WASHINGTON — As Ukraine faces the one-year anniversary Feb. 24 of the full-scale invasion of its country by Russian forces, Catholic Church leaders and providers of humanitarian relief there say the conflict has taken its toll but has not defeated the Ukrainian people.
“It is a miracle that we’re still alive,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
But he was quick to add that those who remain in the war-torn nation are on shaky ground facing an uncertain future and are burdened by the trauma they have endured since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began in 2014.
The United Nations’ human rights office said Feb. 13 that there have been more than 7,000 civilian deaths, and 11,756 Ukrainians have been wounded since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, primarily from shelling and missile and air strikes.
“Generally speaking, the situation is deteriorating, especially from the humanitarian point of view,” the archbishop told reporters in a Feb. 8 Zoom call coordinated by Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral aid organization whose national headquarters is in Brooklyn.
The archbishop said almost 15 million Ukrainians have left their homes since the Russian invasion, and more than 7 million of them left the country seeking refuge, primarily in Europe.
In recent months, since Ukraine’s Armed Forces have liberated territories that had been occupied by Russian troops, Archbishop Shevchuk said many Ukrainians have begun returning to their homes, but only to have no heat or electricity.
“Of course, we can mitigate with generators,” he said, but added that there are not enough to help everyone.
For the past year, he said the Catholic Church in Ukraine has not only provided food and clothing but also words of hope to the people there who “struggle to find some reason in the senseless situations.”
Archbishop Shevchuk said the Church has emphasized this hope to help people “find an inner strength and resilience to survive,” but now its top priority is to provide pastoral assistance to heal the wounds caused by the war.
As he sees it, “almost 80% of the people in Ukraine need rehabilitation and help to overcome their trauma,” both physical and psychological, from the ongoing conflict.
The Catholic Church, through its humanitarian aid programs, has also been responding and continues to provide basic needs in Ukraine. During the past year, Catholic Relief Services, the aid organization of the U.S. Catholic bishops, has worked with partners of Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-sponsored aid program, to provide shelter, hot meals, hygiene supplies, fuel, transportation for the displaced, and counseling.
Davide Bernocchi, CRS representative for Ukraine and Moldova, spoke to The Tablet Feb. 13 from Kyiv and said the agency had initially been helping those who left their homes, but is now assisting many who are returning to homes damaged by the war.
“The beauty of the church is its presence on the ground, and that presence doesn’t go away,” he said.
He also said Ukrainians are very spiritual, and they turn to the Church not only for help, but to volunteer. “They see the Church as a mobilizer to help,” he said.
What he sees in the Ukrainian capital, where he has been for the past month, is not what he expected. He thought he would see people completely depressed by the war, but instead he has been amazed at how people are trying to live normal lives.
Kyiv is not a site of active conflict, he noted, but still there are frequent air raid alarms and reminders of the war around them. Small signs of normalcy he has seen include trash pickups and people going out to restaurants.
He said people are attached to their normal lives and “struggling not to lose their soul.”
But normal in Ukraine right now is not normal as many know it. For example, Pallottine Father Vyacheslav Grynevych, executive director of Caritas Spes Ukraine, the Roman Catholic branch of the two Caritas organizations working in the region, spoke with The Tablet Feb. 15 from Kyiv just minutes after leaving the bomb shelter in his building after an air raid, which he said is still a common occurrence.
The agency’s work in Ukraine, after nearly one year of the war, has the same priorities as it initially did, the priest said, noting that they provide food and shelter, although now shelter also involves reconstructing destroyed homes.
He said even those in the Caritas office that are so involved in helping others also face their own struggles because many of their children are soldiers or their friends have been killed in the war, and then at night they return to homes that might not even have electricity.
“It is our front, our fight in this war,” he said, noting that the humanitarian aid providers are “soldiers on the social field.” The challenge, though, he said, is that you can’t measure your efforts, adding that every day he prays for “some sign, some point” that the war may end.
Father Grynevych said he was appreciative of the donations that have come in but also for the prayers for their efforts. “Every prayer has power,” he said.
Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Vatican ambassador to Ukraine, who also spoke to reporters Feb. 8, likewise said prayers and support have made a difference.“We feel your presence, we feel your closeness. Your prayers are producing miracles,” he said.
And locally, these prayers will continue. On Feb. 18, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, will lead an ecumenical prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown commemorating the one-year anniversary of the full-scale war in Ukraine.
Looking beyond the one-year mark, Archbishop Kulbokas stressed that Ukrainians “don’t want to constantly hear missiles and attacks” but instead want to rebuild “our beautiful Ukraine.”
But as they regroup and try to live normal lives, the war in their country is not showing signs of lessening, and church and humanitarian leaders hope the world at large does not forget them.
Bernocchi similarly noted that while the crisis in Ukraine captured the world’s attention, the humanitarian community continues to be stretched by other major emergencies, including the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
“Maybe strictly speaking, the war in Ukraine is not news anymore,” said Archbishop Shevchuk who emphasized that the situation cannot be overlooked because without help from the global church and community, “we will not survive.”
“Please don’t forget us,” he said. “Don’t give up on Ukraine.”