From 8 to 11 August 2023, a delegation from Australia of bishops, priests and laity visited war-engulfed Ukraine in an extension of pastoral fraternity and humanitarian solidarity. The four-day encounter was to listen to and witness first-hand the experiences of the people, and to see where the Church in Australia’s own support might have greatest impact.
It is no light exercise to visit a country at war. Enormous assistance was provided by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC)—particularly on the ground through Bishop Stepan Sus, based in Lviv, Bishop Andriy Khimyak of Kyiv and Fr Adam Ziółkowski SDS. The Australian delegation comprised Archbishop Peter A Comensoli of Melbourne, Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, Bishop Karol Kulczycki SDS of Port Pirie, Fr Simon Cjuk, Vicar General of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Australia, and Annie Carrett, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, who shares her impressions and reflections.
Although brief, this was a journey that unfolded not just in kilometres but in understanding.
Heading out of Krakov, Poland, on the way to Lviv, Ukraine, a normal, busy highway suddenly gives way to a zone of emptiness about 50 kilometres from the border crossing. The multi-lane road is smooth running, and we have been the only car for some time in either direction—barring a lengthy, escorted convoy of trucks waiting to one side.
Arriving at the border crossing, there is an significant but understandable wait time at both the Polish and Ukrainian control posts—waiting, we come to learn, is a significant part of life amid conflict.
As we enter Ukrainian territory, however, everything shifts. The good road disappears, and a narrow, single-laned, potholed highway opens up. Significant traffic appears, driving at speed in both directions. Only a few minutes in, and close to the border itself, there are war-damaged buildings.
As in neighbouring Poland, there are roadside shrines and churches dotted along the highway. Frequent billboards speak of Divine Mercy; fields of sunflowers and wheat stretch out, and late summer blooms are everywhere. It feels rural, a little neglected and deceptively peaceful.
For Australians, it is hard to imagine that a line on a map can make such a difference. Except for the unreality of our own COVID experiences, state delineation has been mostly a way to control agricultural disease. Once this border is crossed, however, there is a shift in focus. Keen attention is paid by our expert guide, Fr Adam, who has multiple apps and news feeds letting him know what strike power has been launched, where from and its estimated impact. A constantly monitored map of Ukraine on his phone lights up with the regions under likely attack by rocket, drone or plane strike. And yes, the zones light up frequently, including the zones we travel through. Information is essential for Ukrainians, like breathing or eating, if they are to function in any sort of ‘normalised’ way.
Our first destination is Lviv in western Ukraine, about 70 kilometres from the Polish border. This is a city with seven centuries of visible history, and now a modern-day administrative centre and humanitarian hub, welcoming refugees and wounded military and civilians in need of care and safety. It is not exempt from the strikes being launched.
Andriy Sadovyi, the longstanding Mayor of Lviv, graciously makes time to welcome the delegation to his private office in the heart of Lviv. Dressed in T-shirt and slacks, he is confident and deliberative—and he has a presentation! One guesses this has been shown many times, to all manner of visiting dignitaries and groups. The garnering of financial support for programs is critical for the ongoing survival and flourishing of the Ukrainian people. We hear about the First Medical Union of Lviv, who have provided qualified medical help to more than 5,000 Ukrainians affected by the hostilities. Every week, war-affected Ukrainians are cared for by the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Centre, which we will later visit. The underlying message is that support will be put to good use in a way that will take the Ukrainian people beyond war. Looking to the future is about keeping hope alive.
We have been accompanied in the city by Bishop Stepan Sus, Chairman of the Pastoral and Migration Department of the UGCC and Rector of the Garrison Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Lviv—a centre of faith that cares pastorally and sacramentally for military personnel and their families. At his consecration as bishop to the UGCC in 2020, he was the youngest bishop in the world; today, at 41 years of age, he carries a heavy weight. Driving through the city, Bishop Stepan reflects on the role of the Church in this war.
‘There is a genuine feeling that life is to be continued, and not simply be just a reality of war. But we know that the real wounds will truly appear when the war stops,’ he says.
‘Healing these wounds must be both spiritual and physical. As the Church—ordained, religious and all those involved in Church life—we need to look at how to prepare ourselves for the full trauma of war.
We know that hands, eyes and legs will not be good again, and that we cannot heal everybody, but we can help people live in new ways.
