Presentation on the current situation in Ukraine to Kirche in Not

Sunday, 17 May 2015, 19:02
His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. May 11, 2015

Thank you for the invitation to come and meet with you today.

Today, during our meeting, I’d like to share with you just a glimpse of our life, to paint you a picture of what life is like in Ukraine today and how the Church is working to adapt its ministry and to prepare its leaders to serve in the current conditions of war and transformation.

The war in Ukraine, its humanitarian consequences, on the background of lagging social and government reforms and change are part of a new emerging reality in Ukraine. In the process of all these events, roles and responsibilities of different institutions are being redefined, new relationships are being forged, new needs are emerging, and in some cases old needs, which were hidden are being revealed. The Church is not apart or separate from these changes.

Learning to respond adequately to and live in this new reality, that 2 years ago, no one could have imagined, was the topic of my pastoral letter to our priests at the beginning of 2015 “Pastoring in the conditions of war”. The vocation of the Church does not change with events, but changing realities effect how we live this vocation to share the message of God’s love and to provide spiritual care and guidance to our faithful and to the needy and vulnerable.

Through all the events of the last two years, I can state that the conceptualization of what Church means in society was transformed in Ukraine. Against the backdrop of a growing secularism in Europe, in Ukraine we are experiencing a fresh rediscovery of Church - a Church that serves; and priests, religious, faithful who live as a “shepherd living with the smell of the sheep, having put their “own skin and heart on the line” they can hear “the warm and heartfelt words of thanks from those they helped.” These experiences have showed us a new openness of people to the Church, which presents new opportunities for helping those in need, and also for preaching the gospel.

Today – Ukraine faces many trying and difficult ‘fronts’ of battle – all simultaneously: aggression and war on its eastern territory and the resulting humanitarian crisis and psychological traumas (PTSD), a vicious informational war, lagging and painful reforms, economic recession, overall fatigue. All these have contributed to a complicated pastoral situation, and have caused us to intensify our ministry in many areas.

We are struggling to respond. But they key phrase is that we ARE struggling, we ARE seeking for answers, for better ways to respond and in this, I believe that we ARE growing. The Church is rediscovering an intensity of its voice and vocation as the “Church that serves.” Sometimes, today, it almost seems that our whole world has become a make-shift hospital, where we are called to provide refuge ‘from the storm’, good cheer to those who have lost their livelihood, comfort for those suffering loss, encouragement and guidance to those serving and giving, healing and help for those struggling with the psychological and physical repercussions of trauma. This is our reality. The Church that serves is our response.

The Church that serves by providing humanitarian aid and counseling. To illustrate, I’d like to start with an example: Dariya Bilechko and her 3 year old daughter fled their home in Vuhlehirsk, after their village had been shelled for 2 weeks straight. They still suffer elements of post trauma disorder, but it turns out that they fled just in time. Soon after, the Ukrainian forces, no longer able to hold their position in the town had to retreat, and the village was leveled by Russian forces 2 weeks later. Only 3,000/10,000 people remain in this village, now located in the occupied territories. Dariya and her daughter moved to a region near the Khakiv oblast, near the Sviatohirsk monastery. Dariya and her daughter are 2 of 5000 displaced persons living in this rural area. Identified as a vulnerable target group, Dariya received financial assistance from Caritas to help her get through the winter, and purchase necessities.

The practical help offered by Caritas was made possible, because in the last half year Caritas opened up 5 new offices in Eastern Ukraine, while continuing to maintain its services in Western Ukraine, Odessa and Kyiv. Now the second largest relief organization working in the region (after the Red Cross), they have been able to help up to 50 000 displaced persons with a similar type of assistance. However, these figures still fall short of the sheer magnitude of needs. According to official UN statistics, there are at least 1.2 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine - a quarter of which are children. The majority of them are located in the regions closest to the conflict zone. In addition to providing for their physical survival assistance, there is a great need for psychological and spiritual assistance, especially for the children, many of whom experienced bombing and explosions first hand.

After so much destruction, the humanitarian crisis will continue for many years, even if the conflict is brought to an end soon. Many of those who have been displaced will not have a home to come back to. However, if the conflict continues, and there is a NEW offensive – into a populous area like Mariupol, the number of displaced persons could be increased by 500 000. Practically in one day. This is a growing humanitarian crisis, the magnitude which has not yet fully been revealed.

The Church that serves through chaplaincy programs. There are currently a total of approximately 200 000 armed forces serving in the conflict zone by rotation– 40 000 serving in the ATO at any given time. Our chaplaincy ministry has been another emergency ministry which has grown over the course of the last two years to try to accommodate to this growth. The support we had from KIN for the development of military chaplains in previous years laid the foundation for the growth of the ministry. The number of chaplains has grown from 61 chaplains to 96. Most chaplains, have served 3-4 rotations (each from 21-45 days) in the ATO region, leaving behind their wife and children (71% of our chaplains are married priests). Another growing need is pastoral care for the hundreds of volunteers who by their work and efforts have been filling the responsibilities which the government has not been able to fill in its current state.

