As the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine completes its first year, two major figures in the country’s Catholic Church speak about how the war has affected the country and the Church, and their hopes for a post-war Ukraine.
The Catholic Church in Ukraine wants to help the population overcome the traumas that have been caused by almost nine years of war in the east, and one year of full-scale invasion and attacks on the nation as a whole.
Speaking at an online conference organised by pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, explained his dream of forming priests to recognise and deal with psychological and physical problems.
“From the Church people expected food, clothes, but also a word of hope. Pastoral care for the people is our number one mission, especially healing the wounds of the people. Almost 80% of Ukrainians need some help to overcome their traumas, psychological, physical, and others. Our task as a Church is to help heal the wounds of our nation”, the major archbishop said.
Of course, in a normal situation, these issues could be left to other professionals, but there is a historical reason why this is not easy in Ukraine. “Ukrainian people are afraid to look for psychological help, because in the Soviet Union psychology was used as a tool of repression by the state. When people have a problem, they go to a priest first. We need to prepare the priests for this kind of spiritual counselling. This is a first step towards any other clinical or psychological help.”
In the past year of the war the Church would send victims overseas for expert counselling and rehabilitation, but the needs are so great at the moment that it is necessary to obtain the necessary means to do so at home, preferably with one specialised centre in each diocese. On hearing this, ACN executive president Thomas Heine-Geldern said that the foundation is willing to discuss this matter further, and possibly adopt it as a joint project.
Catholic priests arrested or expelled
Also present at the conference, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, mentioned some of his main concerns regarding the regions occupied by Russia, or close to the front. “My preoccupation is with the people who live near the frontline, and are constantly under shelling. My friends told us that when they visited the front regions, they found our Catholic priests there more depressed, more tired.”
During the Conference, it has been pointed-out that there are regions with no priests at all. There are three big areas without any Catholic priests: occupied Donetsk, occupied Luhansk, and parts of Zaporizhzhia region that are also under occupation. This is an area larger than Croatia, without a single Catholic priest working, because they were arrested, expelled, or cannot continue to work.
Two priests, Fr Ivan Levytsky and Fr Bohdan Heleta, were arrested by Russian forces on 16 November and stand charged with leading resistance in the occupied city of Berdyansk. Despite constant efforts, the Church has not been able to secure their release, and there are fears that they are being tortured, says Major Archbishop Shevchuk.
“We haven’t had any official information about our priests, or anybody in the Russian prisons. We only have information from people who were in the cells with them and who were released, and they are telling us how and where they are. That is how we can at least be sure that they are still alive and continue to make efforts to rescue them.”
With no chance of direct communication with Russian authorities, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – the largest Catholic church in the country, and the third largest Christian denomination, after the two Orthodox churches – explains that diplomacy is the safest bet, and that Pope Francis has been a key player. “We are very grateful to all diplomats in Ukraine, but specifically to Pope Francis, for the mediation in order to rescue war prisoners and hostages. It is not an easy task.”
Every time he visits a parish, explains the Major Archbishop, he collects information on family members of local residents who are being held as prisoners of war. The Church sends a list of names to the Vatican, and Pope Francis makes sure it is delivered to the Russian embassy. Many have already been released this way.
“Ukrainians often criticise anybody who has a relationship with Russia, but we are so grateful to Pope Francis and to the Holy See for being in contact with the Russian side, because without that we would not be able to rescue anybody”, says Shevchuk.
Millions displaced and without electricity
The Church continues, meanwhile, to help as many people as it can with material aid, much of it provided by ACN, which in the first year since the full-scale invasion has helped fund over 200 projects with more than 9.5 million euros, directly benefiting over 15 thousand people.
Besides the seven million people who fled the country, there are around eight million internally displaced. Winter is being particularly hard, Major Archbishop Shevchuk explains. “At the beginning people went to the west of the country, but the poorest of the poor are not able to do so, they look for the nearest safe city in which to stay.”
Even those who have been able to return to their homes, often find difficulties. “Almost half of the occupied territory has been liberated, but we have found destroyed cities and inexistant infrastructure. Many people are returning, but they have no electricity, or anything to survive. Russia is methodically destroying critical infrastructure, 50% of the electricity grid is destroyed.”
In this context, explains Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the help provided to those in need, including that given by ACN, is particularly appreciated. “During a war like this, everything ACN, benefactors and journalists do is very important both from a material and a spiritual point of view. It means closeness, empathy and love. This is prayer through deeds.”
“We feel your presence, your closeness. Your prayers are producing miracles. Every week I hear stories about miracles in difficult areas. Prayer and charity work is very precious”, says the Nuncio.
Miracles are exactly what Major Archbishop Shevchuk is hoping for. As the conference drew to an end, he expressed his hope that this could be the year the war ends. “Is it realistic? Maybe not, but miracles happen.”