After 643 days of continued conflict, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, the number of causalities on the frontline and among civilians continues to climb and the need for humanitarian aid remains high, especially as winter approaches. In response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli is launching a special Advent appeal on the first Sunday of Advent (3 December). Funds raised will go towards providing aid and practical assistance to those who have been displaced and who are without basic supplies, especially the sick and the elderly.

‘This winter will be a big challenge for Ukrainians,’ says Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, head of the Ukrainian Eparchy in Australia and New Zealand. ‘Humanitarian organisations are already sounding the alarm that 18 million people will need humanitarian aid this winter, which is currently half of Ukraine’s population.’

Since the start of the war, millions of Ukrainians have fled their home country, with thousands of refugees coming to Australia. Earlier this year, in an expression of pastoral solidarity with the people of Ukraine, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and a delegation from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference visited Ukraine. From 8 to 11 August, they spent time with local church and civic leaders and met locals who are recovering from war injuries or have lost loved ones.

‘It was important for us to go to Ukraine to learn and experience what the reality is there,’ explains Archbishop Comensoli. He says he initially felt some hesitation about visiting the war-torn country. ‘Not for any safety or security reason,’ he says, but because he was unsure about what the delegation could possibly offer the people of Ukraine.

Humanitarian organisations are already sounding the alarm that 18 million people will need humanitarian aid this winter, which is currently half of Ukraine’s population.

‘I couldn't bring anything with me, other than my prayer. Mind you, that’s a pretty good thing to bring. But why was I going? Why me?’ Apart from wanting to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, he felt the significance lay in ‘the Melbourne connection’.

‘The heart of the Ukrainian Catholic Church [in our region] and the heart of the Melbourne Catholic Church are situated in this city.’

According to the Archbishop, the value of the overall experience was not just in ‘seeing’ but ‘in the hearing of things.’

In the town of Irpin, located just outside of the capital Kyiv, they met Fr Vitaliy Kolesnyk, who is the parish priest of the Church of the Nativity of Mary. He recounted how for eight days, he and 30 members of the community, including children, holed up in the tiny cellar under the church as the town was held by the Russian military. More than 70 per cent of the town was destroyed, and these days people no longer have livelihoods, with families having to relocate to other centres. And yet the parish continues to work tirelessly to help locals and provide supplies to those most in need.

‘Yes, we saw bombed out townships, holes in the ground where bombs had landed, and burnt cars strewn all over the place,’ says Archbishop Comensoli. ‘I’ve also now seen just how devastatingly powerful shrapnel can be. But by far the [greatest] revelation [of the entire visit] was in what I heard. We had conversations with all sorts of people and even with families at grave sites,’ the Archbishop shares.

What will stay with him forever, he says, is the image of three generations of women surrounding the coffin of a loved one at the Garrison Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Lviv. According the local bishop and chaplain of the church, the parish sometimes hosts up to 12 funerals a day for both soldiers and civilians.

‘One of the truly privileged moments of the trip was when we were asked to participate in the funeral of a soldier in Lviv. At the funeral was the mother of the dead soldier, the wife of the dead soldier and, next to her, the daughter of the dead soldier. I will have etched in my mind forever this image of three generations of women ... It was powerful.’

I will have etched in my mind forever this image of three generations of women ... It was powerful.

The Archbishop is painfully aware that many places in the world are suffering and in need of peace.

‘There are no winners in war, only families torn apart. Sadly, this is the painful reality facing so many at this time,’ he reflected. ‘So what might we do to offer a sense of hope to those who suffer?’

‘Bishop Mykola has asked us for our continued prayers and any support that we can provide.’

Funds raised through the Advent Appeal for Ukraine will go towards the work of Mudra Sprava (Wise Action), a Patriarchal Charitable Foundation in Ukraine. The organisation focuses on three areas: the evacuation of people from frontline territories, providing food packages for people in need and providing shelter for the internally displaced.

There are no winners in war, only families torn apart ... So what might we do to offer a sense of hope to those who suffer?

During their visit to Ukraine, the Australian delegation met one of the local organisers of Mudra Sprava, Boris Danyliv. They met by chance at a local rest stop, where Boris was sorting packages to be delivered to a local distribution centre. Boris shared how more than 200,000 boxes of basic food and medical supplies have been distributed since the start of the war.

‘There is a map of the frontline where liberated centres are,’ he said, explaining how the aid is distributed among those displaced and in need, particularly to the sick and elderly. He said that he and some local priests and parish communities then organise for smaller groups to take the supplies into ‘places where big trucks can’t go,’ to be ‘distributed out of tiny churches’.

‘It is a blessing that most of this goes to the east [of Ukraine] where our [Catholic] Church is not really known. It has created good will and good work,’ he said.

I pray that, together, we can be a sign of God’s nearness to those who need it most.

It is this practical assistance and sense of hope that, Archbishop Comensoli believes, can make such a difference in war-torn Ukraine.

‘I’m inviting the faithful of Melbourne to offer whatever they can at this time,’ he said. ‘And I pray that, together, we can be a sign of God’s nearness to those who need it most.’

Donate now to the Advent Appeal for Ukraine.

Posters and prayer cards have also been sent to all parishes in the Archdiocese of Melbourne with more information on how to contribute to the appeal.

Banner image: Icon of Our Lady, located in the the Church of the Nativity of Mary, Irpin.