Catholics have been called upon to pray for Ukraine this Ash Wednesday. Along with Ukrainian Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics should pray for the intercession of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos over the beleaguered country.
Most Ukrainians in the post-Soviet period are not religious. But in the Ukrainian Christian minority, there is a split between Catholics and Orthodox. Historically these are the respective cultural spheres of Jagiellonian Poland and tsarist Russia. In the present crisis, Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government threatened the legal status of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As the specter of Russian invasion looms, the young Metropolitan of Kiev has called upon Ukrainian Catholics to be prepared to die for their country to defend against the Russian incursion.
Russians have reason to see Ukrainian Catholicism as a “foreign imposition”. Russia traces its sacred history back to the 9th century Kievan Rus’. Their first chieftain, Rurik — did we see him in the opening ceremonies at Sochi 2014? — built his capital a long way down the Dnieper, at Kiev. The Kievan Rus’ was split apart by the Mongols, and its western lands came under the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The princes of Moscow finally threw off the Mongol Yoke at the Great Stand at the Ugra River in 1480, but as of 2014 they have yet to stamp out the Polish-Lithuanian Catholic influence in Kiev.
Ukraine moved from Poland’s sphere of influence and into Russia’s during the 17th century. Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a Cossack hetman, led Ukraine in an uprising against Poles and into an alliance with Russia. He is simultaneously a Ukrainian national hero, the architect of Ukraine’s occasional status as a Russian client state, and a controversial touchstone for all sorts of political issues.
The Holy Mother casting her protecting veil over the “father of Ukraine”, Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
The Intercession of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos commemorates a much earlier event. The story in the Primary Chronicle — whose origins are murky and versions are many — goes that a formidable army of pagan Rus’ was threatening to sack Constantinople. The Byzantine people prayed to Mary the Theotokos, who appeared to St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ and wrapped her Pokrov or Skepê — her shroud — around the church and people for protection.
Strangely, the popular feast of Pokrov or Pokrova puts Slavic Christians in the bizarre position of thanking the Blessed Virgin Mary for the defeat of their forebears.
Sometimes the veil of protection means lifting the veil of war. The pagan Rus’ knew not what they threatened to do, sacking the great Orthodox shrines of Constantinople. Centuries later, Russian Christians would find this very fortunate when they began to regard themselves as heirs to Constantinople and anointed protectors of Orthodoxy.
Christians should pray once again for the intercession of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos to protect Ukrainians from bloodshed. Ukraine needs the Pokrova, it would seem, from another cabal of pagan Russians bent upon war and a tragic mistake.