Ukraine is a country in the crosshairs: in the eastern part of the country, the conflict with Russia escalated into war, a war that is still costing the lives of people today.
The international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been helping the Christians in Ukraine for more than five decades. Tobias Lehner, head of public relations at ACN Germany, talks about old wounds and new challenges after returning from travelling through the country.
ACN: A good four years ago, the attention of the entire world was on the Ukraine. Today, little is being said about the country. Is the silence deceptive?
Tobias Lehner: Absolutely. Ukraine is a country at war. Its presence can be felt in everything the people are saying – even if they are living in comparative safety and peace. Despite two armistice agreements, day after day, shots ring out in the Donbass region. The number of casualties has grown to more than 10 000. I met a priest who frequently travels to the war zone to help the people. He told me that on the very day we were talking, a relief convoy of a fellow monk came under fire and had been completely burned out – thankfully, the priest and the volunteers had gotten out right before it happened and were safe. I met a woman in Kharkiv near the Russian border. She and her husband and two small children had left the war zone in headlong flight just one week before. The only things they took with them were the clothes they were wearing. Now they are being taken care of at a centre run by the diocese. Encounters such as these really get under your skin.
The Crimean Peninsula also continues to be a hotspot. It was annexed by Russia in March 2014. What were you able to find out about the situation there?
The auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Odessa-Simferopol, Jacek Pyl, who is responsible for the Catholic minority in the Crimean, described the situation as ambivalent. On the one hand, the people are living in peace there, even if that peace is fragile. The Church is more or less able to carry out its work. On the other hand, for many people in Crimea, the humanitarian situation is extremely tense. The price of food has risen dramatically. Especially families with children and old people can no longer afford the most basic necessities. The diocese is helping by distributing food packages and is being supported in this by ACN. The Church accepts the situation as it is and tries to be there for the people irrespective of politics.
Relations between the Christian denominations in the country are complex. What is happening in terms of ecumenism?
The situation is in fact very confusing for a Western European. There are essentially three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and two different Catholic Churches: the Roman Catholic Church, which is the one we are familiar with, and the Greek Catholic Church. This Church celebrates the liturgy and rites of the Eastern Church, but is in full communion with the Holy See. Due to historical and political influences, relations between the Churches are still somewhat strained. However, there are signs that they are finding a way to work with one another. For example, a large “March for Life” was held in Kiev in early June, which was organised by the Roman Catholic bishop of Kiev. Christians of all denominations and also representatives of the Muslim community took to the streets to protest gender ideology and support the right to life and protection of the family. About 10 000 people came together! These are the kind of signals that are urgently needed by Ukrainian society as a whole.
What do you mean by this?
Not only corruption and war, but also poverty and drugs are threatening to tear Ukraine apart. The Church is fighting against this with all the means available to it. I visited a mother and child centre near Kharkiv that is run by religious sisters. Pregnant women, many of them from difficult circumstances who are often addicted to drugs, find shelter there. One woman, only 18 years old and mother of two, admitted, “I would have gotten an abortion if it had not been for the sisters. The streets would have been my downfall.” In Ukraine, I was able to experience what is truly meant by Catholic, i.e. “all-encompassing”, aid. Helping without discriminating between people and religions. That is what sets the Church apart from the sects that are becoming ever more popular in Ukraine. The bishop of Kiev, Vitaliy Krivitskiy, said to me, “The Church is the only institution the people still trust.”
Ukraine was ruled by the communists for almost three quarters of a century. The Church suffered from what was in part bloody persecution. What is Church life like now?
I was impressed to see just how vibrant the Catholic Church in Ukraine is – and that even though its members are a minority of about five million people. Most Ukrainians are Russian Orthodox. Holy Mass is well attended, many young people and children come. Church media and communications play an important role in spreading the faith and this is supported by ACN. There are also a lot of vocations. For example, one of the world’s largest seminaries is located in Lviv. The seminary is part of the Greek Catholic archeparchy and has 202 seminarians and 40 first-year candidates! It is a joy to see churches being rebuilt that had once been taken away, closed monasteries and convents being brought back to life. However, at the same time, the scars from persecution are still visible everywhere: reminders of the martyrs of the Communist era, Church buildings that still have not been returned, the precarious situation of many clerics and believers. A priest in Odessa said to me, “I prefer to save the money for my cancer treatments so that I can build a chapel for the congregation in my village.” I encountered this kind of hands-on dedication everywhere I went in the Ukraine.
And so a lot of different kinds of help are still needed …
The founder of ACN, Father Werenfried van Straaten, began sending aid to Ukraine 55 years ago. At the seminary in Lviv as well as in other places, people said to us, “We would not have been able to survive without the help of Aid to the Church in Need.” And this is still the case today. The Church in Ukraine may no longer be persecuted today, but it is suffering. This is true both in respect to the material as well as the spiritual need of the people, people who are living in the most basic of conditions and who are becoming more and more convinced that they no longer have a future in their homeland. The country is on the verge of being completely drained. For this reason, Ukraine is still fourth on the list of more than 140 countries that are supported by ACN. And the bountiful fruits of this work are palpable everywhere.