‘Everyone must learn to live with those who have suffered. It is not sufficient to simply say, “I understand,” because we don’t. You must be beside them, and be present.
‘What is important in these times of challenge is knowing that you are loved. Our front line as people of faith is the next front line. This will be more difficult than we can imagine, because the weapons will be not knowing how trauma will play out. Sadly, the new “normal” life will become the new enemy.’
The Unbroken is a large centre within Lviv providing physical, psychological and psychosocial rehabilitation of injured military and civilians. The vision of this project is to provide Ukrainians with all the necessary care and support in their own country, near their families. The hope, too, is that this model will eventually be in every big city. With over 8,000 rehabilitation sessions per day in this centre alone, there is a sadness that the need for such a broad outreach has become a reality of this conflict.
Michael and his young wife Oxana sit quietly in one of the rooms. Michael, a military volunteer, has lost a leg to a drone. They have two young children. The Unbroken centre has worked with him through its cycle—surgery, preparing a prosthesis, physical rehab and the ongoing psychological rehab. They are smiling and willing to talk to the bishops, and they are planning what the future will be for their family. In the bed opposite Michael is a man who has lost both legs. There is no smile here, and no story shared. He is one of too many. The bishops meet further with military wounded, and tour the centre, with its state-of-the-art equipment.
‘It is like a jigsaw,’ the touring co-ordinator shares.
‘Organisations and countries from around the world have donated “pieces” that we are now bringing together like a puzzle across the seven storeys of the complex. IKEA, for example, have outfitted an entire room that teaches how to relearn using everyday household items: getting out of bed, cooking, holding kettles, ironing, opening jars—everything we take for granted.
This is about supporting our people to return to the fullest possible life.
While we visit, an air raid siren goes off. Our touring group would not know anything was happening, except the locals all look to their phones, and then go about their business.
In the centre of Lviv is Sts Peter and Paul Garrison Church, where Bishop Stepan Sus has served as Parish Priest and as Military Chaplain in Lviv.
Bishop Stepan has invited the Australian bishops to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy and then a funeral for a fallen soldier. Rostyslav Rudenko was only 48 years of age. His family have not been able to see his remains, and his parents, his wife and his daughter stand helpless and stunned by their loss. The hands of both wife and daughter caress and rub the wood of the coffin as the last physical connection they will hold with their loved one. The daughter’s gaze across the gathering is questioning and gut-wrenching.
Archbishop Comensoli speaks to those gathered. ‘We are here to touch the wounds left by the war with you. We want to be with you in these difficult and tragic moments in the history of your people.
‘The Catholic Church in Australia and other churches pray for peace in Ukraine. When we return home, we will tell of the courage of the Ukrainian people.’
This funeral is just one of too many. Sometimes the Garrison Church farewells up to 12 soldiers, both men and women, in a day. The funeral set-up is lightning fast, a practised assembly: trestle bench in, flags up, buckets for flowers, chairs for immediate family. With the liturgy complete, the pack-down is as quick as the preparation. This in itself is a devastating reflection of daily life.
‘I personally know half of the people that I farewell here,’ says Bishop Stepan. ‘Their faces aid us in our responsibilities because we must continue in their memory. Along the side wall of the church is a long line of photos, revealing the faces of the recently fallen.
‘We have seen so many ways of “understanding family” during this war. People who have lost sons have adopted young children who have no parents. One woman who had lost her husband prayed regularly at his grave. Nearby a man mourned the loss of his mother. Through this unusual circumstance, the two met and have now married. Perhaps they realised that they understood well the pain and loss that each felt.
‘Family is key.’
The highway to Kyiv is fast flowing. We sweep past more fields of sunflowers and grain, of roadside villagers selling their produce, of churches, large crucifixes along the verge, and camouflaged military posts. The town signage and bus shelter names have been covered up or removed; even roadside directions have been taken down. The enemy will not be given advantages.
It is late in the day when we join a long line of cars entering Kyiv. On the outskirts of the capital, there is extensive rocket damage to buildings, shops and houses. The seventh most populous city in Europe was virtually rebuilt after World War II and is now an important industrial, scientific and educational centre. It is also only 380 kilometres to the Russian border and is a focus for strike activity.
