By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — Ukraine’s Catholic military chaplains will eventually be “catalysts for the rebuilding” of their war-torn nation, said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose three days in Ukraine included at times sheltering with Ukrainians as Russian missiles relentlessly rained down on civilian centers.
“They will continue to help those who fought in the war return to civilian life,” said Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who also serves as head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, in a Jan. 6 interview with OSV News.
The archbishop visited the Ukrainian cities of Lviv and Kyiv Dec. 27-29, meeting with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and a number of leaders in Ukraine’s military chaplaincy, among them Jesuit Father Andriy Zelinskyy, coordinator of chaplains for the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
The trip was a part of Archbishop Broglio’s annual Christmas pastoral visit to U.S. military deployments overseas, which usually takes him to installations in the Middle East.
But with some 10,000 U.S. military personnel currently stationed in Poland alone, Archbishop Broglio told OSV News he chose to head to that country as well as to Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.
“When the bishops elected me their president (in November 2022), the visit (to Ukraine) was made even more pressing,” he said.
The decision was also inspired by his conversations with Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic archeparchy of Philadelphia, who has steadfastly advocated on behalf of Ukraine since Russia first invaded Crimea in 2014.
Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, with some 12.8 million now displaced across Europe and internally. Ukraine’s National Information Bureau reports some 11,130 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia. Prosecutors in Ukraine are investigating at least 50,000 war crimes committed by Russian forces since February, and the nation has filed an application with the International Court of Justice to charge Russia with committing genocide.
During his visit, Archbishop Broglio toured the campus of Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, which was among 50 organizations awarded last month by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for volunteer efforts that have provided both soldiers and civilians with urgently needed aid.
A number of UCU alumni have been killed in action since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 — including 27-year-old fashion industry professional Artemiy Dymyd, son of a UCU professor and a noted iconographer, who died under mortar fire in June 2022. The university has established a scholarship in his honor.
Speaking at UCU, Archbishop Broglio prayed “for peace, for those who suffer, those who gave their lives for freedom,” and encouraged students to “study diligently so that they can build a country that will serve the people who live on this earth.”
Amid Russia’s ongoing strikes on civilian targets, the archbishop told OSV News he also found himself taking refuge in UCU’s bomb shelters “a couple of times.” He said he marveled at the resiliency of those in the shelters, with “professors giving exams to students and others praying in the underground chapels” as air raid sirens sounded.
For his part, Archbishop Broglio told OSV News he “wasn’t really frightened” despite “a few thoughts,” preferring instead to “take the necessary precautions and trust in the Lord.”
On Dec. 28, the archbishop met with Ukrainian military chaplains — some of whom had just returned from the front lines — at Lviv’s Garrison Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. The 17th-century church, bombed during World War II and used as a book depository under communism, was transferred to the Ukrainian Catholic Lviv Archeparchy in 2010, and now serves as the main church of the military chaplaincy.
Archbishop Broglio shared with the chaplains highlights of his visit to a hospital in Latvia, where he met several young Ukrainian soldiers undergoing rehabilitation.
“You and I must continue our work as ministers of the Church who are called to support these people,” he told the chaplains. “We must be with those men and women who serve on the front line, physically or mentally.”
At the Garrison church, Archbishop Broglio concelebrated with Lviv Archeparchy Auxiliary Bishop Volodymyr Grutsa a funeral for three Ukrainian soldiers — Serhiy Fedorov, Roman Lehkyi and Borys Yakovlev — who had recently been killed in action.
He extended condolences “on behalf of all Catholics in the United States of America,” adding, “We are sincerely grateful to the defenders for the sacrifice they make for their country, and for all of us.”
Archbishop Broglio also spent time with Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, discussing the key role chaplains will play in helping veterans and their families — as well as the nation itself — to heal.
“(Shmyhal) made the point that when this is over, Ukraine will need counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists,” the archbishop told OSV News, noting that military chaplains will be able expand that support by ministering to the spiritual scars caused by the war.
Those wounds are profound, given the often hidden anguish veterans can experience long after hostilities have ceased, he said.
Military chaplains provide a unique sense of empathy and attention, said Archbishop Broglio, adding that the simple act of “just listening” to soldiers’ stories proves to be “extremely therapeutic.”
“I remember a priest who did a lot of work with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) victims,” the archbishop told OSV News. “And one (victim) said, ‘This is the first time in my life someone listened without interrupting.'”
Church teaching also provides a vital framework for processing the moral pain incurred by war, he said.
While stating that “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the end of war,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church also articulates a “legitimate defense by military force” under “strict conditions” (Nos. 2308-2309).
“I certainly think the just war theory of the Catholic Church is helpful” to Ukrainian soldiers, Archbishop Broglio told OSV News. “They are defending their nation, responding to unjust aggression and only using the force necessary. Even in the offensive measures, (that force) has only been used on their own territory, which they’re trying to reclaim (from invading Russian forces).”
The archbishop told OSV News he hopes Ukraine’s military chaplains will “have a role in advising the commanders and political leaders” in their nation’s “reconstruction and rebuilding.”
Back home in the U.S., Archbishop Broglio said he has been wearing a bracelet given to him by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy. The inscription, “Unbroken,” represents the city’s initiative to provide medical aid — including reconstructive surgery and robotic prosthetics — to thousands of Ukrainians injured in the war.
“It reminds me to pray for the people of Ukraine,” said the archbishop. “I encourage people to do the same. Don’t forget Ukraine.”