Emotional accounts of first-hand experiences in Ukraine and impassioned appeals for spiritual, material and financial support of those impacted in the war-torn country emanated from the hearts and minds of three guest speakers at the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg on June 8.
“An Evening of Personal Reflections and Prayer for Ukraine” unfolded with a prayer service, heart-wrenching personal accounts, signs of solidarity, discussion and financial support as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its 19th week.
According to a United Nations report in the first week of June, nearly 7 million Ukrainians have left their homeland for neighboring countries, while 8 million remain displaced inside Ukraine since the invasion began on February 24 of this year. The number of causalities has been difficult to pin down amid conflicting reports, although estimates are in the tens of thousands.
In a series of presentations during the evening of prayer and reflection, in-person attendees and those watching the program via livestream on the Diocese’s YouTube page learned of personal accounts from Ukraine, the historical trauma the country has endured from the Russian Empire, and practical ways to support the Ukrainian people.
‘From My Heart’
“I decided to speak from my heart, how I feel, what I feel,” Rev. Taras Lovska, pastor of St. Ann Byzantine Catholic Church, said as he stepped to the podium.
The Ukrainian-born priest recalled his life during the time of the Soviet Union’s stronghold on his country, when churches were considered the enemy, priests were captured and sent to Siberia, and young Ukrainian men were forced into Russian military service. He recounted how his family received the sacraments and attended Mass under the cover of darkness, and the celebrations when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine gained its independence.
“I don’t understand why people fight. Russia, Ukraine, they’re like brothers, the same population,” he said, swallowing tears. “All because someone decided that Ukraine must be put under. The war is touching each of us very deeply. Do we like it if somebody forces us, pushes us, commands us, gives orders to do what you don’t want to do?”
“I am human. I am a priest, but I have feelings, I have sentiments. Every day I am in front of the television, I want to hear some good news,” Father Lovska said. “But it’s just bombs and rockets on cities and villages, and people die. War; what is the reason?”
He lauded the Ukrainian people for the love of their country, and their willingness to fight for it.
“People wake up because they want to be free. They fight for freedom, and that makes me proud, and more proud to see how all the world slowly started to support my country, Ukraine,” he said. “It is a war against the darkness, against evil. But we know that good always wins.”
Father Lovska encouraged the faithful to continue to pray – for peace, for their priests, and for the conversion of Russia.
“Jesus says, ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.’ Whenever I hear that there will be some moments like this here, I am grateful,” Father Lovska said. “I am so happy to be here today, that we made this prayer together.”
‘Real People are Really Suffering’
In a passionate presentation on the historical trauma Ukraine has suffered for centuries and pain its people endure today, Matthew Kenenitz, a Professor of English at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, implored for help for those in Ukraine.
“Real people are really suffering,” said Kenenitz, a native of Ashland, Pa., who spent the last three years living and working in Ukraine until returning to the United States just days before the invasion.
“There are millions of more lives at stake in this war. It’s important not to be idle witnesses,” he said, encouraging efforts for monetary support, supplies and volunteer efforts that directly benefit those in the ongoing struggle to live and fight in their homeland.
Sharing first-hand accounts from his university students, Kenenitz said he can’t adequately convey the feeling of watching news reports on the invasion while maintaining daily contact with his friends and associates there.
“The conversations are difficult at best, knowing that I am a world away. Being there without ‘being there,’ he remarked.
He read aloud an e-mail from a 20-year-old female student, received on March 13, when a Russian airstrike decimated the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security in Yavoriv:
“As you may know, today the international center in Yavoriv was under attack. At that time, both my father and I were there…. Today, my morning started with missiles and bombs. Some hit my dorms. I survived, but one of them hit straight into my father’s room. We found him after more than 15 hours after the attack. All this time, we didn’t lose hope, but unfortunately there was no miracle. I need to take some time to be with my family. I hope you understand.”
“How, pray tell, does one simply ignore or forget someone like this?” Kenenitz said.
“We are witnessing pure evil at work,” he said of the invasion. “We are witnessing the living embodiment of Satan, enacting unthinkable terrors within the sentiment that it is their right to do so.”
“The Ukrainian spirit and sentiment is high, but Russia will only stop if a true sign of solidarity with Ukraine is shown by the world,” Kenenitz remarked. “The longer this wears on, what will be the ultimate price, if not only freedom but also the lives of millions if not billions of innocent people who simply want to live their lives and prosper, as is our God-given right as human beings in this world?”
