Letter From Ukraine, April 3, 2023
Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,
There is a painted icon of Our Lady Orans of Kyiv on the wall of a street bomb shelter in Kherson. These small, safe shelters made out of cement, located at bus stops, are called “hideouts” in Ukrainian. The original of the icon is found in a mosaic on the dome of the Sophia Sobor, one of the oldest and most important churches in Kyiv. Mary, raising both hands to heaven in a gesture signifying constant prayer, complete surrender to God, and subjection to his will, has become for us in these days a “hideout.” The image remind the inhabitants of the capital, as well as the inhabitants of the relentlessly shelled city of Kherson, of the words that begin the prayer of the Akathist, which is very popular in the Eastern tradition: “O Valiant Queen of the Heavenly Hosts, who has invincible power, save us from all miseries!”
I started writing this letter last night on the train from Warsaw to Kyiv. Railroads play a very important role in wartime, and the two main lines connecting Kyiv with Poland seem like arteries distributing blood from the heart to the whole body. For over a year, these communication trails have been for us the arteries of freedom, safety, and international solidarity. These days, everybody uses these trains, including the leaders of the world’s superpowers. Every car contains a world in miniature. Among the passengers, mostly women, one can hear conversation in Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, English, and sometimes in other languages unknown to me. For some travelers, cities like Przemyśl, Chełm, or Warsaw are just stopping points on the way to Western Europe, America, or Canada. A couple days ago, on the platform of the Warsaw Eastern Railroad Station, I saw people embracing each other and saying in voices filled with emotion, “Finally, together again!” I could see similar scenes this morning in Kyiv. The only difference was that here, the ones waiting with flowers were mostly soldiers.
“What tells us that we are adults? It is not our age, but the responsibility that we take for ourselves and others.” I was listening attentively to the wise homily at the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation. And, although Bishop Romuald did not talk about war, his words accurately describe the motivations of many Ukrainian soldiers. It is exactly that responsibility for their loved ones, for their country, and for their own future, that makes many of them volunteer to serve. As one defends his own home, one has to grow up faster and make more mature decisions. During a discussion in the Kyiv center of the PEN Club, Oleksandr Mykhed asked his fellow writer and soldier Illarion Pavliuk, “Why did you go to war?” He answered simply: “Because it’s the only way to protect our children.” His teenage son was sitting in the room, not far from me. I’m convinced that he was listening to his father with pride. I am also not surprised that, when I talk to soldiers, they cannot even imagine life in the totalitarian reality of contemporary Russia. That is why they keep fighting, convinced that Ukraine simply cannot lose this war.
This time, I could not join Fr. Misha, Sr. Augustine, and the volunteers from the House of St. Martin, in their humanitarian mission to the Kherson area. So I have been listening to their stories about many familiar places and people. At present, it is a very dangerous area. The Russians have been shelling the city and surrounding villages with increased intensity. For this reason, the streets become empty in the afternoon. Marzena, a volunteer from the Warsaw group Charytatywni – Freta, who for over a year has been living in Fastiv, recollected for us an amazing meeting in one of the villages on the shores of the Dnieper. “We were invited for dinner by an Armenian family. There are no shops in the area, so people eat anything that can be provided by soil and water. It is a sort of enforced return to nature. At some point, an older woman with crutches came to us, limping. Somebody told her that the village was being visited by people from Poland.” Urszula, as she is called, is a Polish woman from Drohobych, and she arrived to those distant lands many years ago with her Russian husband. When she heard “Good morning” in her native tongue, she started crying. For over forty years, she had had no opportunity to speak Polish. She made her Easter confession, because, as she said, due to her age and the difficult war situation, it might be the last in her life. God knows how to find his lost sheep.
This Lent was a very busy time of preaching for many of us. Brothers preached conferences and retreats in parishes and religious communities, both in Ukraine and in Poland. It is very different from the Lent one year ago. At that time, there was heavy fighting in Kyiv, and the places where Dominicans live — Lviv, Chortkiv, Khmelnitsky, Kharkiv — were under constant bombardment. Our house chapels became our pulpit, and the congregation was mostly those who were asking us for shelter. This year’s Holy Week started differently — in a more normal way, although still far from actual normalcy. We got used to it somehow, and we are learning how not to be defeated by the evil of war.
In my previous letter, I mentioned the cemeteries, which are like hourglasses in which the passing days of war are marked by the mounting tombs of fallen soldiers. But there are other calendars, and other ways of measuring time. There are, for instance, delivery rooms. Data about military losses on the Ukrainian side are classified, which includes the number of soldiers killed. But the media is full of information about births. During the four hundred days of war up through the end of March, 18,450 children were born in Kyiv. In that number were almost 600 more boys than girls, 317 sets of twins, and 4 sets of triplets. Is it a lot? Before the war, the capital of Ukraine welcomed many thousands more children each year. And, although every new life is a sign of hope, the demographic situation of the country is getting more difficult. The huge wave of emigration, deportation to Russia for those who lived in the occupied territories, civilian and military casualties of war, as well as low rates of childbirth — all of this combined means that the results of the war will be felt for a great many years, and will be terribly painful.
When something that I have prayed for long and patiently comes to fruition, it almost always moves me much more than a request heard immediately.” These are words from one of the letters of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]. I jotted them down when I was in novitiate, but there is a reason why I recall them today. When the war started, I tried to volunteer as a chaplain in one of the hospitals. At that time, it was not possible. The desire stayed in me, however. For this reason, I was very happy when, on Saturday, Bishop Vitaliy called me and asked if the Dominicans could provide someone to serve as a chaplain in one of the Kyiv hospitals, which was urgently looking for a Roman Catholic priest. The request is unusual for Ukraine, because the ministry to the sick is still not well developed. Luckily, as the war progresses, one can see change for the better and the growing care of the authorities to ensure spiritual support to both civilian and military patients. Thus, in the coming days, we will begin a new stage in our ministry in Kyiv. Fr. Oleksandr will become a hospital chaplain and join the team already consisting of an Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest of the Eastern rite. For myself, it is another moment in my life when I realize that God fulfills our dreams, although in this case it had a year-long waiting period. Apparently in heaven, they have a lot of urgent requests from Ukraine nowadays. Please remember Fr. Oleksandr in your prayers, because hospital ministry in the time of war is very difficult.
Although this year Christians of Eastern and Western traditions in Ukraine do not celebrate Pascha at the same time, these words, spoken during the Orthodox liturgy, remain our common profession of faith: “Christ has risen from the dead, with his death he conquered death, and to those in the tombs, he gave life.”
With gratitude and with the best Easter wishes, and with humble requests for prayer,
Jarosław Krawiec, O.P.
Kyiv, April 3, 2023
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