More than a thousand people gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral for the celebration of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the annual liturgical Season of Lent. The liturgy was especially dedicated to praying for peace in Ukraine, with Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, joining Archbishop Peter A Comensoli for the Mass.

‘As we gather today our hearts are united with the people of Ukraine and their terrible situation,’ said Archbishop Comensoli. ‘I welcome in a particular way Bishop Mykola who is the Ukrainian Catholic Bishop in Australia, and I can see in our congregation a number of you who are originally from Ukraine or who have family in Ukraine.

To all of you, we unite in prayer and pray for the gift of peace in that troubled place at the moment.’

Last week, Pope Francis called on all Christians and people of goodwill to dedicate Ash Wednesday (2 March) as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

Today’s celebration was special for a number of reasons, not least because at this time last year, the State of Victoria was still in the grips of the COVID pandemic, with churches unable to welcome the faithful in their usual number.

In his homily, Bishop Mykola called on those gathered to continue praying for his homeland of Ukraine, and to enter Lent by heeding St Paul’s words to become “ambassadors of Christ”.

‘St Paul exhorts us today in the second letter to Corinthians that “we are ambassadors of Christ as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God”. These words are as important to us today as they were when St Paul wrote them.

‘We are called to be true ambassadors of God’s love, peace and mercy … Last Wednesday Pope Francis announced 2 March as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine. The Holy Father appealed to those “with political responsibility to examine their consciences seriously before God, who is the God of peace and not of war, who is the Father of all, not just of some, who wants us to be brothers and not enemies.”

I thank God that I have an opportunity to be here among you today and pray together for peace in Ukraine, as she faces the hideous evil of war, violence, and hostility, from an enemy who is deaf to all pleas for peace, and makes war against a peaceful neighbour, Ukraine, who has done her no wrong, and has only good will toward her.

Ukraine is not Russia’s enemy. Please pray for Ukraine as she passes through this terrible trial and suffering.’

Bishop Mykola also spoke of the Christian life as a life to be lived in communion with others.

‘Our life as Christians is a spiritual sojourn, which we tend to think of as our personal journey: “It’s just between me and God.” Yet all of the imagery and prayers of the Church portray the spiritual life as a community journeying together, like Israel did on its escape from Egypt and as it wandered the desert for 40 years.

‘You and I are part of that same community. We are travelling on a grand journey to the ultimate destination; the Kingdom of Heaven. Like all journeys it can have moments that are arduous or difficult, at other times it might seem long and boring, and at times intense or even exciting. But it is meant to be experienced together as members of the Body of Christ. … We can only practice the love that Jesus taught if there are others around us for us to love and serve, and who love and serve us likewise. We begin Great Lent as a community. This is part of our journey together in which we especially think about our Lord’s words “to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves and to follow Him.”

‘Please remember Ukraine and her people in your prayers this Lent, that peace, justice, and prosperity may come to her, and that all wars, hostilities, and suffering may cease. The Bishop also asked for prayers for the conversion of Russia, ‘as Our Lady requested at Fatima over 100 years ago.’

‘Wisely did the prophet David say “put not your trust in princes, or in the sons of men”, but we as Christians put our trust in God from whom we receive salvation, peace and forgiveness of our sins.’

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and other bishops and clergy from the Latin Church will join Bishop Mykola Bychok for a special Liturgy of Intercession for peace at 7pm on Wednesday 2 March at Ss Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral (35 Canning Street, North Melbourne).