There are also other chaplaincies for other vulnerable groups, who are overlooked in the heat of crisis (youth, the sick, and prisoners). With your help, we are making a concerted effort to keep the development of these chaplaincies growing – through formation and training for the chaplains and volunteers.

The Church that serves through the active and informed pastoral ministry of all of our priests. As soldiers and volunteers go through rotation, return from the front, and begin to work through their experiences in many cases experiencing various degrees of PTSD, our priests are being trained to understand the basics of first aid/first response for PTSD. We have been working to provide all the priests of the UGCC with this training on identifying signs of PTSD, first aid response to it, and also reference information for those who need additional help. This training also includes work on bereavement and also special wounded groups (esp soldiers who have lost limbs and eyes, and their families).

Another ministry, a network of eparchial centers for work with those struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies which we launched in 2008, is also undergoing additional trainings, strengthening and expansion of their ministry, in preparation for assisting soldiers and volunteers with PTSD, as it is often complicated by alcohol abuse.

The Church that serves by helping to build parish communities and to keep a sense of solidarity in these difficult times. In 2011, the Synod approved a new program for the Church – “Vibrant parishes – the place for meeting the living Christ.” The program was the end of 3 year process of reflection and evaluation of the growth of the Church, and identifying priorities for the future. The program was launched in 2012, and is designed to provide inspiration, experience sharing between parishes and eparchies, and also practical guidelines and materials for parish community development. In the course of the project we have developed new channels of communication between eparchies and priests. We are making good use of this new network to communicate information and coordinate our pastoral response.

The Church that serves the people of Eastern Ukraine through the activation of our Exarchates.  The growth of our infrastructure in Eastern Ukraine has been one of our main priorities over the course of the last 5 years. To aid in this, we created additional exarchates, to help better administer to the needs of each region. These changes were very timely, and today are helping us to respond to the crisis better. The Donetsk exarchate is experiencing a critical time, as the front of battle has exclusively been on its territory. Many of its buildings and material goods in the city of Donetsk were seized at the start of the conflict. While some have been returned, the activities of the Church are limited in the city and certain priests/hierarchs are black-listed in the occupied zone. For this reason, and the Bishop and the exarchial center had to be moved to Dnipropetrovsk, to be able to continue the coordination of our parishes, which are territorially located on both sides of the conflict. This quick adaption to the circumstances was made possible thanks to the help of Kirche in Not.

The Church that serves by carrying a message of hope and forgiveness. As Fr. Tykhon Kulbaka, our Donetsk priest who was held in captivity and tortured for 12 day shares – we have to work on ourselves spiritually, that having been set free from a real prison or real conflict, that we not end up in the prison of hatred inside of ourselves. This message to throw off hatred is being carried through letters and appeals from myself and the bishops to the faithful, from the priests in the pulpit to their parishes, in written Church literature, through planned seminars and meetings on dialogue, peace and reconcilitation, and also through our new media outlets – the internet production studio “Zhyve-TV” and the reformatted Radio Resurrection.

Where are our challenges and where do we need help? I would say that at this point, our main challenge is to keeping the fabric of the Church, our growth and capacity, in tact and ready to serve. That means:

  • Continuing to build organizational Infrastructure, keeping communication and networking at our full capacity, and coordinating church initiatives specifically answering the crisis needs.  
  • Mobility for priests in Eastern Ukraine and for our chaplains.
  • Formation and training for leaders (priests, religious, chaplains, catechists, youth).
  • Programs and materials strengthening parish communities. Fostering communication – carrying the message of the Good news in all situations.
  • Continuing to build physical infrastructure, where it is still lacking (churches, pastoral training centers, monastic and retreat houses).
  • Any programs that facilitate ministry to children and youth.

 

Conclusion

With this I’d like to finish up my brief talk to allow for time for questions and discussion, but before I do, I would like to express, on behalf of all the bishops, priests, religious and faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, our thanks. To all of you. “Thank you”, they are just 2 small words, but they are expressed with a great depth of sincerity and feeling of gratitude for the long-standing, faithful support and friendship which Kirche In Not has provided to the Church in Ukraine.

I do not speak these words lightly. I experienced the effects of this friendship first hand. First as a seminarian, later as a student studying abroad, then as the rector of the Lviv seminary, later as an administrator of the Patriarchal Curia, and now as the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While not belittling the support of others, I think it is fair to say that your friendship and solidarity with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been unmatched – beginning from the time of persecution, to legalization, to our first baby steps in freedom in the early 1990’s, and now to our ‘teen years’ of growth and recovery. And particularly, I want to express our thanks for the quickness in response for many of the emergency projects of the last year. I cannot express to you fully what it meant to be under such new pressures and needs and to feel the immediate support of our friends.

In all that we spoke about today, the growth in the capacity of the Church to serve has been the main factor helping us to be ‘who we are’ – and you have been and continue to be an intrinsic part of that growth. Not just through your support, but as I mentioned through your friendship and the relationships we have built. I think that I speak for all when I say that we have experienced the love and care of the Kirche in Not staff members and donors for many years. And this ‘communion’ you invited us into, this is an important element of our strength in the face of adversity.

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