Russia's holy war: Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis, the Virgin Mary and the fate of Ukraine

Putin's war is unleashing bizarre religious divisions — and for some Catholics it's the fulfillment of prophecy

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published March 26, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Patriot Park, main temple of the Armed Forces of Russia, Moscow region (Getty Images/Yulia-B)
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Patriot Park, main temple of the Armed Forces of Russia, Moscow region (Getty Images/Yulia-B)

On Friday evening in Rome, a century-old prophecy was fulfilled, at least in the eyes of some Catholics. At the Vatican, Pope Francis led a prayer for peace in Ukraine, along with a call to free the world "from the menace of nuclear weapons" and a request for forgiveness for humanity having "forgotten the lessons learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two World Wars." That's not a surprising appeal from a religious leader who has spent weeks trying to intercede in the bloody war underway in Eastern Europe. More specifically though, the pope's prayer consecrates Ukraine and Russia "to the Immaculate Heart of Mary" — a reference to the purported apparition of the Virgin Mary before three Portuguese children in 1917, which has become a touchstone to many conservative Catholics ever since.

It's heavy inside-baseball to get into what the consecration means, and why it's causing  consternation among some of Francis' fiercest critics. But taking a step back, the pontiff's prayer also amounts to a religious intervention in a conflict that has been widely described as a religious war. 

Holy Mother Russia

The religious undertones of Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine were evident before his troops ever stepped across the border. In his pre-invasion speech on Feb. 21, Putin declared, "Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space." The people living in Ukraine's contested eastern regions, he argued, had long considered themselves "Russians and Orthodox Christians." 

In part, Putin was appealing to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, which traces its birth back to the 10th Century, when the head of the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus converted to Christianity in Crimea and subsequently declared his faith the state religion. In 2014, Putin justified his invasion of Crimea partly on these grounds, calling the peninsula "sacred" ground for Russians.

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In service to this mythology, in 2020 Putin oversaw the construction of a new Orthodox cathedral dedicated to Russia's military and celebrating the annexation of Crimea, and initially intended to include frescoes of both Josef Stalin and Putin himself. 

In justifying the 2022 invasion, Putin has invoked a broader version of this narrative, often known as "Russkiy mir" ("Russian world") or "Holy Russia," which lays out a Manifest Destiny-like vision of Russian empire, encompassing Ukraine and Belarus, and perhaps also Moldova and Kazakhstan, as well as other Russian people around the world.  As Daniel Schultz notes at Religion Dispatches, the ideology behind "Russian world" is akin to the Nazi veneration of "blood and soil": an ethnically-defined religious nationalism, in which Moscow serves as the imperial "administrative center" and Kyiv, the wellspring of the majority faith in both countries, "its spiritual heart." Russian world is "further held to be unified by a common language, a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate) — and a common political leader: Vladimir Putin," Schultz writes. Against that holy empire stands the corrupted West, with its secularism, liberalism and LGBTQ Pride parades. 

Over the last decade, Jack Jenkins writes at Religion News Service, Putin has increasingly intertwined the Russian Orthodox Church, suppressed under Communism, with his new sense of Russian identity: "Fusing religion, nationalism, a defense of conservative values that likens same-sex marriage to Nazism" with the vision of  "Russkiy mir." 

In that quest, he has worked hand-in-hand with the Russian church's leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (alleged to be, like Putin, a former KGB officer). At the outset of the invasion of Ukraine, Kirill offered a tepid appeal to avoid civilian casualties. He soon grew more strident, and by that weekend was calling on God to "preserve the Russian land," which, he specified, meant "the land which now includes Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and other tribes and peoples." 

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In 2019, Kirill also referred to Ukraine as part of his patriarchate's "canonical territory." That claim came in response to a move by a subset of Ukrainian Orthodox churches to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and affiliate instead as an independent church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, recognized as an authoritative body among the world's numerous Orthodox configurations. This ecclesial divorce represented a second declaration of Ukrainian independence from Russia in the last decade, following the 2014 "Maidan revolution" that deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally. 