As soon as we arrive at the hotel, we are told to go to a shelter below. A raid has been called and we must wait for an ‘all clear’. It is comfortable (our guide Fr Adam says possibly the most comfortable he has experienced so far in this conflict). People are reading their phones and waiting … the new ‘thing to do’. That evening, four more alarms go off across the city.
Our first meeting in the city is with Fr Andriy Khimyak, Auxiliary Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Kyiv, at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ—the mother church for the UGCC. While it was consecrated in 2013, the cathedral is still very much under construction. It is quiet, beautiful and peaceful, and stands large and strong over the city on the edge of the Dnipro River.
Talking with Bishop Andriy, we ask what hope there is for the future for people of faith in Kyiv and Ukraine.
‘We have yet to really understand the effects of this conflict,’ he says. ‘Our soldiers return and we think we are doing the right thing for them—but only they can tell us their needs. It is the same with families. We are all learning, even as Church. We must learn how to be present with people in this new reality.
‘We are so grateful for the prayers and the support from Australia. The world is united in prayer from all from across the globe. It truly means so much for Ukraine. We are not alone.’
This new cathedral became a hub in the early days and months of the war. More than 300 gathered in the deep rooms underneath. Today it remains a shelter, a place for Divine Liturgy and a place to organise support and care. Its kitchens provide up to 800 meals a day to those in need in outlying villages and communities. Military chaplains are also coordinated from the cathedral’s administrative centre, with the goal of basing 120 of them in regions across the country.
Bishop Yosyf Milyan, another auxiliary bishop of the Archeparchy, shares his gratitude with the visiting bishops and clergy and reconfirms the sense of listening and learning that this conflict is drawing out in everyone.
‘Thank you for your courage in coming to visit us. We know that with all the reports that you see, this has been a significant and important decision, and one that has meant a great deal to us.
We are all in a process of learning. Our priests have been deeply active in supporting their people, and what were immediate practical responses for physical support meeting the demands coming in must now be a refocussing to a greater sacramental and spiritual source of healing and renewal.
‘The Church has a very important part to play as we look to the future.’
Irpin and Bucha are cities on the edge of Kyiv.
In early 2022, the Russian invasion sought to take control of Irpin, and the battle lasted for over a month, ending with Ukrainian forces reclaiming the city. With the indiscriminate destruction of more than 70 per cent of its homes and buildings, images of the devastated city are some of the most recognisable in the Western media’s coverage. In nearby Bucha, it was tragedy in the form of a violent human toll. Around 500 were killed in the city alone, and across both cities, more than 1,000 bodies were recovered, including 31 children and at least 270 bodies of civilians discovered in mass graves. A year later, evidence of the invasion remains in rusting vehicles, damaged streets and poignant makeshift memorials.
We meet Greek Ukrainian priest Fr Vitaliy Kolesnyk, who leads a small community from his Church of the Nativity of Mary in Irpin. A married man with three children, he is tall and bursting with a determined energy and passion.
Walking through the peaceful church grounds, extensive shrapnel damage is clear. A section of the priests’ house has been demolished by a shell, and further shrapnel and blast damage marks the interior walls and windows of the church, with the new iconostasis remaining miraculously unharmed.
Fr Vitaliy tells the group of the 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 and while, around them, more than 70 per cent of the town was destroyed. People no longer have livelihoods, and families have had to relocate to other centres. Helping each other, feeding each other, sheltering each other remains daily work. Fr Vitaliy himself has learnt to drive a truck and runs many missions to deliver much-needed supplies.
‘When we started this faith community 16 years ago, we had only seven parishioners. Just before the Russian invasion in February, we had grown to around 300. This is a strong, close-knit community built on a lot of prayer and hard work,’ says Fr Vitaliy.
‘In the last six months alone, we have provided 10,000 meals and brought together 20 tonnes of aid materials—just from our small parish. We continue to provide food, items for hospitals and schools, shelter and care. And we keep praying. We could never have done this work without the support from so many overseas places such as Australia. We truly thank you, but there is still so much to do.’
On the way to Bucha, the delegation calls in to a large cemetery where local soldiers are buried. The national flags fly high, and there are several fresh graves weighed down with floral arrangements. We see two graves side by side: young men who grew up together, started school together, fought together—and died together on the same day. Further down, a mother grieves at the foot of her son’s memorial. She allows the visitors to pray with her.
