This week I attended a Northeast Philadelphia parish’s rosary for the people of Ukraine – a timely gathering, as that nation marked its Day of Statehood July 28 amid a savage Russian invasion now entering its sixth month.
Standing before an outdoor statue of Our Lady of Fatima, the parishioners prayed in both English and Spanish, closing each decade of the rosary with a sung refrain of “Ave Maria” and adding spontaneous petitions for Ukraine at the conclusion of the final mystery.
Most likely, few if any of them actually knew a single person from Ukraine, or even a descendant of Ukrainian heritage, yet the fervor of their intercession was no less intense: their hearts were moved by the horrific suffering and death of others at the hands of Russia’s cruel, despotic regime.
Afterwards, the group posed for a photo before the parish’s Fatima shrine, waving Ukrainian flags and holding a sign that simply said “Pray for Ukraine.”
I posted the image on Twitter with a short description of the event, and moments later received a reaction.
“That’ll help,” sneered a self-described atheist from New York.
To the untrained eye, of course, two dozen parishioners offering a rosary for 44 million people under attack by a nuclear-armed authoritarian state – one with no regard whatsoever for either human rights or international law – seems woefully naïve.
But for those who see with the spirit, the choice of weapon – a circle of beads marking simple yet profound prayers – is obvious.
St. John Paul II, who knew the evils of communism and totalitarianism firsthand, reminds us that “the rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. … It has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety. … Through the rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1).
The rosary is “an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her womb,” wrote St. John Paul II (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1).
Indeed, Mary proclaimed in her exquisite Magnificat that the Lord who had done great things for her “has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart” and “thrown down rulers from their thrones” while “(lifting) up the lowly” (Lk 1:51, 52). Any nation under attack would certainly appeal to so powerful an ally; how much more so Ukraine, which has been consecrated to Mary since 1037.
In contemplating the Lord’s saving works, which “(culminate) in Christ himself,” we are actually recalling them “in the biblical sense of remembrance (zakar),” which is “a making present of the works brought about by God in the history of salvation,” wrote St. John Paul II (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 13). “These events not only belong to ‘yesterday’; they are also part of the ‘today’ of salvation.”
The Mass is the fullest occasion for this making present, and the rosary, “by immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life … ensures that what he has done and what the liturgy makes present is profoundly assimilated and shapes our existence,” said St. John Paul II. “To ‘remember’ (these events) in a spirit of faith and love is to be open to the grace which Christ won for us by the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 13).
From the earliest days of the Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine – which continues assaults launched in 2014, with the attempted annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk – the war has been likened to a David-vs.-Goliath contest.
But outmatched though he appeared to be, David knew the justice of his cause, and he also knew for Whom he fought: “The battle belongs to the Lord, who shall deliver you into our hands” (1 Sam 17:47).
David demonstrated that fact with the help of “five smooth stones from the wadi,” which he loaded into his shepherd’s bag for use in his slingshot (1 Sam 17:40).
With its five decades, one for each individual mystery in a given set, the rosary is like those five smooth stones, toppling strongholds and obstacles to anyone and anything threatening God’s plans for salvation and peace.
Whether we fight an enemy within or without, we can be assured that “we do not battle according to the flesh,” and that “the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses” (2 Cor 10:3,4).
As Ukraine continues to defend its people from Russia’s genocidal assaults, the Maid of Nazareth stands ready to arm us with her rosary, and the assurance our prayers shall be answered by the Lord of all.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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