An interview with Fr Antonio Vatseba, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Priest and, for the past three years, Provincial of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a congregation that has six communities of nuns and priests working in Ukraine.
By Maria Lozano, Aid to the Church in Need.
We know that for security reasons you cannot tell us where you are, but can you tell us if you are in a conflict zone?
Depending on where they are, not all the priests in our congregation can provide details of their whereabouts. We have three communities in the west of Ukraine. They are taking in refugees and coordinating the collection and provision of humanitarian aid to central and eastern Ukraine. I, personally, am in central Ukraine, not far from Kyiv. The situation here is quite calm, although on February 24th and 26th things were very tense due to missile attacks. Despite all of this, we continue to celebrate Mass twice a day, and in the evening, we take in refugees who sleep on the grounds of our parish church.
What is it like in the other communities?
There is a community of priests in the region of Donbass in the east, where fighting is very intense. There, for safety reasons, the priests abandoned the city. They are in the surrounding countryside where they celebrate Mass every day and hear confessions.
The other community is in the south, near Crimea, where the situation isn’t easy and the Russian troops have besieged the whole region of Kherson. The priests are safe in a place where there have been no attacks, and can celebrate Mass daily and support their faithful both morally and with prayer.
The biggest problem in this area is that no humanitarian support reaches the cities and towns in Donbass and Kherson. The lack of food, of phone communication and, in some cities, of light, water and heating, can provoke a terrible humanitarian disaster.
What does it mean for the people to have their priests and nuns with them?
As I said, despite the danger we continue to celebrate Holy Mass every day. We also continue to offer catechesis and prayer online. We are supporting the refugees, hosting them in our churches, convents, or in the houses of members of the third order. Despite the difficult situation, the sisters continue to care for children and the elderly. Some of them have had to be evacuated to safer places.
We have seen and heard many testimonies of priests and bishops who refuse to leave, despite the danger. Why are they staying?
The Church must be with its faithful, with its people. The Church is made up not only of bishops, priests and religious, but also of laity. Therefore, we should remain with them, so that our laity is not left alone, without spiritual support, especially in such a difficult time. The presence of the pastor is very important to the church community. As Christ himself teaches us, we should be as shepherds, and not abandon our flocks.
Do you know what you will do if your area is occupied by Russian troops?
As long as our lives are not in danger, we will continue to serve, each in his own station. This is what our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has already been experiencing since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Thanks to the bravery of the local priests, our Church continues to serve in Crimea and in Donbass.
With this conflict there is the danger that the people will be overcome by hatred. As a priest, what can you do to help people avoid this?
This is a serious threat. During this difficult time of war, which sows hatred and violence, we should preach charity. Everybody, civilians and soldiers alike, should be guided by love, not hatred. These were the exact words of the primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, which summarize this principle of love in times of war: “Let us learn to love in this tragic time! Let us not be overwhelmed by hatred, let us not use its words or language.”
The pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has apportioned emergency aid to priests and clergy in the dioceses of the east and in Kyiv, and has been helping the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for several years. Do you have a message for our benefactors?
I want to address the faithful with the words of Christ: “When you hear of wars and revolts, be not afraid…” (Lk 21.9). At times like these in Ukraine, we not only hear of war, but we see it and experience it in the streets of our own cities. Regardless, we should chase fear away with prayer and with the love for our homeland.
War is a manifestation of evil, and evil is the absence of good. Christians should, first of all, defend themselves and also try to seek out the best for our enemies, praying for their conversion.
How does this financial support help priests, religious and the people on the ground where you are?
The aid we get from ACN every year is very useful for the intellectual formation of our seminarians, our priests, and their personal needs, as well as for several pastoral projects in the parishes in which we are present. Therefore, we are very grateful to all our benefactors, and you should know that you are constantly in our prayers.
Testimonies from some of the priests of the Congregation of the Incarnate Word, in Ukraine:
Father Josaphat, VE, western Ukraine: “Since the war started, every day we have a special prayer in our parish church. From 3:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. we pray the Psalter, then the Rosary, then we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and ask for an end to this war, and pray for our soldiers. We also help with money and food, collecting the necessary articles for our military and for those who have been displaced, or made refugees by the war.” Father Theodore, VE, southeast Ukraine: “March 3rd. The day was intense. From 6:00 a.m. onwards the telephone didn’t stop ringing with calls and messages. A coordinated supply of aid was sent to the volunteers in Mariupol, organized with the help of the Greek Catholic priests from the district of Tiachiv (Transcarpathia). This time it was children’s items. This has been my tenth year of mission in Dubove and I am witnessing how strong we can be when we are united. Nobody is holding back, people who hardly know us trust that their donations will reach their destination, there is always somebody wanting to help, nobody denies anybody what they need, nobody asks what religious denomination the other person belongs to… There has been much help.”