Leading up to the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, reflects on the example of Mary Queen of Heaven as a sign of hope for Ukrainians living in the darkness of war.
By Svitlana Dukhovych
On 15 August, for the Feast of the Assumption, a special Mass will be celebrated in the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Odessa, Ukraine.
At the end of his General Audience on 3 August, Pope Francis conveyed a special blessing on the crown intended to be placed on the icon of the Virgin Mary during the Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Odessa.
In an interview with Vatican News, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, spoke about the significance of the feast day for Ukrainians amidst the war with Russia and how Pope Francis’ call for prayer and dialogue can help provide hope.
Q: For the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas will preside over the Mass in the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Odessa, during which the icon of the Mother of God will be crowned. What is the significance of this feast day for you and for Ukrainians? Can we say that this moment will be a renewed entrustment to Mary?
As we well know, this period of the war in Ukraine is very difficult and it is painful to hear all the testimonies concerning this conflict. I just heard from a professor who lived in Mariupol: everything has been lost there.
There is great pain and suffering: the Mother of God is the one who protects us in such an eventful time. There are multiple aspects. One is what you mentioned: even though the Act of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary was made by the Holy Father together with the Bishops of the world, we renew the act of consecration of ourselves, of Ukraine, and the world; we have to renew it every day.
When we see such a dramatic situation, we have no choice but to turn to the Mother of God, our protector. In such a desperate war throughout Ukraine – and at this time especially in the regions of Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odessa – we are grateful to the Lord for life, for the gift of a new day. This pushes us every day to lead a more intense spiritual life.
So, I also follow the feast of the Assumption very intensely, because the Assumption of the Virgin Mary shows us that Heaven is what we aspire to. And even if we lose this human life, Heaven remains our great aspiration. It will be the time of union, of our union with the Mother of God and with all of Heaven. We ask the Mother of God to protect us in body and spirit.
The situation is dramatic: there are so many atrocities, tortures, and even attacks purposely made against ambulances, hospitals, and children: such atrocities that there is a human temptation to get angry and replace inner peace with hatred.
I have heard so many priests say, “Yes, we have to pray so much to not become like the aggressor, to not become equal to those who sow death, because if the victim becomes filled with hatred, he has lost in the spiritual sense.” So this prayer is also a time when we ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary so that our hearts are not filled with hatred, but with courage, patience, the spirit of martyrdom, and trust in the Lord.
Q: In a sense, the Pope is present at this moment because, at the end of the General Audience on 3 August, he blessed the crown that will be placed on the head of the icon of the Assumption in Odessa Cathedral. In this time of war, what is the significance of these gestures that bind the Successor of Peter with the local Churches?
These gestures belong to the tradition of the Church: at the most solemn moments, the Pope is asked for a special blessing and, in particular, the blessing of crowns intended for the Virgin Mary.
We know that the Holy Father repeats his closeness in prayer and his appeals to all of Christendom and the world to pray for Ukraine and for peace: his heart is with the suffering Ukrainian people.
So we know that this crown, which came from Rome after being blessed by the Holy Father, is a very concrete sign – full of empathy, given from the heart – of the Holy Father’s prayer. It is a very great sign of the union between the whole Church, ourselves, and the Holy Father. And united we are strong.
Q: Today the spotlight on the war is dimming a bit; there is a fear in some that it may be forgotten by the world. How is the humanitarian situation in the country?
In a human sense, it is understandable that the global spotlight dims a bit. Even Cardinal Zenari, Nuncio to Syria, told me something similar: the situation continues to be dramatic there, but the world is no longer talking about it.
There are displaced families here in Ukraine who tell me how difficult it is to live like that. They try to understand if it is possible to return to their homes, saying, “We are going back there.” And this is even though there are often families who have been sleeping in their cars for months. They don’t want to go abroad and they always hope they can go back home.
It is wearisome to live without enough food, without work, without a home, spending nights in cars, because even despite so many humanitarian initiatives and so much aid, you can’t help everyone, because the numbers are high and the task is very big. So there is this problem of feeling alone while living in difficult conditions.
That’s why the Holy Father on every occasion repeats that, at least in heartful prayer, the world should not forget the countless families who are going through such difficult times. And this not only concerns Ukraine but also other countries.
Even many journalists tell me that those who are not on the ground find it difficult to understand what the reality of the situation is. And I want to express my appreciation to the many journalists who go into very risky places, like Mykolaiv, Odessa, Zaporizhia, to see with their own eyes what life is like there.
Q: In a certain way, Pope Francis will accompany this crown to Odessa, from where the first ships with grain left. At the Angelus on 7 August, he said that “such an event also presents itself as a sign of hope” and hoped that, “following this path, we can put an end to the fighting and arrive at a just and lasting peace.”
The Holy Father is not a politician; he is a pastor. When the Holy Father invites us to believe in the possibility of dialogue despite the fact that here in Ukraine we understand a real negotiation is very difficult to anticipate – precisely because the situation is so intense and human logic tells us that in the face of such a fierce war it is difficult to foresee that those who started the war, Russia, can change their position when the Pope repeats his call for dialogue, something that for us seems humanly impossible. If we are people of faith, we also hope for the impossible and entrust this call, this prayer, not only to men but to God Himself.
As for the grain ships that left, again we see that it was a very laborious step because Ukraine could not sign any direct agreement with Russia. Agreements were signed at various levels between Ukraine and some partners, who in turn indirectly facilitated contacts with Russia so that grain exports could be arranged. So this step was achieved in a very laborious way, but as the Pope said it is something positive both globally and locally.
So it is a sign of hope. We also cling to the small steps. Sometimes when we cannot, such as now, find immediate glimmers of hope to stop the war, we focus on the humanitarian aspects to open a gap in contact.
It is important to do everything possible, what is within human forces, so that an atmosphere, if not of dialogue, at least of contact, is established. So I think this is the most important message of the Holy Father.