Walking past the graves, Archbishop Comensoli pauses to reflect at one where the victim’s photo sits beneath a beautiful crucifix.
‘There is something in seeing this man’s photo under the cross,’ he says.
‘This man who sacrificed his life, and all who have given their lives here, share in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No greater love can be given than to lay down your life for others.
We unite in prayer to the Prince of Peace for the sake of peace in this country—for a giving up of war, a giving up of destruction, a giving up of violence.
In Bucha, the group visits the site of a mass grave, and a place of torture and assassination of local civilians, who were the last defence of the town. It is deeply sobering. Asked if this has changed his own faith and prayer life, Fr Vitaliy emotionally answers, undoubtably.
‘When I hold up the Lamb of God today, I hold it up like never before,’ he says.
For Fr Simon Cjuk, one of the delegation whose family heritage is Ukrainian, these visits to the cities are particularly moving.
‘I have always felt that a visit to Ukraine is more a pilgrimage than just a visit—more so this time than in any of my eight previous trips. I feel a true spiritual bond with this land that transcends just my ethnic roots. It is the home of my Mother Church, and as such, my visit becomes a profoundly spiritual one.
‘Ukraine is at war, and the Church is there with her people. I was profoundly moved by being privileged to participate in the Church’s ministry during this short visit. To feel the pain of grief, yet at the same time a hope for a better future. I will never forget the words of the mother of the dead soldier whose funeral we were privileged to celebrate: she said, with tears in her eyes, ‘Pray that my son’s death will allow others to live.’ I was also profoundly moved by our visit to Irpin and the great witness of Fr Vitaliy. In the face of such death and destruction, he continues to smile and laugh, finding joy in small things and an unbreakable hope that is a gift of his faith.
‘It is this resilience that most affected me. The resilience of people old and young. To walk the streets of Lviv or Kyiv, you could think, ‘What war?’ People go about their daily lives. Yes, they are affected by this tragedy, in more ways than I could possibly imagine, but they have courage and strength built on faith, and that gives me great hope for the future of Ukraine.’
We leave Kyiv for Warsaw knowing that there are at least eight hours of driving ahead. Barely out of the city, the app on Fr Adam’s phone shows every oblast, or region, in Ukraine lighting up red. Something is happening, and it is unnerving to be on an open road. At the first stop, we hear that a nearby rocket has hit a house just out of Kyiv killing a 60-year-old woman. A photo of her house comes up on a message app within minutes. Later in the day, we hear that another rocket has killed an eight-year-old boy. The length of the drive ahead weighs heavily, and it is no wonder that all cars are speeding with particular intent towards their destinations.
A 14-hour drive later—including 4.5 hours at the border crossing, made easier thanks to some wonderful assistance from the UGCC—we make it into Poland. As we leave, we pass kilometres of vehicles lined up to get into Ukraine, many towing old cars that will be reused for much-needed parts. These queues must take days, and again people are waiting and watching.
There is much to reflect on, and much to determine in terms of how the Church in Australia might best support the Ukrainian people. The visit, though brief, has confirmed the fraternal commitment of the Church in Australia to supporting the people of Ukraine. On their return, the bishops will look to build on the connections made. But the learnings will also need to be worked through—just as the people of Ukraine are relearning how to live and what it means to plan for a future.
This week I am leaving my Twitter app open, alerting me to rocket and drone strikes across the regions. It feels important to know that we haven’t simply returned and are putting the people of Ukraine behind us.
Archbishop Comensoli noted throughout the trip that the delegation was never intended to be a burden. Far from it, with each encounter, we were warmly welcomed and thanked. Yet the present reality of Ukraine is revealed mostly in the hearing, and less in the seeing. It is the people—their resilience and courage, their trauma and hope, and their living in the midst of war—that truly tells the story of this ‘martyred nation’.
The words of Bishop Sus have particularly resonated:
For Ukrainians, it is so important to see we are visited by others. Having friends is already a step to victory. Those who are suffering are surrounded by the ‘bright’ people around the world, who also want this war to stop in the hearts of everyone.
‘Our friends are our hope.’
May peace come to Ukraine, and may the healing of its people be swift and deep.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)15 August 2023