Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church reviews the past the past ten months, from fire coming down from the sky, to the kitchen being built under his house to provide hot meals for people without electricity.
By Salvatore Cernuzio – Kyiv, Ukraine
“Stop the military actions, stop killing us. This will be the first step to genuine and lasting peace. Peace is something deeper than the absence of war. It is not just about winning in war, but overcoming the very spirit of war, defeating it in its causes.”
As he makes this yet another heartfelt plea for Ukraine and its people, on the bookcase behind the Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyč, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, points out the helmet and a bulletproof vest on the bookcase behind him. “See how heavy they are… We were putting them on every day. Someone joked: they are the new liturgical vestments!” The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was speaking with reporters on a mission with the Embassies of Poland and Ukraine to the Holy See of Poland and Ukraine, whom he welcomes to the Archbishopal residence with biscuits and coffee.
The joy of Christmas
Much has changed since those first terrible days of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in late February, during which, Shevchuk says pointing to a window, “a rain of fire could be seen coming down from there.” He himself was sheltered with hundreds of people in the crypt of the Cathedral of the Resurrection. Today he speaks more easily.
His thoughts are mostly on the coming Christmas: “We have the custom of singing Christmas carols to our neighbors, especially those most in need, to share joy and good wishes. Now everyone is asking, Will there be Christmas joy, will we be allowed to sing or should be silent and weep? I said yes, and yes, Christmas will be there. We have the right to celebrate Christmas joy that does not come from secular entertainment, but from Heaven because the Prince of Peace will be born.”
Celebrations at the front and in the shelters
These celebrations will reach all the way to the front. In fact, there will be someone singing for the soldiers engaged on the fighting line, Shevchuk says. “In Soviet times,” he recalls, “Christmas carols were a form of protest against the atheistic communist regime. People sang to overcome anxieties and sadness. The carols are an expression of the Christian faith; they are a catechesis singing about the birth of Jesus. Many therefore are preparing to go and sing with our soldiers at the border. I know several students are organizing.”
The same celebration will take place in every air raid shelter and foster home: “We will celebrate Christmas in the cold and dark. This will make us experience ‘on our skin’ the story of the Holy Family, also in the cold and dark but with heavenly joy.”
Don’t get used to it
It is a message of hope the one that the Greek Catholic leader wants to spread at a time when attacks seem to have abated in Ukraine and many cities have been liberated. “But one has to be careful,” the Archbishop says. “When you hear the air raid warning, people don’t pay attention anymore. This shows that the danger is not decreasing but people psychologically get used to it. It is a risk because we now have the phenomenon of missiles. They can fall anywhere, in Kyiv as well as in Lviv. There is no safe place in Ukraine.”
The cold emergency
Despite that threat, however, it is more urgent to deal with emergencies. And right now, the primary concern for Ukraine at war is the cold wather and the inability to keep warm due to power surges and the need for electricity to be rationed.
“The cold is the reason for the fifth wave of internally displaced persons,” Shevchuk explains. “Since the beginning of the war, first the oligarchs took the money and fled, then those who had their own means helped themselves and found hotels and other places, and once again the people with nothing fled empty-handed. I think of the family from the town of Boryspil’ who walked 23 kilometers barefoot, at night, together with their children. So, there was a fourth wave of refugees who did not go too far, but looked for the first village and waited for the time to return home. Now the new wave, the fifth: the ‘thermal’ refugees fleeing not from the war but from the cold, and crowding east-central Ukraine.”
A kitchen under the archbishop’s house
“We were not prepared for the phenomenon of not having electricity and needing to feed so many people,” Shevchuk says. “We immediately took steps to build kitchens to provide hot meals.” One of those kitchens will be built right under his house: “It will be ready in a few days, we have to organize the logistics of food distribution. As a church we cannot expect to feed everyone, but we try to receive everyone we can. It is our pastoral ministry.” A ministry of closeness.
The daily video messages
It is precisely that pastoral closeness that has prompted Shevchuk, every day since February 24, to produce a video message posted on the internet. The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church explains the genesis of this challenging initiative, “On the first day everyone was disoriented, you could see Russian helicopters and fire from the sky, the whole world started calling me [asking], Are you alive? Where are you? What are you doing? I didn’t know what to say: I don’t even know if I’ll be alive in two hours, I thought. So I said to my secretary: Let’s make a message to confirm that we are alive. I realized that with these messages I could help people understand the fear and talk about the hope that comes from faith.
After 2-3 weeks I asked myself: Is it worth it? Then one day I went to the battered city of Žytomyr and, in a parish, an old lady approached me to say, ‘We live in constant terror, we are afraid, it is good that you talk to us. ‘But, ma’am, I don’t know what to tell you anymore!’ ‘It doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is that you talk to us.’ Then I realized that even if I don’t know what to say anymore, it is important for people to hear the voice of their Church accompanying them.”
Translated and adapted from the Italian original.