Priests and bishops sought to save lives from the start of the Russian invasion, says Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.
From the very beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Catholic Church has worked to save lives in the attacked areas, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has said.
In an interview with Ukrainian news outlet New Voice of Ukraine, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, detailed how the Church has helped Ukrainian civilians across the country since the war began on February 24. .
In addition, Bishop Shevchuk shared his observations on the possibility of a papal visit to Ukraine, his feelings on the decision to present a Ukrainian and a Russian carrying the cross together during the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday in Vatican, and the path of reconciliation.
“When the first rockets landed in kyiv on the morning of February 24, do you know what we immediately started doing? All our bishops, priests – whether in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Odessa or Zaporizhzhia – all rushed to save people’s lives,” Shevchuk told NV interviewer Natalia Rop. “And everything else was subordinate to this imperative – to save and show the value of human life.”
He said the Church had designated three areas for Ukrainian territory to help decide how to meet people’s needs in various circumstances: where there were active hostilities, such as the capital, Kyiv, at the time ; places adjacent to where the fighting was taking place and quieter areas, such as central and western Ukraine.
“In each area we as a Church have acted differently,” the Major Archbishop said. “In the combat zone, bishops and priests unanimously decided to stay put, to be with their people. We were there and helped others to leave. We tried to set up bomb shelters, feed people, deliver clothes and necessary aid.
Shevchuk, believed to be one of several Ukrainian leaders on a ‘blacklist’ by Russian President Vladimir Putin, spent the first weeks of the war in a safe house in Kyiv but has since returned home next to the cathedral patriarchal. of the Resurrection of Christ. The basement of the cathedral served as a shelter for families in the region.
But Church personnel also provided assistance to people who wanted to leave the areas where they lived – with transport, advice and contacts – and organized the delivery of humanitarian goods to trouble spots.
“We have created logistics centers and assistance centers for refugees who are on the road,” Bishop Shevchuk said. He said that in the first weeks of the war, the only way to get from east to west was a circuitous route that required a 27-hour drive from Kyiv to Lviv, normally five or six hours. Still, millions of people have fled the capital and other areas along this route, he said.
“Imagine the mass of people who are on the road all these days,” Shevchuk said. “And then we tried to help fuel the cars, feed these people, keep them warm and clothe them. When someone asked, we created an opportunity for them to spend the night.
At the same time, he said, the Church was working to truck humanitarian goods from west to east. “Sometimes the drivers didn’t have the guts to go further east,” he said. “They reached the areas south of Kyiv or Zhytomyr or Vinnytsia. And then you had to reload the goods from the big trucks into smaller cars and direct them along country roads to where they were needed most.
“It was a huge job. But these logistics centers worked for us,” he said. “I visited them and was impressed by the ingenuity of our priests and volunteers. Without the volunteers and the spontaneous response of people from different churches who joined the mission of our Church, it would have been difficult to do all this.
Meanwhile, in western Ukraine, particularly in Lviv, Church personnel helped refugees find housing and support for daily living.
Catholic communities under fire
Shevchuk declined to comment on the situation of Ukrainian Greek Catholic communities in territories occupied by Russian forces. “I better not tell you for the safety of these people,” he said. “But I will say that we try to keep in touch with all the priests. Thank goodness everyone is alive. We are looking for ways to help them. No one left their place of duty.
“I feel especially sorry for Mariupol,” he said, referring to the port city on the Sea of Azov which has been under siege for two months and was almost completely destroyed. “One of our priests in Mariupol was one of the last to leave in the humanitarian corridor. And last week our Caritas house in Mariupol was hit by a tank and two people died. In other words, Caritas Ukraine, as an aid structure of the Church, worked there until the end, even in such extreme conditions. At the moment we do not have the latest information. This outpost of the Church’s humanitarian ministry is probably still paralyzed. But we are doing our best.
He spoke of two territories that were liberated from Russian occupation, including Chernihiv, where Redemptorist priests “lived constantly under bombardment with our people, and Slavutych, where a priest and his wife suffered a particularly painful ordeal, but finally joyful. . “I was so worried about him, I prayed so much for him,” Archbishop Shevchuk said. “There was a time when he managed to get from Slavutych with our military to kyiv to get some humanitarian aid. I saw it here, in the patriarchal cathedral.
