By Jonathan Luxmoore
(OSV News) — When the anniversary of Russia’s invasion falls on Feb. 24, it will be a moment to take stock of the resilience shown by Ukrainians. But it also puts a spotlight on a key role played by the Catholic Church in channeling humanitarian aid and sustaining morale.
“As a church, we’ll remain aware of people’s constant needs — but we’ll also be encouraging people everywhere to fight against this evil with prayer,” Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol told OSV News.
“Everyone knows soldiers on each side will die when fighting on the battlefield. But this is a hybrid war in which no one knows where the missiles will strike next. We’re left feeling the devil has simply wanted to destroy a whole nation for no reason. This is what causes the most hurt and sadness,” he said.
The bishop spoke to OSV News as European Union foreign ministers met to discuss stepped-up arms supplies to Ukraine, and as Kyiv’s forces prepared for new Russian assaults for the war’s anniversary.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said the “reign of terror” marked by the random killing of civilians had stifled any lingering pro-Russia feelings, leaving all Ukrainians “united and patriotic.”
Meanwhile, another Catholic bishop said the anniversary would be marked in a tense atmosphere because of damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure and expectations of fresh Russian strikes, but he added that Ukrainians had revealed their determination to press on to victory.
“If there had been as much Western support a year ago as now, we would already have won this war,” Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia told OSV News.
“But despite the damage still facing us, and threats to freedom wherever Russia’s influence extends, there’s a spiritual calm here — people are convinced peace will come sooner or later, with final destruction of the evil being directed against us,” Bishop Sobilo stressed, adding that President Joe Biden’s Feb. 20 visit brought much hope that “this is a beginning of the end of war.”
Russia’s campaign against Ukraine began with the February 2014 to March 2014 occupation and annexation of its Crimea peninsula and separatist rebellions in its eastern Donbas region, and exploded into full-scale war early Feb. 24, 2022, with strikes against Ukrainian military facilities and a Russian ground invasion.
In a televised speech, President Vladimir Putin blamed the U.S. and NATO for seeking control over territories historically belonging to Moscow, and said the “special military operation” would secure Ukraine’s “demilitarisation and denazification,” while protecting Russian speakers from “humiliation and genocide.”
With his country under illegitimate attack, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared martial law and a general mobilization of male citizens, while the invasion triggered international sanctions and a U.N. General Assembly resolution demanding full Russian withdrawal.
Having expected a quick, decisive victory, Russian forces had retreated with heavy losses by April, while Western-backed Ukrainian counter-offensives later recaptured most of the northern Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions, forcing a standstill amid artillery fire and trench warfare along a 500-mile front line.
On Feb. 19, Ukraine’s General Staff claimed 142,000 Russian troops had been killed since the invasion, with hundreds dying daily, although military casualties on both sides remain unverified.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s human rights office said in mid-February it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 injuries, but warned the actual figures could be much higher.
U.N. agencies registered 18.6 million Ukrainian border crossings during 2022, more than half to Poland, and requested a further $5.6 billion Feb. 15 to help over 8 million refugees currently dispersed across Europe, with up to 6 million more displaced within Ukraine.
Britton Buckner, European outreach manager with Catholic Relief Services, said the initial shock of the invasion had “quickly transitioned” into prioritizing “immediate humanitarian assistance,” adding that the efforts of Catholic aid organizations had ranked with those of national governments and the Red Cross.
“The whole global humanitarian community has mobilized for this crisis, with U.N. agencies, international organizations and NGOs all responding — but it’s the Catholic Church, with its grassroots network, which has been most active,” Buckner told OSV News.
“While Catholic social teaching has been a driving influence, the church has long been a substantial presence in this part of Europe, and has been well placed, with its many donors, to give financial, physical, moral and emotional support to the millions in need.”
In Poland, where 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees are still registered, the church’s Caritas charity has provided help — from food and medicine to generators and wheelchairs — via 32 separate centers, working with CRS and church agencies in Ukraine and abroad.
