This Friday is April Fools’ Day. As the fighting in Ukraine continues I am reminded of the sort of human foolishness which surprises everyone in the moment, but then makes sense as events unfold. In 2019 in the presidential elections in Ukraine, the people voted in Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor with no previous experience of politics, but who had been the star of a TV comedy where the main character is voted in as president with no previous experience of politics! As the Russian aggression has unfolded in Ukraine the stark contrast between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr has become apparent, one a despotic warmonger determined to devastate a neighbouring nation, the other a former actor who has found in adversity the qualities which I’m sure we would hope are at the core of every politician. If clothes make the man then Zelensky’s choice of a simple green t-shirt is a powerful statement of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. With the benefit of hindsight we can look back on President Zelensky’s election and see now that it makes sense in a way that no one surely imagined just three years ago. In adversity Volodymyr has found depths of integrity, humanity, and courage which may even surprise him. He has become in fact a ‘Servant of the People’ (the title of his TV show). Ironically the Black Sea port of Odessa, in Ukraine, is the only place in the world where April Fools’ Day is a public holiday. Odessa would normally be hosting the Humorina Carnival this weekend, a vibrant, fun event with street theatre, music, clowns, and fancy dress. But there will be no carnival this year: as I write the city still faces the prospect of a Russian invasion from the sea, although the population are doggedly continuing with their everyday lives. There is dark humour abroad in Ukraine at the moment but it reflects desperate times, many lives have already been lost and the prospect of a ceasefire seems no closer. The people of Ukraine need our support and there is a certain black humour in the way that the British government seems determined to make it more difficult for the people of Britain to help their fellow human beings in Ukraine. Our instinct is to stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As Archbishop John so beautifully expressed it “I am British by birth: but like so many people across the globe I have become Ukrainian in spirit. We are one with you. We are one with you in faith, one with you in prayer, one with you in grief, and one with you in hope”.
April Fools’ Day is also the perfect time to reflect on the nature of our faith, which turns ‘common sense’ upside down. As St Paul put it: “Has God not turned human wisdom to folly?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). We believe that the omnipotent creator of the universe became man, lived among us, was crucified, buried in a tomb and rose again before ascending into heaven. What folly! No wonder that St Thomas refused to believe without seeing the mark of the nails and placing his hand in Jesus’ side (John 20:25). Nothing about Christianity makes sense by the normal measure of our human world and yet… by making a virtue of powerlessness God “fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation” (Preface 3 for Sunday in Ordinary Time). In fact our God is the Servant King (a Servant of the People), another contradiction in terms, perhaps this idea is so familiar that we don’t question it. We take the ‘foolishness’ of our faith for granted because it is ‘hard wired’ into us. When we speak to others about our faith we need to remember just how challenging it can be. To return to Ukraine for a moment it must seem rational to Vladimir Putin that the superpower of Eastern Europe can seize the land that it desires without consequences. This is a battle of almost biblical qualities, truly David vs Goliath, normally the strong dominate the weak, this is the way of the world. But Ukraine has not fallen, yet, only God knows what will happen. The loss of life is a stain on Europe and there are serious ethical issues around the human cost of the fight for freedom which Fr Ashley has written about here.
The continuing defiance of Ukraine against all odds is as topsy turvy as the idea of God made man. Our instinct is to applaud that defiance no matter what the cost, but to do so is to deny the prudence which Catholic Social Doctrine insists that we apply to decisions made in the real world. Last Friday Pope Francis consecrated Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady. In this act of prayer the Catholic Church joined in solidarity with the victims of this war to pray for peace. It is important to remember that the Russian people are victims of this conflict too.
We have perhaps taken peace for granted, war in Europe was after all supposed to have been ended forever, but our prayers are needed now more than ever. War is truly folly and there are no victors.