“He said that, unfortunately, he was no longer able to return quickly, because the Russian tanks had closed the road he had come by,” Shevchuk said. “He was accompanied by a senior officer, to whom I said: ‘Officer, save me this priest. Because we will always replace tanks and houses, but I could never replace a guy like that. And then they somehow came back and headed for the besieged city. His pregnant wife had stayed, experienced the start of the occupation, then gave birth to their third child in a dark, cold maternity ward by candlelight. It was like a sort of paschal mystery. There was a time when Russian troops were still entering Slavutych. I immediately called him and asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, “I’m standing with the people, holding a cross in front of a Russian tank. Imagine! Tears came to my eyes. And Slavutych persevered.
Respond to controversy
Archbishop Shevchuk spoke about the Vatican’s controversial decision to include prayers written by both a Ukrainian and a Russian in the Vatican’s Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession. Shevchuk criticized the plan at the time, saying it failed to take into account the context of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.
“We communicated this idea [to the Vatican] very intensively, to change something,” he said. “Some things have changed, some things haven’t.”
Both women did indeed carry the cross in the procession, but their prayer was omitted.
Reacting to the suggestion that the gesture was an attempt to foster reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine, Shevchuk said several conditions must first be met before reconciliation can be attempted. “The first condition would be: you have to stop killing us,” he said. “We can’t talk about healing wounds while the enemy is constantly hurting you. To be reconciled, you have to be alive. That’s why I called this idea “untimely”, not bad or wrong, but untimely. In order to achieve reconciliation in the future, we all have to work very hard. And until that is done, it is not yet the time to discuss verbal or dramatized acts of reconciliation, especially between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.
“A second factor, without which there can be no beginning of reconciliation, is the condemnation of criminal acts, in order to obtain justice for the victim,” he continued. “For example, a reconciliation between the Polish and German peoples – initiated by the Catholic episcopate in the 1960s – would not have been possible if the Nuremberg trials had not taken place and if Nazism as an ideology had not been convicted. In our situation, any dialogue on reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians can only take place when the Nuremberg trials are conducted on the current murderous ideology, which has been declared a textbook case of genocide against Ukrainians by official Russian publications, including [state news agency] RIA Novosti. We cannot speak of justice if there is no criminal trial.
The Major Archbishop was also asked why Pope Francis seems reluctant to condemn Russia by name for its aggression in Ukraine.
“When we follow the pope’s personal rhetoric, language and terminology from the start of the war, there has been some evolution,” Shevchuk noted. ” And it’s good. I would say that his language has evolved on the side of Ukraine.
He explained that the Holy See “tries to stay above the parties in conflict, so that it can then become a mediator… And today this factor is often used to save the lives of Ukrainians. In particular, when there is a demand for the opening of green corridors for humanitarian aid.
There has been talk of a possible visit to Ukraine by Pope Francis, who told reporters on his return to Rome from Malta that the idea was “on the table”.
“We and the government are working to make this visit happen,” Shevchuk said.
Finally, he answered the interviewer’s question about the validity of the feeling of hatred and “a thirst for revenge” among Ukrainians for what Russia has done in their country, especially since both are Christian nations.
“In these circumstances, I experienced a certain evolution in my own opinions. Once, when I was a professor of moral theology and lived in a world of pious and good ideas, I judged some things differently,” he said. “Certain principles and truths are eternal and cannot be denied. There is no circumstance that can overturn God’s commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
“However, when I saw how our Kyiv was bombed, and then I visited all the other towns and villages liberated from occupation, it made me think. It was more about the lives of people real than ideas. Pope Francis said that man is more important than ideas, and his statement gave me courage. I will say this: a person’s reaction to the circumstances of war can obviously be an angry reaction.
“However, I think that we Christians have a particular task (and this is one of the rules of Christian asceticism, by the way): to transform this natural feeling of anger into courage by the power and prayer of God. . Courage is a virtue that takes the raw material of our anger and transforms it. And I fervently pray that in this faith of ours, upon seeing these crimes, we will change from raw human anger to righteous anger, which will constantly cloud our conscience, not allowing us to forget, giving us no right to remain silent, no right to ever sit passively for a moment.
“We have to be brave, resilient and move forward to victory,” he said. “And I wish that for all of us.”