Since then, the Orthodox world has been marked by a number of divisions. There's a break in communion ties between the Moscow and Ecumenical Patriarchates, and the Moscow church has tried to establish a beachhead in various African countries to compete against other Orthodox branches. There are now two separate Orthodox communions within Ukraine: one following Moscow, and one answering to Kyiv. (In his pre-war address, Putin also embraced a mission of saving the Moscow-affiliated church from alleged Ukrainian plans to destroy it.) 

Since the invasion, however, both branches of the Orthodox church in Ukraine have condemned Russian aggression, and across the world the war is dividing the faith. One Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam declared it would no longer commemorate Kirill at its weekly worship services. That led to pressure from a Moscow-affiliated archbishop (who reportedly showed up at the church that Sunday in a Russian diplomatic car), and vandals defaced the church with the pro-Putin "Z" symbol, among other threats that forced the congregation to suspend services amid one of the most important periods in the Christian calendar. In mid-March, the Amsterdam church became one of at least 160 Orthodox parishes worldwide that have sought to break ties with the Moscow Patriarchate and join other Orthodox communions. Hundreds of Orthodox leaders recently signed a declaration denouncing the "Russian world" narrative as a heretical and totalitarian form of "religious fundamentalism." 

Russia vs. the West 

These mini-schisms aren't the only divides, or even the most important ones, surrounding the Ukraine conflict. On March 6, Patriarch Kirill doubled down on his support for Putin with a sermon charging that the West has imposed LGBTQ Pride parades as a "loyalty test" on any country that seeks to join Western society, with the marches serving as "a passport to the world of excess consumption, the world of visible 'freedom.'" 

This echoed Putin's own reasoning, when he tried to justify the coming invasion by claiming that the West seeks "to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degradation, because they are contrary to human nature." 

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That kind of talk illustrates how and why — until very recently (and still, in some quarters) — Russia has become a symbol of faith and tradition for many conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere. Beginning in the late 1990s, the U.S.-based World Congress of Families partnered with Russian oligarchs and Orthodox clerics to build an international "pro-family" movement that proposed overcoming interfaith divisions with a shared emphasis on culture-war issues, especially a common hostility toward LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights. As Bethany Moreton, author of a forthcoming book on American conservatives and Russia, recently wrote, Russia was cast as the sole defender against an "anti-civilization" that was fostering the "sodomization of the world." 

By 2014, American evangelical leader Franklin Graham had declared that Russia's notorious "gay propaganda" law, which forbade sharing information about LGBTQ people with children (recently mirrored by "don't say gay" legislation in some U.S. states), showed that Russia's moral standards were higher than America's. The same year, venerable paleoconservative Pat Buchanan argued: "In the culture war for the future of mankind, Putin is planting Russia's flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity."

Today a new crop of what Soviet intelligence once called "useful idiots" abounds, as Michael Sean Winters argued at the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month: Fox News' Laura Ingraham called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy "pathetic"; Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance said he didn't "really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another"; and Sohrab Ahmari, a writer aligned with the national conservativism movement, argued that a nation's sovereignty rests primarily on the ability "not to be coerced," and Ukraine clearly lacks that power. Other religious conservatives, including Eric Sammons of the Catholic right magazine Crisis and American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, have repeated Russian talking points that reported atrocities in Ukraine had been faked, and could be the work of crisis actors. Steve Bannon more concisely noted his approval of Russia, on the eve of the invasion, by saying, "Putin ain't woke." 

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Then there's Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the disgraced former papal ambassador to the U.S. who in 2018 called for Pope Francis's resignation and has taken, in recent years, to releasing increasingly bizarre manifestos about the "deep church," COVID-19 conspiracy theories, pro-Trump laments about globalism, and even a suggestion that Catholics should pray for the death of the pope. On March 7, Viganò released another missive — roughly 10,000 words long and so outlandish that even former allies denounced it — charging that the Ukraine war was the West's fault: Zelenskyy was a puppet whose leadership was akin to a "drag" show, media coverage of the invasion amounted to "brainwashing" and Russian-speaking Ukrainians were unfairly persecuted in the same way as unvaccinated people.

