How the Virgin Mary is mobilized for religious nationalism and military campaigns


(The Conversation) — Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, analysts analyzing Vladimir Putin’s motivations and messages about the war have turned to religion for some of the answers. by Putin nationalist vision portrays Russia as a defender of traditional Christian values ​​against a liberal, secular West.

Putin’s Russia, however, is just the latest in a centuries-old line of nations using religion to bolster their political ambitions. As a Jesuit priest and scholar of CatholicismI saw in my research on nationalism and religion how easily patriotic loyalties and religious faith borrow each other’s language, symbols and emotions.

Western Christianity, including Catholicism, has often been enlisted to stir up patriotic fervor in favor of nationalism. Historically, a typical aspect of the catholic approach binds devotion to the Virgin Mary to the interests of the state and the military.

The birth of a belief

A fragment of an Egyptian papyrus from the 4th century is the first clear proof Christians’ pray to the Virgin Mary. The brief prayer, which asks for Mary’s protection in difficult times, is written in the first person plural – using language like “our” and “we” – suggesting a belief that Mary would respond to groups of people as well as to individuals.

This conviction seemed to grow over the following centuries. After Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, the new faith developed a close relationship with its empire, including the belief that Mary looked with special favor on the capital Constantinople.

A 10th century Byzantine mosaic of Constantine the Great offering Constantinople to the Virgin Mary, at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Photo by PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Political and religious leaders asked Our Lady for victory in battle and safe from the plagues. In 626 AD, Constantinople was besieged by a Persian navy. The Christians believed that their prayers to the Virgin destroyed the invading fleet, saving the city and its inhabitants. The Akathist hymn, which has been prayed in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches ever since, gives Mary the military title of “Champion General”. in thanks for this victory.

In the Catholic West, military successes such as European victories over the Ottoman Empire were attributed to Mary’s intervention. His blessing was sought upon imperialist attemptsincluding The Spanish conquest of the Americas.

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Even today, Marie holds the title of general in the armies of Argentina and Chilewhere it is considered a national patron. The same association between Marian devotion and patriotism is found in many Latin American countries.

national symbol

Outside of the battlefield, many Catholic cultures have historically felt they have a special relationship with Mary. In 1638, King Louis XIII France officially dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Popular belief interpreted the subsequent birth of the future Louis XIV as Mary’s miraculous reward, after 23 years of waiting for a male heir.

About two decades later, Polish King Jan II Kazimierz dedicated his country to Mary in the midst of a war. Both of these acts reflected the beliefs of religious and political leaders that their countries had a sacred mission and divine approval for their political ambitions.

When these types of beliefs pervade a society, many scholars refer to them as religious nationalism – although there is a long-standing debate over when affection for one’s country becomes “nationalism.” There is, however, a broad consensus that religion is one of the elements of nationalismand many nationalist projects have invoked the blessing of Mary.

Polish territory, for example, was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria for more than a century. But Polish Catholics continued to address Mary as “Queen of Poland.” Its title affirmed the existence of the Polish people as a nation. And that implied that efforts to restore Poland as a sovereign country had heavenly help.

Similarly, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria and The Blessed Virgin were referred to in different contexts as “Queen of Ireland”, expressing two competing visions of Ireland: part of the Protestant United Kingdom or a separate and predominantly Catholic country.

An illustration of the Virgin Mary inside a gold frame hangs on the wall next to a Mexican flag.

An illustration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in San Ildefonso Cathedral in Mexico.
John Elk III / The Image Bank via Getty Images

Many different movements have used the figure of the Virgin to support their programs. In colonial Mexico, the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title for Mary, was originally interpreted as to be a champion of the “criollos”, inhabitants of Spanish origin born in the country. During the Mexican War of Independence of 1810-1821, “the Guadalupanafeatured on banners “independence” forces. The Spanish military, meanwhile, adopted the “Virgin of Los Remedios”, another title for Mary, as their own patroness. It will later be invoked in support of Indigenous and mestizo, people of indigenous and Spanish ancestry.

Mary is not only invoked by nationalist causes. Sometimes it is a source of inspiration for counter-cultural or protest movements, the pro-life cause at Latin feminists. Labor leader Cesar Chavez placed the image of Guadalupe on the banners as his organization marched for the rights of agricultural workers.

Mary’s future

All of these uses are based on the ancient belief in the power of Mary to intervene in difficult times. However, ideological, political and especially military ambitions and religious sentiment are a volatile mix. As the current war in Ukraine shows, allegiance to one’s nation, especially when it claims to be Christian in inspiration, can inspire both imperialist expansionism and heroic resistance to her.

This makes a better understanding of religious nationalism of urgent importance, especially for the church. The popes of the 20th and 21st centuries have condemned aggressive nationalism but did not define it clearly.

In largely secularized cultures, appeals for Mary’s protection or assertions that she has a special relationship with a given nation are now likely to sound archaic, extravagant, or bigoted. But what I know of both Marian devotion and national identity convinced me that old patterns often survive and reassert themselves in new times and places.

Even where the practice of Catholicism is in decline, The cultural significance of Mary stay strong. And religion continues to be a regular feature of many nationalist agendas.

Guess we haven’t seen the last of the Warrior Maiden.

(Dorian Llywelyn, President, Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The conversation

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