire in a solemn way to bring all that we are presently experiencing to the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” the Pope said in his homily for the occasion. “I wish to renew to her the consecration of the Church and the whole of humanity, and to consecrate to her in a particular way the Ukrainian people and the Russian people who, with filial affection, venerate her as a Mother.”

“This is, of course, Pope Francis realizing the importance and necessity for prayer in this situation and, in particular, the importance of the intercession of Mary,” said Donald Prudlo, Warren professor of Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa, in an interview with the Register.

Prudlo noted the significance of the Pope calling on all bishops to participate in the act of consecration, especially noting the inclusion of the Orthodox Churches.

“Both Catholics and Orthodox know the power of Marian devotion and know that both Russia and Ukraine have been centers of Marian devotion for a thousand years,” Prudlo said. “This will be an extremely powerful, spiritual sign. As much as the world has been united in a secular sense by what Russia has done, this is a sign of spiritual unity that’s going to help orient the world correctly in response to this situation.”


History of the Consecration

The history of the consecration of Russia has connections to the 1917 Marian apparitions in Fátima to three Portuguese children, during which Our Lady called for Russia to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart amid the looming threat of global war.

According to Sister Lucia, the only Fátima visionary to live to adulthood, Mary said: “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.”

Over the years, doubts have circulated among some Catholics over whether the consecration of Russia has ever been correctly accomplished by a pope according to Mary’s specifications, with several popes having answered the call from Our Lady of Fátima to make the consecration. 

“I worry a lot that people treat this as sort of a superstitious incantation,” Prudlo said, “that somehow if it’s done ‘right’ according to their own intention, according to their idea of what Mary asked for, that somehow this is going to be a magic wand.”

Prudlo stressed that it is the prerogative of the Church to determine whether a consecration has been done correctly. “People need to be wary of placing private revelation over the decision of the Church, which has authority over these matters.”


Ukrainian Catholic Perspective

David Wallace, parishioner and cantor at the Ukrainian Catholic parish of Sts. Joachim and Anna in Front Royal, Virginia, told the Register that this consecration goes beyond the promises made at Fátima. “I don’t see this consecration as something necessarily connected to Fátima, even if inspired by Our Lady’s request, nor do I think previous popes have been failing to heed Mary’s requests for decades,” he said. 

The prayer of consecration, he said, “reminds us that this consecration is not a magical formula, but a call to prayer and to repentance and reminder than an entrustment of a nation or indeed the world is of no avail if individual hearts are not converted.”

Prudlo and Wallace echo the words of Pope Francis in his homily Friday, during which he stressed that the consecration “is no magic formula but a spiritual act.” He added that “it is an act of complete trust on the part of children who, amid the tribulation of this cruel and senseless war that threatens our world, turn to their Mother, reposing all their fears and pain in her heart and abandoning themselves to her.”

Sister Lucia would later confirm that Pope St. John Paul II successfully consecrated Russia according to Mary’s request in 1984, a few years before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. 

One noteworthy inclusion to the consecration of Russia as requested by Our Lady of Fátima is the specific inclusion of Ukraine. According to Prudlo, this affirms the sovereignty of Ukraine as a nation. 

“There is a realization that these are two absolutely distinct places and that Ukraine has a right to exist and has a right to its own national life — and that, in this particular situation, Russia is trying to take that away,” Prudlo said.

“By making a distinction, by making a consecration to Russia and Ukraine, there’s a clear message that these are two peoples, both peoples beloved by Mary, and with Christian roots,” Prudlo added, “and that in order to end this situation, they really need to return to those roots.”

Father Robert Hitchens, pastor of the Ukrainian Catholic Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, D.C., as well as of Sts. Joachim and Anna in Front Royal, also noted the relevance of including Ukraine in the prayer of consecration. 

“In that sense, our prayer is that, through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, all human hearts will undergo conversion and to listen to her Son,” Father Hitchens told the Register.

“What has Jesus told us? To love God and to love our neighbor. And, certainly, what’s been happening to Ukraine is not an example of one loving one’s neighbor.”

For Wallace, who admits to having no Ukrainian heritage, “being part of the Ukrainian Church plugs me into something larger than myself, into a tradition that can form me and my family.” 

He observed the significance that Ukrainian Catholic parishes, like Sts. Joachim and Anna, would be illegal in Russia. “For our local Ukrainian Catholic community, this consecration serves as a reminder that we are part of the larger Catholic Church and that we are not forgotten,” he said. 


‘Prayer Saved My Life’

As for Verona, reflecting on his six days in the trenches north of Kyiv, he remains confident in the power of prayer in protecting him in any circumstance, including when he was facing the Russian army. 

“I do fundamentally believe I’m alive because I prayed,” he said. “Prayer saved my life. To me, it will keep me alive as much as bulletproof glass.”