International News

Ukrainian Priest on Front Lines: ‘We Are Responding to Challenge With Dignity’

By Inés San Martín

ROME (Crux) — Ukrainian Father Iurii Stasiuk was appointed as rector of the Greek Catholic Church parish in Barcelona two weeks ago. Yet on Thursday, Feb. 24, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, the young priest was on the first plane to Poland. After landing, he walked nine miles to Ukraine.

This is the fifth time he has left Spain to go help in his native land, as he is not only a priest but also a paramedic. Hence it came as no surprise when he told his boss, Cardinal Juan Jose Omella of Barcelona, that he was headed to Ukraine to be with his people and with the troops.

Ukrainians gather for prayer in a Kyiv church basement Feb. 26, 2022, as the Russian invasion of their country endures. (Photo: CNS/courtesy Polish Bishops’ Conference)

“I am here, first and foremost, because I am Ukrainian,” Father Stasiuk told Crux from an undisclosed military base in Ukraine. “I am here also because I am a paramedic and have training as military medical personnel, both because I prepared for it and because I have firsthand experience in the battlefront.”

“And I am here because I am a priest, and I believe that as such, I can help by tending to people spiritually, from a medical point of view, and when nothing else can be done medically, help them pass from this life to the next,” he said. “As one of the prayers for that moment says, ‘I place you in the hands of the angels so that they can present you to God’.”

He is not there to actually fight, since as a priest, “I cannot grab a weapon. I know this very well.”

Faith, he said, is “very important” to the battalion he has been assigned. He and others spend their days on the military base training, waiting to be summoned. If the moment comes — he takes for granted it will — it takes them less than a minute to be ready to leave. He knows enough of what needs to be done that he can be a medic assigned to the battlefield.

“Today the whole country is a battlefield,” Father Stasiuk said. “Until recently, only one area of the country was a battle zone [referring to Eastern Ukraine, where a Russian-backed separatist movement has been battling the Ukrainian military since 2014]. And there are groups in every part of the country ready to defend the homeland.”

The priest said he never expected for the war to escalate. In fact, “I always thought that the war would end. One must always be prepared for more than one scenario, but I did not want to imagine that what we see now would be a reality.”

Father Stasiuk said that these times are a “test,” and thus far, people have answered with solidarity. “And I’m not only speaking about the Ukrainians who live abroad.”

When they leave the base to buy groceries or something else, the priest said, people — including children — greet them, thank them for what the army is doing and offer to help.

“People feel like this is their own struggle,” he said. “This is not a struggle of an army, that involves only those who have a family member or a friend fighting. This is the struggle of an entire nation. These are difficult times, yes, but I believe we are responding to the challenge with dignity.”

Asked about what the world can do to help, Father Stasiuk was assertive in his response: “Pray for us. And speak out: Let the world know what is going on and may the world listen. Today the war is in Ukraine, but it can go to any other country.”

Like many others, he is appalled at the fact that, in the 21st century, there is an ongoing war in what is geographically speaking, the largest country in Europe.

“In Europe, we always say that we want freedom, equality, that people’s rights be respected,” Father Stasiuk said. “Here we have totally the opposite. And it is important that the media, the parliaments, the governments act. I don’t know what they should do, because I am not an expert in politics, but we cannot keep quiet at this moment. We, Ukrainians, literally cannot remain silent. But neither can you.”

The priest sees Russia’s invasion not only as a war against his country but also one against human dignity, that literally challenges “what we were told as children: You are not to bully others, you cannot crush those next to you. We have to be charitable with one another.”

The priest also had a message for those who believe Russian President Vladimir Putin was forced by the West to invade Ukraine: “No one can force a country to invade another. Those who say that the West forced Russia to invade are pro-Russian and they can go live in Russia where, much like animals, people cannot live in freedom.”

Father Stasiuk acknowledged that Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 because of the country’s decision to try to join the European Union. “The decision to be part of the EU, NATO, or something else, is ours,” he said. “We are an independent country, and we have the right to choose. And democracy is politicians listening and executing what the people want for their country.”

The priest also said that despite “the size of the problem,” the people “have not lost our courage. We are all willing to do everything to stop this. We are ready to give our lives for our country.”

“And that for me is also a very big testimony of the Gospel,” Father Stasiuk said. “As Jesus said, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others. And that is what we are doing here, and in various parts of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian servicemen warm by a fire at fighting positions at the military airbase near Vasylkiv, Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. Russian troops stormed toward Ukraine’s capital, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. (Photo: CNS/Maksim Levin, Reuters)