‘You Can Make a Change’
Very Rev. Mykola Ivanov, pastor of Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Shamokin, was the final speaker for the evening. The Ukrainian-born priest presented a heartening account of delivering supplies directly to orphanages in western Ukraine.
“Watching the scenes from Ukraine on the news is like watching a scary movie. It’s like this horrible thing we can look at, but we don’t always have to watch it; we can turn off the TV. But the people of Ukraine cannot turn off the TV. They cannot turn off what is happening to them,” Father Ivanov said.
In the immediate days after the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, Father Ivanov began receiving checks and money at his residence from people trying to find a way to help. Financial donations arrived in sums large and small – including dollar bills from children offering up money they would have otherwise spent on ice cream.
“With the money, we can save some lives. Every amount helps,” he said.
“When we go to Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning to get coffee, for us it’s $10. For the people who are in need, $10 might be their life. For us, it’s just paper that pays for our coffee. We can go without coffee for one, two, three, four days. For the children in the orphanages in Ukraine, that money donated from not buying a coffee means provisions for weeks, maybe months,” Father Ivanov said.
He and a local businessman decided to actively start raising money for Ukraine. Within three weeks of the start of the invasion, they had received nearly $140,000, and they worked personally to convert the money into much-needed supplies that they delivered to seven orphanages in western Ukraine.
Supplied with wish lists and shoe sizes, the priest worked to purchase brand new, name-brand sneakers for the orphans, who couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the gifts laid out before them.
“You had to see the eyes of these kids, who had never, ever, ever had anything like this in their life. When they were opening the boxes of brand new shoes that no one else had, it was amazing,” Father Ivanov said. “It was amazing. I will never forget their eyes.”
Shoes weren’t the only supplies among the pallets of goods delivered to the seven orphanages. The $140,000 in donations also purchased tablets so the children could continue their education, several months’ worth of food, and a wheelchair-accessible van for an orphanage that cares for 34 children with physical needs.
“It’s unbelievable, the experience that I went through, in helping these people,” Father Ivanov said. “I will never again be the same.”
He concluded with the message he gave to students during a presentation at Shamokin High School last month: “Use your time properly. The war will come to an end. One day, it will be Ukraine that wins over evil. But now is the time that you can make a change.”
“I hope that all of you here present will go to your homes, to your families, to your places of work, to places where you talk with friends and family members, and share that there is a country called Ukraine that is in need right now. Let’s be proud of ourselves in years to come that there was a time, and we helped,” Father Ivanov said.
‘A Stimulus for Action’
The Evening of Personal Reflections and Prayer for Ukraine generated support for the people of the war-torn country, for the presenters mourning for their beloved land, and for the attendees, many of whom have direct connections there as well.
Among the event’s attendees was Christine Smith of St. Ann Byzantine Parish, who attended with her husband, Paul.
“I am from Ukrainian background. Both my parents are Ukrainian. This is very personal to me because although I don’t remember being a displaced person, my parents escaped the war and I was born in a displaced persons’ camp,” Christine said. “My sister was about eight years old at the time. She’s passed away now, but she had some very troubling memories of fleeing from Ukraine, so I understand what this feels like.”
Christine still has family in Ukraine, and one family member is fighting on the frontlines in Donetsk. She’s also traveled there with religious Sisters to volunteer in orphanages.
“It’s just so difficult to think about,” she said of the current situation.
“I’m so glad that people are being aware of the plight in Ukraine and I’m so grateful for the outpouring of good will and the help they are receiving,” she said.
Expressing gratitude for the speakers’ personal stories, Bishop Ronald Gainer said he hopes the event will be a stimulus for action.
“I think we here in our country easily become immune to these stories, and we get a certain fatigue about hearing them. I hope this evening will move us to more fervent prayer but also to more helpful action,” he said in closing remarks.
“Tonight we had the opportunity to look through the eyes of those who have intimate, personal connections with our brothers and sisters in the suffering nation, the suffering Church, the suffering people,” the bishop said. “As they exposed their hearts to us tonight, I hope that will inspire us to do whatever we can to offer our love and our support to our brothers and sisters.”
A free-will offering was collected at the end of the event to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The Diocese invites those who would like to offer assistance to the Ukrainian people to contribute to the Humanitarian Aid Fund for Ukraine. Donations to this fund can be made through the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. Learn more and donate at the “Support for Ukraine” section of the Diocesan website or visit www.ukrarcheparchy.us.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness