Russian Invasion in Ukraine: Testimonies From Catholics on the Ground

The Register spoke to some Ukrainian Catholic leaders and civilians who are personally experiencing the devastating ongoing conflict between Russia and their country.

(Clockwise from Left) Taken at the end of January during a prayer for the consecration of the village of Shirokine near Mariupol, where fierce fighting took place in 2014-2015, and now completely destroyed and uninhabited. Participants are CRS founder Andriy Olenchyk, General of the Order of the Knights of St. John Paul II Krzysztof Wonsowski, CRS Military Chaplain Corps Priest and National Chaplain of the Ukrainian Province of Oleksandr, Coordinator of CRS-Warsaw and Ukrainian provincial General Chapter of the Order of the Knights of St. John Paul II, Volodymyr Korchynsky, head of CRS-Mariupol and Grand Knight of the local banner General Chapter of the Order of the Knights of St. John Paul II, Volodymyr Zavadsky. Taken at the frontline village of Pionerske’s children’s center “Ark of Peace”, launched by missionaries of the Christian Rescue Service unit including CRS founder Andriy Olenchyk, General of the Order of the Knights of St. John Paul II Krzysztof Wonsowski, CRS Military Chaplain Corps Priest and National Chaplain of the Ukrainian Province of Oleksandr. Roman Catholic parish of Christ the King of the Universe in Khmelnytsky, February 23. Participants are representatives of the leadership teams of CRS. The subject of the meeting was the launch of the process of deploying a network of crisis humanitarian centers based on parishes and church communities.

Solène TadiéWorldFebruary 28, 2022

KRAKOW, Poland — Since Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia has hit Ukraine with air strikes and ground forces marching toward several cities, including toward Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, before the eyes of the Western world. While the Ukrainian people had anticipated the possibility of a Russian attack for months and tried to actively prepare themselves for this aggression, very few of them expected to be rudely awakened from their sleep by the sound of shellfire that morning. 

In a shocking television statement during the night of Feb. 23-24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to launch a “special military operation” in Ukraine to “defend” the separatist groups in Donbas, in the east of the country. Shortly after, several explosions were heard in the country’s main cities, including Kyiv, while Russian ground troops advanced in the north, east and south of the country.

“My mom woke me up in a panic, saying there was something going on,” Darina Rebro, a Kyiv-based staff member of online ecumenical media Christians for Ukraine, said in a Feb. 24 phone interview with the Register following the attack, reporting that explosives fell only three metro stations away from where she lives.

Over the past few months, her media apostolate has been striving, together with other religious communities, to bring support to an overwhelmed population through quality information, Bible-inspired news commentaries, useful tips on what to do in case of a Russian attack, where to hide and how to provide first-aid care.

“We’ve lived in a situation of deep tension for months and months, and we were hoping that a war could be avoided,” Rebro continued. “At the beginning, people were very scared, but fear can never endure for too long; and at some point, people became annoyed, they got angry and learned how to defend themselves.”

To date, the conflict has resulted in the deaths of at least 102 civilians (according to U.N. estimates) and has created hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. 

A curfew was established in Kyiv Feb. 26-28. In the streets of the Ukrainian capital, barricades have been erected, and the authorities have called on the population to arm themselves. Russian and Ukrainian delegations began negotiations at the Ukraine-Belarus border on Monday against a background of nuclear tension — but with no apparent prospect of an end to the crisis at this time. 

Assisting Civilians

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, local Catholic churches and communities are sparing no effort to assist the population in their collective trial, organizing the provision of shelters for refugees along with a range of other humanitarian and medical aid to all civilians hit by the bombing and shooting. 

Vita Jakubowska, a member of the Latin Rite Catholic community of Lviv and a journalist for Catholic portal CREDO.pro, said in a Feb. 25 email to the Register that, the day before the Russian invasion, Christian Rescue Service — a fraternity founded by Ukrainian Catholics in 2015 as a response to the Russo-Ukrainian War that focuses on the service to the Ukrainian people in extreme conditions, especially war — managed with the help of Dominican priests to evacuate several groups of children from territories that were hit by air strikes shortly after.

 

The country’s various dioceses and parishes are holding in parallel prayer vigils, with the recitation of the Rosary and votive Masses for peace. Additionally, Ukrainian Catholic bishops, together with their local priests and faithful, are taking an active part in the ongoing world prayer marathon for peace in Ukraine.  

“We, the clergy, the priests and bishops are staying with our people. We won’t leave the country,” Auxiliary Bishop Edward Kawa of Lviv told the Register Feb. 24, in a voice tinged with both determination and concern, commenting that the Catholic Church in Ukraine “unambiguously condemns this act of aggression on the Ukrainian state, which has endured for eight years now, but that is getting more intense today.”

Standing Up as Children of God

For his part, Andriy Olenchyk, founder of Christian Rescue Service and a member of the General Chapter of the Order of the Knights of St. John Paul II, does not mince his words with regard to what he calls “the Russian threat,” which he places alongside gender ideology, rampant Islamization and modern neo-paganism as issues that require a full return to the foundations of Europe’s Christian civilization. “We are counting on a new alliance with the peoples of the Mediterranean, with whom we are united by faith, historical memory and common challenges,”  he told the Register in a Feb. 27 conversation.

Composed of chaplains, peacekeepers and socio-missionaries, this rescue fraternity — which is open to Christians of all denominations — is now on the front lines of the armed clashes that are taking place throughout the country, initiating the creation of a network of crisis humanitarian centers relying on Catholic parishes and church communities, and helping form local territorial defense units. 


“We are convinced that in these times of adversity, we have a duty to act courageously, serving God and Ukraine, our motherland,” Olenchyk said. “As Christians, we can’t allow ourselves to be afraid, to hide or flee, behaving not like the children of the Promise, but like Gentiles who do not know God.”

“If we do not fully remain the light of the world and the salt of the earth in such times, then what will remain of this salt and light?” he continued, based on his conviction that “this is not the time or place for a warm, decorative, lazy, timid, spineless, pacifist Christianity.” 

Call to Christians Worldwide 

Calling Christians from around the world to gather in the spirit of the revelations of Our Lady of Fatima, Olenchyk also highlighted the need for them to make the voice of Ukrainians heard in their respective countries. 

His appeal echoes that of Lviv’s auxiliary bishop, who invited the faithful elsewhere to take a clear stand against the Russian aggression, by protesting on the streets and “pushing leaders of the Western countries to take serious actions to stop the war and the suffering of innocent people, including women and children.” 

Bishop Kawa also stated that, besides the need for financial and material support for refugee centers run by the Latin and Greek Catholic Churches and other communities, primarily in Poland and western Ukraine, the faithful should keep in mind that prayer remains the only tool that is powerful enough to put an end to the current war. 

In this regard, he urged Catholics worldwide to join in the upcoming global day of fasting for peace wanted by Pope Francis for Ash Wednesday, March 2.

Solène Tadié

Solène Tadié Solène Tadié is the Europe Correspondent for the National Catholic Register. She is French-Swiss and grew up in Paris. After graduating from Roma III University with a degree in journalism, she began reporting on Rome and the Vatican for Aleteia. She joined L’Osservatore Romano in 2015, where she successively worked for the French section and the Cultural pages of the Italian daily newspaper. She has also collaborated with several French-speaking Catholic media organizations. Solène has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and recently translated in French (for Editions Salvator) Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy by the Acton Institute’s Fr. Robert Sirico.

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