WILLIAMSBURG — As tanks rolled across the Ukraine border and Russian missiles bombarded major cities, the Catholic faithful in parishes across the Diocese of Brooklyn held prayerful Masses for the Ukrainian people this past weekend to offer hope and support for the war-ravaged European nation.
Common to all the gatherings were Catholics of Ukrainian heritage, looking spent, with bleary eyes from either no sleep, constant weeping, or both.
Multiple Masses with fervent prayers for Ukraine were held. The first one was on Thursday, at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Midwood. The congregation included people from the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Eastern rite) and the Roman Catholic Church. Although their customs differ, they all spoke the same language — Ukrainian — as they offered up songs and prayers.
A second Mass was held Saturday night at Guardian Angel Parish in Brighton Beach, with attendance from Bishop Robert Brennan and Auxiliary Bishop Witold Mroziewski of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Tonight i joined the Ukrainian community at Guardian Angel Church in Brighton Beach in prayer, doing what Catholics do in times of tribulation. We pour our hearts out to God and ask for his protection over Ukraine, all its people and the loved ones of those gathered tonight. pic.twitter.com/OdSwNq6aDB
— Bishop Robert Brennan (@bishopofbklyn) February 27, 2022
Before the Mass, Bishop Brennan walked up and down the central aisle, quietly greeting people in the pews. He addressed the congregation at the end of the Mass.
“Bishop Witold and I wanted to be here tonight in a very special way because what you are doing tonight is what we as Catholics do in times of tribulation,” he said. “We gather to pray. We pour out our hearts to God. We ask for his protection over Ukraine.
“My heart breaks with your heart. But we are filled with that same sense of hope that comes to us because of Jesus Christ who faced evil, right in the eye.
“Jesus will always triumph over evil. Jesus will bring healing to our hearts.”
The celebrant was Father Sergiy Emanuel, pastor of Guardian Angel and coordinator of ministry to Russian and Ukrainian immigrants for the diocese. The parish usually celebrates Mass in Ukrainian the first Saturday of the month.
Concelebrants on Saturday were eastern rite priests Father Ivan Tyhovych and Archpriest Roman Malyarchuk, administrator of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mission Parish.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Father Emanuel and Archpriest Roman Malyarchuk celebrated the emergency Mass Thursday at St. Brendan’s, which is where the Eastern Rite parish has Sunday Mass.
Bishop Brennan also engaged people after the Mass Saturday night, including Snizhana Romaniuk, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine five years ago. She is an Eastern Rite Catholic, but she went to Guardian Angel on Saturday because she knew there would be prayer for Ukraine. She said Bishop Brennan’s words steadied her.
“I have family in Ukraine, on the west side,” she said on the verge of tears. “My mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, uncle — everybody. I am from a small village, so it’s mostly safe now, but of course they are in danger. Every time I see the news, I call to them.
“They try to be strong. They don’t have another choice.”
Olena Rogalska, a member of Guardian Angel Parish, attended the Mass with her husband, Marco, and their baby daughter, Veronica. She and her husband both have family back in Ukraine.
Rogalska urged everyone to pray for her homeland, and join demonstrations like the Lithuanian procession in Williamsburg on Sunday. She said such activity is a stark contrast to 2014 when Russia invaded parts of Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
“The whole world supports us now,” she said. “And the whole world understands what’s going on now. In 2014, nobody believed us. They were like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“But you have more information now. It’s important because a lot of people, a lot of soldiers — boys, really — are dying.”
‘A Shared History of Oppression’
On Sunday, Father Tyhovych celebrated regular Sunday Mass at his parish, Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church in Williamsburg. He announced they would welcome some visitors later — Lithuanian Catholics from Mount Carmel-Annunciation Parish, just a few blocks away on North 5th Street.
Father Tyhovych said the Lithuanians were coming with a couple diplomats. They wanted to visit their Eastern Rite church, also on North 5th Street, to show solidarity with their Ukrainian neighbors.
Unbeknownst to the parishioners, the 140 “neighbors” from Mount Carmel-Annunciation decided on Thursday, when the invasion began, to show their support of Ukraine and its diaspora in Brooklyn and Queens.
An usher, Yaroslav — born in the U.S. to a Ukrainian family, preferred not to give his last name to protect family in his parents’ homeland — didn’t think much about the announcement, but when the neighbors finally arrived, he and fellow parishioners could only weep.
“People were coming in, and it was one person after another,” he said. “They were carrying our flags, and their flags, and it just overwhelmed you. After that, I was walking around with my phone, filming and taking pictures, and I kept crying. I’m still crying.”
Following the Ukrainian Mass, the Lithuanians presented Father Tyhovych with a wood-carved replica of a traditional wayside shrine from their homeland. At the top was an iconic “Compassionate Christ” figure.
“It has very deep meaning to Lithuanian Catholics and is found in churches and homes throughout Lithuania,” said Raimundas Šližys, a trustee at Mount Carmel-Annunciation parish. “It was especially revered during the years of Lithuania’s occupation by the Soviets.”
Šližys noted that last Sunday, Feb. 27 parishioners celebrated Lithuania’s independence. The parish has held a Mass in Lithuanian since 1914, he said.
“We normally celebrate Lithuanian Independence as a joyous event, but this year, our thoughts are focused on the tragic events in Ukraine,” Šližys said. “We have a shared history of oppression under Soviet rule, and we feel that Ukrainians are now fighting not only for their own freedom, but also for the freedom of Lithuania and all democratic nations threatened by Russia.”
‘Today, We Are All Ukrainian’
The Lithuanian delegation stepped off from their church on North 5th Street, with members brandishing or wearing flags of both nations. Others carried placards and posters with solidarity slogans like, “We Stand with Ukraine,” “Pray for Ukraine!” and “We #standwithukraine.”
Flag colors — blue and gold for Ukraine; gold, green, and red for Lithuania — appeared on face masks, neckties, and scarves. The marchers gained approval with honking horns from passing motorists. A few women and girls wore traditional Lithuanian attire.
Joining the procession were Rytis Paulauskas, Lithuania’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Ambassador Vaclovas Salkauskas, consul general of the Republic of Lithuania in New York.
“Today, we are all Ukrainian, without any doubt,” Paulauskas said. “It’s really difficult to speak, knowing that your courageous men and women are dying — dying in Kyiv, dying in multiple other places. Fighting for every inch of the territory. Fighting for the state, and also fighting for the choice to be free.
“Freedom was always important to Lithuania. It was always important to Ukraine. And we have been blessed through history to have stood with you, together, to fight for freedom.”
‘In the Same Boat as Us’
Yaroslav said that Lithuanians are, “in the same boat as we are.”
“They were under communism just like all the Baltic states and the Slavic states,” he added. “They know what It’s like, and they could be next.”
Father Tyhovych happily accepted the replica shrine and promised to display it prominently on the church’s side altar for the entire congregation to see.
The pastor, born in Ukraine, said that, “as a spiritual person and a priest,” he didn’t want to focus on politics. But he did comment on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If you want to see the face of evil, you have to look at Putin,” he said, drawing applause from both congregations. “It’s very important for our (U.S.) politicians to understand that they are not just dealing with someone who is representing his people.
“He is terrorizing his own people. He hates his own people. He’s trying to deceive other people and countries. It’s critical for us to reprimand him. He needs to be expelled.”
At the end of the Ukrainian Mass, everyone from both parishes assembled for a group photo on the steps of Holy Ghost Church.
They chanted in Ukrainian, “Slava Ukrayini! Slava heroyam!” (Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!).