ROME — Pope Francis said only God can eliminate the evil of “the vicious war” against Ukraine during a ceremony where he consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“In these days, news reports and scenes of death continue to enter our homes, even as bombs are destroying the homes of many of our defenseless Ukrainian brothers and sisters,” the pope said Friday. “The vicious war that has overtaken so many people, and caused suffering to all, has made each of us fearful and anxious. We sense our helplessness and our inadequacy.”

Yet, at a time when the world needs to be told “do not be afraid,” much like the Angel of God told Mary, he said, “human reassurance is not enough.”

“We need the closeness of God and the certainty of his forgiveness, which alone eliminates evil, disarms resentment and restores peace to our hearts,” Francis said. 

RELATED: Pope will consecrate humanity, ‘especially Russia and Ukraine,’ to Mary, text says

Pope Francis’s remarks came as he led a penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday, which is the Solemnity of the Annunciation. The event was also the occasion chosen by him to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Security was on high alert before the celebration, with extensive  security checks made on attendees well before people entered St. Peter’s Square.

The consecration itself came near the end of the “24 Hours for the Lord” Lenten penitential service held in St. Peter’s Basilica, an annual event to encourage people to go to confession.

“Dear sister, dear brother, if your sins frighten you, if your past worries you, if your wounds do not heal, if your constant failings dishearten you and you seem to have lost hope, do not be afraid,” Francis said early in his homily. “God knows your weaknesses and is greater than your mistakes.”

Referring to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Francis said that today is a day in which the world knocks on the door of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to “renew to her the consecration of the Church and the whole of humanity, and to consecrate to her in a particular way the Ukrainian people and the Russian people who, with filial affection, venerate her as a Mother.”

The pope also pointed out that the consecration is not a “magic formula” but a “spiritual act,” of complete trust from children who, “amid the tribulation of this cruel and senseless war that threatens our world, turn to their Mother, reposing all their fears and pain in her heart and abandoning themselves to her.”

The Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by a reigning pope was allegedly requested by Our Lady of Fátima in July 1917. Though it is not mandatory for Catholics to accept it as truth – Marian apparitions are not a part of the Deposit of Faith – the Vatican has widely acknowledged that Christ’s mother appeared to three young shepherds in a small city in Portugal.

Sister Lúcia dos Santos, one of the three visionaries, publicly stated many times that the consecration of Russia as a nation would lead to a period of world peace. 

Consecrations in Ukraine

The bombings and shellings in Ukraine did not keep Ukrainian Catholics in Kyiv, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities from joining in the consecration.

Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, papal representative in Ukraine, said that bishops, priests, religious, and faithful were preparing to live this act of consecration, and he had no doubt that every diocese would join, as long as the situation permitted it.

RELATED: Vatican’s man in Ukraine saying Mass in kitchen to avoid shelling

In Kyiv, the consecration took place in the Latin Cathedral, and afterwards, the local bishops, including the nuncio, repeated the gesture, underground, at the same time with the pope in Rome.

Speaking ahead of the event, Kulbokas said that during the prayer he would be thinking of the “people who die and are wounded, including children. Of the people who die of hunger, cold and even thirst. Their prayer is even greater and more important than ours.”

“Our role as shepherds is then to unite spiritually all the suffering of humanity, represented first of all by children and the weakest, and to offer it very humbly to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our Mother, and to ask for her intercession so that our heart and the heart of all humanity may be converted and that we may become truly human, truly brothers to all. May the Lord grant us peace,” he said.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church, referred to the consecration in his daily video filmed in Ukraine.

“You can never compromise with evil and indifference to this issue; [indifference] to the need to distinguish good from evil kills,” he said. “And we see it in our homeland. Therefore, the war in Ukraine has a spiritual dimension.”

He said the whole world would turn its attention to Ukraine and Russia, as both countries would be dedicated to Mary by the bishops of the world, in tandem with the pope.

“What does it mean?” he asked. “This means that it is never possible to reach an agreement, to cooperate with the evil that is now coming out of Russia. And that is why we must pray for her [Russia’s] conversion, for the eradication of that evil, so that, as the Theotokos of Fatima said, it does not destroy other states, does not become the cause of another world war. As Christians, we have a duty to pray for our enemies.”

Consecrations around the world

Following a request from Pope Francis, who sent a letter to all the papal representatives around the world to be distributed among each country’s bishops, hundreds of dioceses joined in the consecration.

Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the pope’s charitable point man who was sent as a  special papal envoy to Ukraine earlier this month, participated in the consecration in Fatima.

Bishop Hlib Lonchyna, apostolic administrator of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic eparchy of St. Volodymyr the Great in Paris, said the consecration was “very important,” because “by praying for Russia we pray for its conversion, as Our Lady asked at Fatima.”

Friday’s prayer, he said, would be one asking for Russia to “stop with the lies it is spreading among its people and the world.” The world also prayed for a conversion of the heart of all Ukrainians because “in order to have peace one must convert oneself first. We also pray for peace in Ukraine that God will give the strength to fight this evil that is happening. Because it is truly a battle of good against evil.”

The prelate chose to perform the consecration in Lourdes because it was where the Virgin revealed herself as immaculate. He also said that, beyond the significance of the gesture of consecrating Russia and Ukraine on Friday, “prayer will continue until there is peace; prayer is stronger than nuclear weapons. And we will not stop until there is the victory of God over Satan, through the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

The Italian bishops were gathered at two of the country’s major Marian shrines: Loreto and Pompei – though many celebrated the consecration from their diocesan cathedrals. 

In the United States, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington said Mass in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with members of the diplomatic corps in attendance. 

In Knayeh, a Christian village in the province of Idlib, Syria, people gathered to join in the consecration, despite their region being under control of the jihadists of Tahrir al-Sham, who oppose the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. 

Similarly, the 120 faithful of the Catholic community in the Gaza Strip, an area of tension between Israel and Palestine, met in the parish of the Holy Family to celebrate the Way of the Cross and Mass, during which they recited the Act of Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary sent by Pope Francis.

In Russia, both Catholics and Orthodox prayed to Mary on Friday, the latter at the request of Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who asked the faithful to do so a day after the Vatican announced Pope Francis’s request.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma