From the Director

Shem Center For Interfaith Spirituality

Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality
Joseph Kilikevice, Founding Director
Steven G. Miller, Assistant Director

Dear friends,

We Have Family in Ukraine

I recently received two letters from my Dominican Brother Jaroslaw in Ukraine. As our national news continues to be dominated by a politics of revenge, there are the very moving human stories I receive from my Dominican religious family in Ukraine, the brothers, priests, sisters and laity who choose to remain in harm’s way to be with the people. We get glimpses of these people walking past bombed out buildings as images from Ukraine make their way onto our nightly TV news. In one of the letters I just received Fr. Jaroslaw refers to “a mandate of the heart and of love,” clearly something he lives by. Heartbreaking accounts that don’t make it on the news appear on my computer screen and I pass them on to you  — stories from those with whom we share life on planet earth. We Dominicans continue to hold sacred our single word motto, ”VERITAS.“ It is a Latin word that is translated, “TRUTH.” May telling this truth one day make us free.

Read these letters and weep with me as we pray and work for an end to the crimes against humanity that continue.

— Joseph Kilikevice, OP

Letter from Ukraine, January 21, 2023

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

I’ve been waiting to send this letter until Father Misha and his volunteers from the House of Saint Martin de Porres are safely on their way back to Fastiv. They left yesterday with the humanitarian transport to Kherson. Unfortunately I couldn’t join them, so I’m only getting reports over the telephone. These days Kherson is very dangerous because both the city and the vicinity around it are being shelled daily. According to Father Maksym from the Kherson parish, yesterday was one of the worst days yet. Apart from multiple attacks from across the Dnipro River where the Russian army is stationed, one could also hear shots in the streets. It’s no wonder that many inhabitants left Kherson recently. “In the morning we were distributing food in the neighborhood close to the river. Within the fifteen-apartment section of the building, only three families remained,” says Father Misha.

One might ask if it’s worth it to risk your health and life traveling to these places. After all, humanitarian supplies can be delivered in a different way. With the help of trusted local volunteers, one could still provide supplies to the needy. It would be simpler, cheaper, and
certainly safer. However, anyone who has experienced a face-to-face encounter with people living near the frontlines — for whom regular shelling, lack of electricity, cold, uncertainty about tomorrow are a daily experience — anyone who has seen their joy in being visited, knows that one should and one must travel to them. It’s a mandate of the heart and of love. Food, medicine, and warm clothes can be delivered through other people’s hands; hope in difficult times can only be brought by a personal presence.

Father Misha told me about a meeting with the inhabitants of Chornobaivka, where a few months ago a heavy battle was fought between the Russian and Ukrainian armies. This village is considered the northern gateway to Kherson, and its airport became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity. One of the women was celebrating her birthday. Apparently she had been awaiting guests since the morning, with a bottle of champagne!

The war has also created its own dress code, ways of dressing in these difficult times. For instance, the t-shirts that President Zelenskyy wears have become legendary. And we have the sweatshirts for volunteers of the Foundation and the House of Saint Martin de Porres. “Get one like that for me,” I asked Misha, noticing his new black shirt that says “Jas. 4:17”. “Just make sure it’s at least triple XL!” “What quote is that from the letter of Saint James?” I added. “‘For one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin’,” responded Father Misha. Strong words! I will remember them for a long time.

I notice that people often hug each other when they meet. During wartime this form of greeting has become very popular. Before the war, only very closely related people would dare to make such a gesture publically in Ukraine. It seems to me that we simply realized how important we are to each other and how much we need each other. We also realized how fragile and uncertain our life is. Some time ago, at the farewell with a married couple who had been our guides, somewhere around Izium in the dark foggy road leading to Kharkiv, we hugged each other. I had only known them for a couple hours, but the experience of the road we had traveled and the bread we had shared with the needy brought us together.

I wrote my previous letter before Christmas. A lot has happened since then. For instance, we were visited by Cardinal Krajewski who brought supplies from the Vatican to Ukraine. This time it was power generators and thermal underclothes, so needed in the winter. We hadn’t planned to meet, but when we learned that he was traveling to Kyiv, I called him and invited him to Fastiv. During one of his previous visits, the cardinal had already met the Dominican community from Kyiv. The papal almoner spent Christmas Eve with the sisters, brothers, volunteers, and refugees from the House of Saint Martin, and during the midnight Mass he delivered a very moving homily. When he spoke of Jesus’ invitation:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), he emphasized the word “all”; and it’s so true that the war can open us to the other and make us go together to serve those in need. I think this is what the cardinal experienced in his conversations with the refugees and volunteers.

On the Solemnity of the Epiphany we opened another house, this time for those uprooted by war. It is a cause for great joy in these difficult times and for even greater gratitude to all who contributed to its creation. More than a dozen people are already living there, including mothers with small children. It is already the third house we’re running in Fastiv to help those in need. The Archbishop Visvaldas — the apostolic nuncio in Ukraine who came to bless the building — and I talked to Oksana and her nine-year-old son Zhena. They had come to us from Bakhmut at the beginning of the war, fleeing the bombings. Her husband, the boy’s father whose name was also Zhena, had died fighting for a free Ukraine.

Another person who took part in the opening of the house for refugees was Bartosz Cichocki, the Polish ambassador in Kyiv, and he was joined by his wife Monika. They have been personally involved in our work for a long time. Happy that another good initiative succeeded, we joyfully agreed that this “Fastiv experience” has changed us. This is how mercy works.

I was very impressed by the benefit concert given by the youth choir of the National Academy of Music in Kyiv, which was organized in the great hall of the Dominican Institute of Saint Thomas Aquinas last night. A group of young artists performed ten pieces by Ukrainian composers. One of them was the traditional song “I go by mountain and by valley,” beautifully performed by Oleksandra Stetsiuk, that tells, in the dialect of the Carpathian Lemkos, the story of a girl crying, after losing her love: “I go by mountain and by valley. I don’t see anyone. My heart cries. My heart cries. Out of great sorrow.” (You can listen to this song performed by Oleksandra at an earlier concert:

The war takes the lives of great people every day and breaks the hearts of their loved ones. As I was browsing the news that my friends share with each other, I found the obituary of Victor Onysko, a film editor who became a Ukrainian soldier a couple months ago. He died in battle on December 30, at the age of 40. I never met Victor, although I knew him in a sense through many great Ukrainian movies that he co-created. His wife Olga shared her memories of him on Facebook. She also shared her pain that is so common now in Ukraine. I have to admit that I cannot read Olga’s words without emotion.

“My heart will always remain in this terrible 2022. Because you remain in it. My hero. My love. My everything. I don’t know how to continue living and breathing without you. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to dream again.

The only thing I want now is for this Russia-ist [In modern Ukraine, they created a word that combines the words Russia and fascism.] evil to be punished as soon as possible and for the fewest people as possible to feel this unspeakable and burning pain of loss.

I didn’t write much about you here; I was afraid, I’m ashamed to admit, to do harm. FB is not the best place for sincerity. And you always told me that your field reports from the Ukrainian front were only for me. You were supposed to edit movies, but instead ‘edited’ a military reality as a company commander. Twice in ground zero – in the Kherson region and the Donbass. Without any possibility of seeing each other. You are very tired, but you took care of your brothers. You’ve survived every single loss. You told me that there is no greater torture in war than to inform the families of the death of their relative. Now I felt
it on myself. It broke my heart when your soldier sobbed into the phone and swore to me that he didn’t know a better person and a better commander.

They say heroes never die. Unfortunately, they do. They are dying now by the thousands, forever leaving their relatives with incurable wounds in their souls. I would be grateful for injury, disability, amputation, ptsd… or anything as long as you’re alive. But unfortunately we weren’t that lucky. I will never be able to hide in your arms, hear your voice, laugh at your jokes and argue for hours about movies. The only thing left of you is a 9-year-old girl with your gray eyes. Thanks to you she had a fantastic childhood with motorcycles, bicycles, tents, skis, music, Balkan mountains and concerts in Berlin. And when I couldn’t breathe through my tears for the whole day on the train, she patted me on the head and said that dad fought for our freedom and we will never forget him, and that dad will always be in our thoughts. My and your adult little one. One of thousands of innocent children whose parents were killed by the damned Russism.

It hurts. It hurts beyond words…”

With greetings and request for prayer for those whose loved ones were
taken by war,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, January 21, 2023, 4pm

Letter from Ukraine, February 5, 2023

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

My last letter contained a moving testimony of the pain that is tearing apart the hearts of many Ukrainian women. Men are suffering in the same way — because their girlfriends, mothers, and wives are also dying on the front lines. Many of them are serving in the ranks of the Ukrainian Army as medical personnel. There are young women as well as many who already have significant medical experience as doctors or nurses. January 22 was celebrated as a national holiday — the Day of Ukrainian Unity. I went to a concert of Taras Kompanichenko and Chorea Kozacka. It took place in a place special to Kyiv, the Pechersk Lavra.

Taras Kompanichenko is one of the most popular performers of traditional Ukrainian music, a bandurist, a lira player, and a poet. When the war started he joined the territorial defense of Kyiv, which is now part of the Ukrainian army. And he’s not the only one from among the local artists and intelligentsia — which I could see with my own eyes at the concert. I spotted among them Mrs. Alisa. The beautiful young woman in a military uniform drew friendly glances from many people. From time to time she would dance a little, a few steps maybe, while holding her tiny daughter against her heart. In these sacred halls of the Lavra, she looked like a living icon of hope. After the concert I approached her to thank her for everything she is doing for Ukraine.

In an article in Kyiv’s “The Weekend” I learned that Alisa Szramko is a teacher and museum curator by profession. She has two daughters, the youngest born during the Russian invasion. Before she became a mother, she would use her vacation time to travel to volunteer as a nurse in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting had already been going on for many years. Mrs. Alisa belongs to the organization of volunteer medical responders that was established after the commencement of the war in 2014. The “hospitalers” consist of almost 360 medical professionals, organize trainings in emergency medical response, and evacuate wounded. There are other similar organizations in Ukraine. They are amazingly courageous people, true angels rescuing lives even in the most difficult conditions.

After the end of every rocket attack alarm, my phone tells me the statistics that speak eloquently about the daily lives of the people in Kyiv. Since the beginning of the war, the sirens have sounded 661 times. All together, the alarms have lasted 735 hours and 56 minutes. If we divide by 24, the number of hours in a day, we get a number close to 31 days. A month! Since the war began on February 24, three hundred and forty seven days have passed, a whole month of which the inhabitants of the capital of Ukraine lived in immediate threat to their lives and safety, many in constant stress with constant interruptions to their daily activities like school, work, shopping, or play (for the kindergarten children) with the uncertainty of whether it’s just a threat or whether more rockets are on their way. Could anyone get used to this? We kind of are.

On the last day of January, Iryna and Wiktor got married. They hadn’t known each other before the war, but after they joined the group a couple dozen people who moved into our Kyiv priory temporarily, they could be seen together more and more often. It’s not surprising that they chose the Dominican chapel and the aula of our Institute as the locations for their wedding and wedding reception. It was a very simple celebration. The guests consisted of their closest family and a few friends. And obviously the brothers who happened to be in the priory that day. Our prior Fr. Petro pointed out in the wedding homily that the names of the bride and the groom have hidden in them the two most important desires the people of Ukraine have now: “peace”, the meaning of the Greek name Iryna, and “victory”, the translation of the Latin name Wiktor. Iryna and Wiktor are bound by love and sacramental marriage. I hope that we will live to see the day when, together with the free and democratic world, we will celebrate peace and the victory of Ukraine.

Iryna is from Kherson. During the wedding reception, her cousin, holding her three-month-old daughter in her arms, told everyone about her departure from the city occupied by the Russians. With many difficulties, stress, uncertainty, and already late in her pregnancy, she managed to find a way through Zaporizhzhia to the territories controlled by Ukraine. If the child had been born in Kherson, which was illegally annexed by Russia as part of its territory, he would have received Russian documents and leaving the city could have been very difficult if not impossible.

Despite a few months of evacuating civilian inhabitants from the regions of Ukraine near the front lines, many people remained — mostly elderly, sick, or handicapped. They have a limited ability to move, so they are very dependent on others for help. Last week we went to the Kharkiv region again; I joined Father Misha, Sister Augustina, and the volunteers of the House of Saint Martin de Porres in Fastiv, and we delivered a dozen tons of food, toiletries, warm clothes, medications, heaters, and energy generators.

In Balakliya we found a stowaway in our bus. During the unloading, a red cat jumped out from between the boxes. We started to wonder how he got there. He didn’t look homeless. A quick investigation revealed that he came from Fastiv. Clearly, two days earlier during the evening loading of the cars, he had jumped inside, unnoticed by anyone. What could we do? We took an additional passenger on the way back. Apparently he was seen around the cars in Fastiv a few days later. Clearly he likes traveling. It was not the only cat that came back with us. Father Misha decided to receive into the priory a Maine Coon cat who had lost his owners somewhere around Kharkiv. The animal is deaf, and after what it went through, we will try to provide a new and safe house for it.

The trips to Kharkiv are opportunities to meet Father Andrzej. I’m filled with pride when I hear stories of my older brother’s service to soldiers on the front lines. He goes there with one of our parishioners who has been delivering food, medicine, and necessary supplies to the Ukrainian defenders ever since 2014. Father Andrzej emphasizes that the most important thing is trust. It takes time, openness, and above all, presence, to be able to build it. So far, he hasn’t met any Catholics among the soldiers. In one place, Father Andrzej celebrated Mass. A beautiful personification of the sacrifice of Christ.

On Saturday, Chortkiv was visited by the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He came to bless the newly finished paintings in the sanctuary of the Sobor of Peter and Paul and the missionary cross. Father Dymytriy from our Chortkiv priory, who took part in the celebrations along with Father Svorad, told us about the warm meeting with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who is a great friend of the Dominicans. After all, he defended his doctorate at the Angelicum. Father Dima sent me a picture in which he stood with two Greek Catholic Metropolitans. The second was Archbishop Wasyl from Ternopil. Like Father Dima, he is from Yaremche in the Carpathian mountains, and in the old days he had worked with his father, so he always calls him Dmytryk.

On the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas — which Dominicans celebrate in an especially festive way this year because of the jubilee of the death and canonization of the patron saint of our Kyiv Institute of Higher Religious Studies — a solemn Holy Mass was celebrated, and a special discussion was organized concerning the new Ukrainian translation of “Metaphysics” by Aristotle. “What is Ukrainian Aristotle like?” In answer to that question, the philosopher and translator of the book, Oleksij Panycz, shared a story with us about how a couple years ago they had tried to organize a day of Aristotle in the institute of philosophy. “I wanted very much to put his bust in the conference room,” recounted Professor Panycz. “We had a lot of Platos, but it took us a week to find an Aristotle in Kyiv. We decided to dress him in the Ukrainian Vyshyvanka [a traditional Ukrainian shirt]. The adult-sized shirt wouldn’t fit, so we had to put child-sized clothing on Aristotle. So to answer your question, the Ukrainian Aristotle was born very recently, and he still has to grow up,” our guest joked, adding: “Only after some time will we be able to tell how he is received in the Ukrainian language.”

On the same day in Lviv, Natalia and Jan — a married couple and lay Dominicans — after finishing their novitiate made their first temporal promises. Jan is a soldier, and using his couple day leave of absence, he was able to come and not only visit his wife and children but also make the next important step along the way of his Dominican vocation.

Every letter is an opportunity to express gratitude for the solidarity with Ukraine and for every kind of support that you are offering us. I would very much like to thank all of our benefactors personally. It’s very difficult in the present situation, but I’m not losing hope that one day I will be able to.

With greetings and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, February 5, 2023, 11pm

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