Former actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, has the spotlight of the world stage shining upon him but in an incredibly serious role of life and death for millions of people as he also sets the course for future international relationships. Born into a Jewish family in a primarily Christian country, he is, on many fronts, not a typical head-of-state. After the Olympic torch was extinguished last month and as the season of penance commenced in churches with the mark of ashes, his country was invaded by Russia’s Putin wielding barbaric criminal attacks. Unlike leaders that seek safety first, President Zelensky heroically put on the armor of bravery and compassion. After speaking to the British Parliament last week, he was dubbed as Churchill in a T-shirt. Speaking to our United States Congress this week, he made clear his empathy with human suffering wherever it occurs and believes that people of power and goodwill can stand together to stamp out evil and bring peace through our responses.
Like some of you, I grew up in a family that prayed the rosary for the conversion of Russia, which was described to us then as a godless society. After dinner, my mother corralled as many kids as she could to kneel in our living room and offer the beaded prayer of mysteries for this immense petition. Our ritual was related to apparitions of Blessed Mother Mary to children in Fatima, Portugal, where, in 1917, as social and political revolution was overtaking Russia, she allegedly instructed three young seers to urge the world to consecrate that nation to her immaculate heart. Popes for the past 100 years have led prayers for that consecration and we, the people, have joined our private and communal prayers in hope of appeasing her and, as children often do, we sought to please and restore her happiness.
Like many Catholics, I am currently praying a novena for peace in Ukraine. I don’t know how my little part plays into the bigger drama, but I sincerely believe it is important to do so. There are other things that I can also do: contribute charitably to victims of unjust aggression, urge political leaders to stand together against evil leadership and war crimes, display signs of solidarity for oppressed people, promote alliances of peace… What Zelensky is essentially asking the world is: “What are you doing to stop this atrocity?” What we do may not seem like much, but something is better than nothing. Scripture tells us that all revelation is private, and our church teaches that we are not bound to believe things like Fatima’s story of faith. I find it hard to comprehend that Mother Mary is efficaciously involved in promoting her preferred politics or that she commands a blue army of prayer warriors to imitate military tactics. But I do think that we each have a role to play in world affairs (even exorcizing demons) because these are affairs of the heart and, from creation’s beginning, good and evil have wrestled for dominance. And we are commissioned to advance the good.
Lent is a preparatory time in which we face demons and embrace goodness. As we pray for the people of Ukraine and Russia, let’s accept the possibility that we have a small role to play in what happens halfway around the world. Our deepened understanding will help us to better latch onto our Lent and better direct our lives.