War in eastern Ukraine: death, hardship, suffering and hope in God
Impressions of visitors and from reports to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need
Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki is stunned. “No one expected that another war would be carried out on European soil in this day and age,” the Roman Catholic bishop of Odessa-Simferopol said during a visit to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The war has literally ripped apart his diocese, which was only established in 2002. Due to the conflict in Ukraine, which has been carried out with force of arms for the past year, the area is now divided. Bishop Bernacki is taking care of those Catholics in his diocese who continue to belong to Ukraine from Odessa on the Black Sea. His auxiliary bishop, Jacek Pyl, has remained to take care of the faithful in Simferopol on the Crimean Peninsula.
The effects of the war are also palpable in Zaporizhia, not far from the combat zone in eastern Ukraine, as the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, Jan Sobilo, confirmed during a phone call with Magda Kaczmarek, head of the Ukrainian section of Aid to the Church in Need. He reported that the number of refugees from the contested region around Luhansk and Donetsk is constantly growing. In Zaporizhia alone, which is situated further to the West, the number has risen to 75,000 people. On the initiative of the diocese, refugees may go to a soup kitchen set up by the Albertine Order every day. Women with children receive additional aid once a week; men are left empty handed simply because there is nothing more to distribute at the moment. Aid to the Church in Need is supporting this and other relief operations in the region. More than $175,000 dollars have been set aside for this in the past months.
Suffering and hardship are also not unknown to the Greek Catholic Bishop Jaroslav Pryriz of the eparchy of Sambir-Drohobych in western Ukraine. Twenty pastors are working in the eastern combat zone for six to eight weeks at a time. They take care of the soldiers, mostly young men, volunteers, but also those who were conscripted into the army.
“Never before have I seen so much suffering, sorrow and tragedy”
During a visit, he described his experiences in a talk with Magda Kaczmarek, “The priests rotate every 45 days, because no one can stand it there any longer. Some who return never want to go back again because the psychological strain is just enormous. However, they go back because they want to take care of the faithful.” According to the bishop, the need for discussion and pastoral care is great. “No matter whether they are Catholics, Orthodox or members of other faiths, they are all are happy when a priest is just simply there for them, even though some have never even heard of God,” said Bishop Pryriz.
His description of the Ukrainian capital is also shocking. “Wounded soldiers from the East are also being cared for at a temporary military hospital set up in the Greek Catholic cathedral in Kiev. Never before have I seen so much suffering, sorrow and tragedy. I am 53 years old and have never experienced war, but what I have seen now, people without hands, without legs, without eyes, ears, are pictures that haunt me.”
The bishop of Sambir-Drohobych added, “Many soldiers from our diocese have been killed. Either they have simply disappeared or no one knows anything about their whereabouts. We have been told that a number of them have been burned to death. Or they return in coffins. You cannot imagine it. So much sorrow over sons, fathers, husbands!”
To conclude his visit to Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol recalled Pope Francis’s call to prayer for peace in Ukraine. The bishop warned, “We need peace and an end to the bloodshed. Christians in the East and West are celebrating Lent. I would like to invite all to pray for peace, because we can only overcome evil with good.”