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Letter From Ukraine, June 27, 2022

Dominican Shield

Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,

It’s been over two weeks since my last letter from Ukraine. This longer period between correspondences might give the impression of a return to normalcy. If one of you arrived now in Kyiv or Lviv not knowing a war has been going on for over four months, you might not see at first glance that not all is in order. Obviously apart from the sight of many women and men in military uniforms on the streets, everyday life seems to be following its normal course. But this is just an illusion. It suffices to exchange a couple words or sentences with the locals to realize that we’re far, far from normal. What’s worse, nobody knows when it will return because there’s no end of war in sight.

Last weekend was a painful reminder of this reality. On Saturday a few dozen Russian rockets fell in the area surrounding Zhytomyr, Lviv, and Chernihiv. Then followed a tragic Sunday morning in Kyiv. I was visiting Fastiv, and I was awakened before 6 am by blaring sirens. A moment later one could hear a suppressed noise of an explosion. Even Father Pavel’s dog, a friendly and calm labrador, was clearly disturbed. Afterwards we learned it was the sound of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense shooting down one of the rockets flying toward Kyiv. A moment later I got a message from Father Jakub: “Rockets have fallen. All is okay with us.” The missiles hit not far from our priory, so the brothers could clearly hear their flight and explosion. It was apparent that the Russians hadn’t given up and were attacking the capital again. A building that had already been hit by a rocket a couple weeks ago was heavily damaged this time. Unfortunately its inhabitants were also hurt, including a 7-year-old girl whom workers managed to dig out from under the rubble. The image of this child being carried on a stretcher became momentarily famous around the world. In the afternoon I went to see what had happened. It’s moving to see familiar places that have become ruins. Obviously I didn’t have direct access to the place of the tragedy. Watching the rescue work from a distance, I caught sight of fire engines returning with their crews. The firemen were exhausted by the work and the heat. It is they, along with rescue workers, doctors, as well as gas and electricity engineers, who have been unbroken heroes since the beginning of this war, daily saving human lives and property.

The attack served as a wakeup call for the citizens of Kyiv, especially those who had just returned to the city. It dashed their growing hope of safety and reminded us of the ongoing war. I heard today about people who decided to postpone their return home indefinitely. Apart from Russian rockets flying toward Ukraine, we’re also looking with apprehension in the direction of Belarus. And this is the perspective from the relative safety of Kyiv, where I live with the brothers. What are people supposed to say in eastern and southern Ukraine? That’s where the really terrible things are happening.

I spent last week traveling. Ukraine was visited by Father Alain, the socius to the Master of the Order, and Father Lukasz, the provincial of Poland. It had already been some time that we’d been trying to arrange this meeting with Father Alain in Ukraine, but something always kept getting in the way. Finally it happened. The meeting looked a little like a scene from a spy movie, in the parking lot of one of the supermarkets in the small Slovak town of Michalovce. Father Alain arrived from Hungary thanks to the generosity of Father Jacek from Debrecen. It was so good to meet one of the two Polish Dominicans working in Hungary, and even more so since Father Jacek didn’t fail to bring us a couple bottles of the delightful Tokaj. Father Alain’s new Belgian passport caused a small excitement on the Slovak-Ukrainian border crossing. The document is decorated with cartoon heroes and was much admired by the Ukrainian border guard women who started recognizing the printed silhouettes. How could anyone resist charming drawings of smurfs and Lucky Luke? When she returned the passport, Madame Officer said, “It’s so beautiful that it’s a shame to put a stamp on it.”

We arrived surprisingly quickly in Mukachevo in Zakarpattia, a region in Ukraine famous for its mix of cultures, languages, and religions. We stayed overnight at the house of Bishop Nicholas, a Dominican. At dinner, our brother shared his war experiences with us. As a bishop of a region in a safe part of the country where a huge number of refugees find shelter, he sees many human stories each day. It’s hard to disagree with his reflection that all Ukrainians — no matter where they are, or whether they’ve seen destroyed houses and cities with their own eyes or maybe only saw them on tv — are all victims of this war. Every one of them has been touched and wounded by the war. In Mukachevo we also met Father Irenaeus who is temporarily living with the Dominican sisters while helping Sister Lydia and, above all, the priests at the cathedral parish. Irenaeus arrived in Zakarpattia with a group of exiles from Kharkiv where he had lived before the war.

The next day, after a visit to the car mechanic in Kolomyya to fix a punctured tire, we reached Chortkiv. There we were awaited by Fathers Svorad, Julian, and Dymitro, as well as the candidate to the Order from Kharkiv, Nikita, who will begin his novitiate in Warsaw soon. On the way to our church, we stopped by the Eastern Rite cathedral. In the sanctuary inside, we noticed new paintings. Father Alain spotted an angel holding a globe with a map of Ukraine in his hands. A meaningful symbol in a difficult time of war. We also took the opportunity to see the inside of the old Dominican priory which is awaiting a major renovation. We would very much like for the future Dominican priory in Chortkiv to become a place where people affected by war can find help, just like the House of Saint Martin is now in Fastiv. We also paid a visit to the Dominican sisters who are providing help to those in need. Sister Marcelina showed me a map of Ukraine with the places marked that have been reached by gifts from the Dominicans in Chortkiv. In my conversations with sisters and brothers, as well as members of the parish I randomly met, I keep hearing the conviction and faith in the intercession of Mary and the saints  who by their prayers are keeping watch over Chortkiv. We arrived in Khmelnytskyi and Lviv. Father Igor, who recently received ordination to the priesthood, fits very well in the community of the youngest priory, not only in the vicariate of Ukraine but in the whole Order. As we celebrated morning Mass in English in the chapel of the priory in Khmelnytskyi, presided by Father Igor, we heard in a short homily about John the Baptist who becomes for us an example of how to preach Jesus Christ. In the afternoon we were already in Lviv, and the brothers offered us pizza. After our conversations and a short visit to the Rozen Chapel, Fathers Alain and Lukasz departed for Poland and I waited for the evening train to Kyiv.

As I finish writing this letter, I’m reading about new rocket attacks on Ukraine. The shopping center in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, is on fire. A terrifying sight and an even more terrifying awareness of human tragedy. More people are dying during the shelling of Kharkiv. They are all civilians, regular people who found themselves within range of Russian rockets.

Do not forget Ukraine! With greetings and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, June 27, 11pm

Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality
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