Ukraine bishop: ‘As long as there are believers in Kharkiv, I will remain with them’
MGR. PAVLO HONCHARUK, BISHOP OF KHARKIV-ZAPORIZHZHYA, UKRAINE, gave an update to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the situation in Ukraine’s second largest city.
Two months after the start of the war, Russian attacks are focusing more on the east and south of Ukraine. Hence, life in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the east, is becoming increasingly dangerous. Over the past few weeks, Kharkiv’s industrial area has been subjected to bombings, leaving at least 10 people dead and 35 injured. Several residential buildings in the district and its surroundings have also been damaged or destroyed.
The bishop of Kharkiv, who is remaining in the city to care for the population, sums up the situation in two words: “shock and pain.” In an interview with ACN, he describes how awful it is to “see people, the elderly, the disabled, hiding in basements.” Every day, the bishop is exposed to terrible situations, but some leave a deeper mark than others. “I remember seeing a little girl, around five years old, standing, petrified, by the body of a loved one in the street, unable to move. A feeling of terror, fear, and complete impotence looms over everything.”
After a recent bombing of a residential area, Bishop Pavlo went to check out the damage – wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest over his cassock – and sent a video report to ACN explaining that “this used to be one of the more densely populated areas in Kharkiv. Now there is nothing but silence and destruction.” With the sound of explosions in the background, he concludes: “We pray to God to protect us, and for this all to end. We can hear the sounds of shots and of explosions constantly. This is the situation at the moment.”
In another short video the bishop shows what is left of houses destroyed by previous attacks. “This is an apartment, or rather, was. There is nothing left, everything is scorched. This used to be a bathroom, and a kitchen, and this is what is left of a refrigerator. Here is the balcony. All the trees have been destroyed”. With a sadness tinged with irony, he adds: “As they say, they aim only for military infrastructure.”
Since the beginning of the war this young Latin rite bishop, who has been leading the Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhya for two years, has focused on helping the population. He tells ACN about his daily routine: “Besides prayer and daily Mass, most days we try to reach the people in the bunkers, to deliver humanitarian aid. We load cars and drive around the city, which appears deserted, and we talk to people and console them.” From 9.00 a.m. until 4.00 p.m. he undertakes this work which is “incredibly exhausting, physically, but especially mentally, due to the constant stress.”
“Our church is damaged – all the windows broke because of the pressure during an air raid. Now we use it as a warehouse for humanitarian supplies. We pray in a small chapel. At least we are able to bury all our dead, thank goodness.”
Churches are no safe haven during air raids, unless they have a sturdy basement, says the bishop, because holy sites are no more respected than any other civilian targets. “Nothing is sacred anymore,” he explains.
Speaking of the city’s defenses, the bishop explains that the mothers and smaller children have been taken to safety, whereas the fathers and the older boys stayed behind to defend their homes and their country. Despite the bombings, Bishop Pavlo does not even consider leaving. “As long as there are believers in the city, I will remain with them. God, and my faith, give me the strength for this. We – the priests – are not armed. We are men of the Church. Our weapons are the Word of God, and prayer.”