Viganò then went on to suggest that, alongside a fallen Catholic Church and the "silence" of the rest of the Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodoxy might be the only means of saving the word. "Perhaps," he wrote, "Providence has ordained that Moscow, the Third Rome, will today in the sight of the world take on the role of [katechon]" — that is, the sole force that keeps the Antichrist at bay. "If the errors of Communism were spread by the Soviet Union, even to the point of imposing themselves within the Church, Russia and Ukraine can today have an epochal role in the restoration of Christian civilization, contributing to bringing the world a period of peace from which the Church too will rise again purified and renewed in her ministers."

The act of consecration 

Pope Francis has been tentatively wading into this fray over the course of the last month, as the Vatican has sought to use its diplomatic corps to broker some sort of peace. On March 16, in a video conference with Patriarch Kirill to discuss the war in Ukraine, Francis appealed to his counterpart to avoid talk of "holy war," saying that although both churches had used such terms in the past, "today we can't talk this way." 

With his Friday prayer, Francis was trying to lead an overture of another kind. 

In the first week of the war, a group of Ukrainian Catholic bishops beseeched Francis to "publicly perform the act of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Ukraine and Russia, as requested by the Blessed Virgin in Fátima." (Although roughly two-thirds of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians of one variety or another, there is also a significant Catholic minority.) The request was a reference to a set of apocalyptic prophecies that, according to the Catholic church, were revealed to three children in the Portuguese village of Fátima when the Virgin Mary appeared before them in 1917. 

One of the "Three Secrets of Fátima," as Catholics often call them, concerned the consecration of Russia to the Virgin Mary and the country's subsequent "conversion." If that doesn't happen, according to the prophecy, "Russia's errors" would spread around the world and a second world war would break out. Since the Bolshevik Revolution had begun just months earlier, the prophecy has long been interpreted as relating to a church-led fight against communism. Among the numerous papal consecrations that have occurred in the subsequent 105 years, one prayer led by Pope John Paul II in 1984 is credited by believers with having helped lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. 

But none of the previous consecrations, at least according to some conservative Catholics, has been quite right: They employed more general language, consecrating the world or humanity rather than Russia in particular, in an effort to avoid giving the impression that a Catholic pope was trying to convert the Russian Orthodox faithful. (There are very few Catholics in Russia today, much less than 1% of the population.) As Katherine Kelaidis writes at Religion Dispatches, that perception was alive and well on the cusp of Friday's consecration, which she said risks "feed[ing] the fears of the most reactionary elements in the Orthodox world, for whom the fear of Western encroachment is very real."

Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the conservative Catholics most concerned with Fátima and the consecration are also deeply hostile to Pope Francis over what they perceive as his liberal reform agenda. (Some have even invoked conspiracy theories around the Fátima prophecies to argue that Francis isn't a genuine pope at all.) In that context, the prospect of another imperfect consecration led to a spate of pre-prayer condemnation, as Molly Olmstead reports at Slate, including warnings that "an anti-pope's 'consecration' of Russia" would lead to catastrophe, or contemptuous dismissals of the idea that "this Freemason" (that is, Francis) would go through with the consecration at all. 

When Francis announced last week that he would indeed specifically consecrate Russia and Ukraine in his prayer, and asked the world's bishops to join in, some of the pope's staunchest critics seemed momentarily confused, prompting even non-Catholic conservatives like Glenn Beck to muse about the potential that this not really "Catholic-Catholic pope" might deliver where all others before him had purportedly failed. 

What this all amounts to, of course, depends on what you believe. 

"This prayer of consecration could potentially be a moment of solidarity for Catholics and other Christians to unite across ideological divisions and pray for peace," said Mike Lewis, founder of the Catholic website Where Peter Is, which frequently covers the Catholic right. "Unfortunately — and, sadly, predictably — far-right conspiracy theorists and many radical traditionalists seem determined to ruin any attempts by the pope to bring Catholics together. No matter what Pope Francis (or any pope, for that matter) does or says, some Catholics will never accept the consecration as valid, and they will continue to blame future wars and natural disasters on the pope doing it incorrectly."

On Twitter, Catholic theologian Brett Salkeld agreed. "It seems that the strategy here," among the church's conservatives, Salkeld wrote, "is to always make it so that we can always claim that the consecration was somehow invalid, in case it 'doesn't work.'"

Francis himself said on Friday that the consecration was "not a magic formula, but a spiritual act" made "amid the tribulation of this cruel and senseless war that threatens our world."

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on religion and the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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