Tradition has it that the Holy Family had lived as refugees fleeing from Herod there, in the suburbs of what is now Cairo.
Black and white photographs exist showing a brightly luminous apparition, taken to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, on top of the church. The apparitions would begin with a ball of light gradually materialising and then taking on the form of the Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’.
The apparitions were accompanied by claims of large scale miraculous healings and spectacular conversions of Muslims and others to Christianity.
Visiting on pilgrimage, I stood on the roof of St Mary’s Coptic Church.
I asked a local how a three-quarters built cathedral came to be opposite the church?
Construction of the cathedral had begun at the behest of President Nasser, who had been completely convinced of the authenticity of the apparitions.
Donal Foley has written extensively in Marian Apparitions, the Bible and the Modern World, locating the intervention of Mary with political and cultural upheaval. He suggests that going back to Guadalupe, the impetus produced in South America by our Lady’s apparition to Juan Diego in 1539 was a response to the Protestantism in Europe that splintered the body of Christ.
In the modern world, one does not have to look far to see the apparitions as providing some divine response to the catastrophes of human friction.
The twentieth century has, of course, produced one political and military trauma after another, to say nothing of being a century of the most extensive Christian persecution.
Medjugorje is one of the more obvious examples of Marian intervention in an area torn apart by nationalistic anger and ambition as Yugoslavia crumpled and was reconfigured by war.
But Ukraine has also been at the epicentre of both political and military axes around which a series of power struggles has revolved.
It had had its own apparition on 12th May 1914, significantly two weeks before the First World War. Twenty-two people working in the fields near the Church of the Holy Trinity in the village of Hrushiv in western Ukraine witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin.
It was reported that she said, “There will be a war. Russia will become a godless country. The Ukraine, as a nation, will suffer terribly for 80 years – and will have to live through the world wars, but it will be free afterwards.”
Just as the Iron Curtain was shaking as its demise approached In 1987, there was a subsequent apparition.
The Blessed Virgin appeared to Marina Kizyn, aged 12, near the same church of Hrushiv. The apparitions continued daily until 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, which attracted an estimated 45,000 to 70,000 people each day. It was estimated that a total of about 500,000 witnessed the apparitions. Hrushiv became a sudden Marian pilgrim centre. The Virgin in Hrushiv became Our Lady of Ukraine.
One effect was to give the underground leaders of the Ukrainian Catholic Church the courage and determination to confront the authorities by emerging into the public square.
As Communism collapsed and Ukraine became independent, three large Christian churches remained: the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (formed in 1991, looking to Constantinople) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (looking to Moscow).
All three are paralysed by enmity and un-cooperation.
Their relations will either mirror the secular antipathy or, with prophetic leadership, transcend it and re-model a new future. Whatever the outcome of the Russian invasion, the churches in Ukraine are confronted by the twin evils of aggressive nationalism (from the East) and corrosive secularism (from the West.)
Although Pope Francis has made overtures to the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See, a redemptive Christian antidote to the regional hatreds has yet to emerge.
Perhaps the significance of the Marian apparitions in Ukraine reflects this impasse? It may be intended to act as a catalyst for the conversion of the human heart.
As Jesus puts it in the Gospels (Matt 15,19): “it is out of the human heart that come evil thoughts”.
The Church may not have the solution to the internecine political, economic and military rivalries of the age. But it does or should have expertise in repentance, contrition and conversion of life.
It may be that Our Lady in Ukraine is drawing the church’s attention to its real task, which is the confrontation and repudiation of evil, repentance, and the renewal of the Church.
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