Ukraine: priests should not be afraid

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AS THE WAR ENTERS ITS EIGHTH MONTH, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke with Vasylij Tuchapets, Greek Catholic Bishop of Kharkiv, Ukraine, about the importance of staying with the people, about how the war has affected pastoral work and about the needs in eastern Ukraine as winter approaches.

On the first day of the invasion, Bishop Vasylij woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of explosions as the Russians began shelling Kharkiv. On the way to the cathedral he saw people in panic, many trying to get to the station with their luggage. City transport was not working and there were long queues at gas stations.

His first instruction that day is that all priests should remain in their parishes, close to the faithful entrusted to their care. At the same time, the safety of their families required care and attention, as most Greek Catholic diocesan clergy have wives and children.

One evening after mass, the bishop was leaving the cathedral when he was approached by a group of young people from the region whom he had never seen in church. “Thank you for staying with us”, they said. The mere presence of someone praying for them lifts people’s spirits, says Bishop Vasylij: “There is no need to be afraid, and the Lord will bless. If a priest runs away, everyone loses.

The Diocese of Kharkiv, which was only established in 2014, covers 32,000 square miles – roughly the size of Austria – and includes the three regions of Kharkiv, Poltava and Sumy, with a population total of more than five million inhabitants. This traditionally Orthodox area was strongly secularized during the Soviet era. “We started our work with our faithful from the Greek Catholic Church, made up mainly of former university students who remained in Kharkiv, and former deportees to Siberia”, explains the bishop, “but now most of the parishioners are locals who have found their faith in contact with our parishes.I think that our task is to plow, to prepare the land, after us will come those who will sow, and future generations will already reap, as Saint Paul said.

Archbishop Vasylij Tuchapets

The pastoral changes with the war, notes Bishop Vasylij. Many people have left, but new people have also arrived, seeking help and shelter. People come to Kharkiv Cathedral every day, not just for humanitarian aid. They have questions and are looking for answers. “Most of the people who come to pray now are those who started coming during the war. Sometimes, after years of living together, they ask for marriage or baptism for their children,” he explains.

Children also come to church, often after spending months locked up in their homes, or in basements and sheds. The sisters and animators organize games, competitions, meetings and catechisms twice a week for those who wish. For some, it is their first contact with prayer. “School classes are online for security reasons, so we will continue our meetings for children,” the bishop said. Pastoral work with children includes summer camps, called “Holidays with God”, which take place thanks to the support of ACN. During the war, the camps were not only maintained, but their number increased.

Parishes pray daily for an end to aggression and for peace. As Christians, we know well that strength is given by the Lord and not by the number of the army,” the bishop said. The cathedral also holds the daily liturgy in the lower church, as the upper church is used as a warehouse for humanitarian aid.

Aid began arriving in Kharkiv soon after the war began. Over time, priests and volunteers have become experts in sorting food, clothing, hygiene products, children’s items, etc., so that they can quickly get people what they need. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people always come to the cathedral for help, from all over the city, because here they can get various items in one place.

The distribution of aid, however, has decreased from three days a week to one, partly because of the scarcity of goods, but also to store provisions for the fall and winter, for the new refugees. Local villages were heavily damaged by Russian shelling, so people are seeking refuge in the town.

The damage in Kharkiv itself is quickly repaired and the infrastructure is operational, but this winter will not be easy, warns the bishop. Many buildings have broken windows from the bombings, so the first task is to make sure people can keep warm in their apartments. Food, warm clothing and medicine are still needed, the latter being a priority, as the cold will bring with it seasonal illnesses. “We still need help for people and this need will continue for a long time, because people no longer have work or income, so we have to provide at least the basic things,” Bishop Vasylij says.

ACN was the first charity visited by Vasylij Tuchapets after he was appointed Bishop of Kharkiv in 2014. Over the years, the diocese and ACN have implemented many projects, including the ongoing construction of the cathedral and other churches, parish centers and infrastructure, support for priests and sisters, catechism projects and work with children and young people.

Addressing all ACN benefactors, Archbishop Vasylij says, “Thank you for your support and cooperation! This is how we spread the Word of God in eastern Ukraine, where it was banned for almost 80 years of communism. The renewal of faith requires a lot of time and a lot of work, starting with the basic structures that will provide a place for prayer and catechism and the possibility for priests to live close to their people. Each of our priests celebrates Mass at least once a month for the intentions of our benefactors. Thank you for this cooperation and I hope it will continue. May the Lord bless you for your ministry, which is so important to the Church!

—Jurij Blazejewski

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