Priests in Ukraine: ‘We don’t have time to be frightened’

ONE DAY AFTER THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR, a mixture of uncertainty and fear reigns in Ukraine, reports Magda Kaczmarek, project manager for Ukraine with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In this capacity she is in constant contact with project partners on the ground from both rites of the Catholic Church—the Roman Catholic and the Greek Catholic rite.

“The leading bishops of the country have made an appeal not to leave the country. That is a difficult decision, above all for priests of the Greek Catholic Church, many of whom are married. They are afraid not so much for their own lives as for the safety of their children and families,” said Kaczmarek. Project partners from Kiev and many other towns across the country have reported shooting and explosions. Many have spent the night in rectories and bunkers, said Kaczmarek.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said earlier this week that he was sending “14 more” priests to the Russia-controlled Donbas region, underscoring that they have all their parishes functioning since the first invasion, even in Russia-controlled Crimea.

Pauline priest Roman Laba, from Bowary, a suburb of the capital Kiev, said in a video message to ACN that a rocket attack on the city at five o’clock on Thursday morning killed seven people and wounded 17. The city has experienced a total of seven rocket attacks, prompting many people to leave for the west of the country.

“The first panic is over for now. Many people came to the parish looking for help and shelter, and so we have set up emergency accommodation in the basement of our monastery and in the unfinished monastery church. At the moment, we have around 80 people with us, including members of the parish and people from surrounding buildings,” said the priest. “Please pray for Ukraine,” ended the message.

From a village near Mariupol, in south-east Ukraine, Brother Vasyl informed ACN: “We don’t have time to be frightened. We are staying and helping the people to survive this situation.” Mariupol, an important port, lies only 40 miles from the Russian border and very close to the areas under separatist control, and is therefore also under heavy fire.

Ukrainian sister helps the poor

The threats and fear of further escalation grow from hour to hour. That also has an effect on people’s attitudes, reported the priest. “Some people have come to us to make their confession for the first time in their life. Older and sick people are asking us to go to them and hear their confession. They want to be ready for death if it should come to that.”

Besides spiritual accompaniment, he is, with the help of lay people, currently occupied in evacuating children from destitute families and bringing them to the safety of the countryside in central Ukraine. “The children are all traumatized because there has been shooting in the area here. We calm them down and say that they need a break,” reported Brother Vasyl.

ACN is also in contact with Bishop Jan Sobilo, of Saporischschja, which is likewise in eastern Ukraine. Bishop Sobilo is originally from Poland but rejects any suggestion of getting to safety. “I came here to serve the people,” he said, expressing his hope by saying “this terrible time of war must also turn itself into a blessing, so that goodness and love win.” However, he does not rule out a bombardment of his city and continues to hope for help from ACN: “The organization always stands with us. If the worst comes to the worst, please keep helping us.”

In reaction to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Aid to the Church in Need is sending an aid package of one million dollars. According to a statement from the executive president of ACN, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, this aid package is earmarked for priests and religious who are working across the country in parishes, with refugees, in orphanages and in homes for elderly people.

—Mario Lozano & Tobias Lehner