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Pope Francis presided over a special prayer for Ukraine on Friday that recalled a century-old doomsday prophecy about peace and Russia that was sparked by alleged visions of the Virgin Mary to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

Francis invited bishops, priests and ordinary faithful from all over the world to join him in the prayer of consecration, which opened on Friday with the entry of Francis into St. Peter’s Basilica before about 3,500 people, including cardinals, ambassadors and pilgrims.

To underline its universal character, the Vatican has translated the text of the prayer into three dozen languages. Retired Pope Benedict XVI was taking part, and an envoy from Francis was celebrating a concurrent service at the Shrine of Fatima itself.

The ritual is of deep spiritual significance to many Catholics and a source of fascination for others. It deals with some of the most controversial aspects of the Catholic faith: the alleged visions of the Madonna, the prophecies of hell, Soviet communism and the death of a pope, and whether the prophecies contained in the so-called ” secrets of Fatima” have already been fulfilled or not.

The service was Francis’ latest effort to rally prayers for an end to the war while keeping options open for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and its influential leader, Patriarch Kirill. Francis has yet to publicly condemn Russia by name for its invasion, although his denunciations are increasingly outraged.

The story of Fatima dates back to 1917 when, according to tradition, Portuguese siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia said that the Virgin Mary appeared to them six times and entrusted them with three secrets. The first two depicted an apocalyptic picture of hell, predicted the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism. The children were then between 7 and 10 years old.

In 2000, the Vatican revealed the long-awaited third secret, describing it as announcing the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt on Saint John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.

According to later writings by Lucia, who became a nun and died in 2005, Russia would be converted and peace would reign if the pope and all the bishops of the world consecrated Russia to the “Immaculate Heart of Mary”. Lucia later claimed that John Paul fulfilled this prophecy during a Mass on March 25, 1984, exactly 38 years ago on Friday, although he never specified Russia in the prayer.

The text of Francis’ Friday prayer seems to correct this 1984 omission, saying: “Therefore, Mother of God and our Mother, we entrust ourselves and solemnly consecrate ourselves to your Immaculate Heart, together with the Church and the whole humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine”. He adds: “Make war cease and peace spread throughout the world.

For some traditionalist Catholics, Francis’ pronunciation of Russia in prayer, along with his invitation to all the bishops of the world to join him, finally fulfills the original prophecy of Fatima. Some argue that he added to Ukraine, while others point to the fact that the initial call for the “conversion” of Russia – presumably to Catholicism – may well have been a priority for the Catholic Church in 1917, but is not central to Vatican evangelization. project now.

Shortly after Francis announced his intention to hold the consecration prayer, Patriarch Cyril announced that he too was inviting the Russian Orthodox to address their prayers to the Mother of God. Kirill called for peace, but he also apparently justified the invasion by invoking Russia and Ukraine as “one people” and describing the conflict as a “metaphysical” battle.

The Reverend Stefano Caprio, a former Catholic missionary in Russia and a professor of Russian history and culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, said Kirill was not the most hawkish of Russian patriarchs and was likely under pressure to toe the official Kremlin line. But in comments to reporters this week, Caprio noted that the Catholic and Orthodox prayers offered Friday carry significant ambiguities.

“The problem is that these are two different interpretations: the Madonna who promotes peace and the Madonna who supports war,” he said.