Other Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, have given life-saving assistance as well, working alongside Catholic organizations such as Renovabis in Germany, where over a million Ukrainians are currently also sheltering.
“Over the past 30 years, we invested over 120 million euros in Ukraine for the construction of churches, parish centers and a Catholic university,” Renovabis’ director, Father Thomas Schwartz, told Vatican Radio Feb. 15.
“The war has now completely changed our support — we’re currently funding shelters where people can find asylum when rockets or grenades are fired,” the priest said.
Polish priests and nuns are a substantial presence in the seven dioceses making up Ukraine’s Latin-rite Catholic Church, and many set up bank accounts for emergency donations in collaboration with colleagues in neighboring Poland, offering refugees protection at Catholic parishes, convents and monasteries.
The church works closely with Ukraine’s larger Kyiv-based Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, has recorded the destruction and suffering and praised the courage of Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers and clergy serving on the front lines.
Archbishop Shevchuk’s daily messages throughout the war — with their now-famous invocation, “Ukraine survives, fights and prays!” — have offered thanks to God for each new day of life, while reflecting on the challenges of being a Christian in wartime.
Bishop Sobilo thinks the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop has played an exemplary role.
“His deeply spiritual closeness to the nation, unambiguously supporting its right to defend itself, has sustained not only Ukrainian Catholics, but also Orthodox Christians, Protestants and others, irrespective of confessional loyalties,” the Kharkiv-Zaporizhia auxiliary told OSV News.
Gratitude also has been shown to the pope, who has voiced compassion for Ukraine’s “martyred and suffering people” in weekly peace appeals.
There have been moments of controversy, such as on Aug. 24 when Pope Francis told his Rome audience that Darya Dugina, an assassinated daughter of one of Putin’s closest collaborators, Alexander Dugin, had been one of “so many innocents” paying for “the madness of all sides,” and on Sept. 15, when, returning from Kazakhstan, the pontiff criticized the supply of arms to Ukraine if this was aimed at “provoking more war.”
In an Aug. 30 statement, the Vatican responded to criticisms, noting the pope’s words should be “read as a voice raised in defense of human life … not as political stances” and insisting he had unequivocally condemned the war “initiated by the Russian Federation” as “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious.”
The Vatican’s stance has shown signs of hardening.
On Feb. 14, its nuncio in Vienna, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, accused Putin of “breaking international law, disregarding borders and plundering land,” and told a gathering of diplomats Russia’s “brutal aggression” had ignored “all lessons the world has learned from two world wars.”
“Until a just peace is achieved that does not reward land-grabbing or leave the Ukrainian people at the mercy and violence of occupiers, it remains a human demand to stand by those who are attacked, threatened and oppressed,” Archbishop Lopez Quintana added.
Bishop Sobilo says he’s confident the pope is “showing solidarity with Ukraine” and “doing everything to end the war” with both prayers and material help.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk agrees.
“We don’t have to like everything that’s been said and done, and the pope doesn’t have to agree with everything asked of him — and maybe at the beginning he didn’t fully understand or wasn’t given the full truth,” the Odessa-based bishop told OSV News.
“But Catholics here are deeply grateful for all the solidarity shown by those who’ve stood in our defense, which has been so important in showing we’re not alone and abandoned in this terrible situation.”
Ukraine’s Catholic bishops will mark the war’s first anniversary by meeting with the Vatican’s nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, at the historic central sanctuary of Berdychiv, as parallel prayer services take place across Europe.
As Ukraine’s civilian population bears the brunt of the war, with 40% now needing assistance and protection, Buckner, the CRS outreach manager, is confident the massive humanitarian response will hold up, as the world’s biggest armed conflict since World War II enters its second year.
“Much contingency planning has been needed for various scenarios — for recovery and rebuilding if the war ends, and for even larger displacements if it drags on,” Buckner told OSV News.
“Many European countries have faced migrant and refugee waves before. But the generosity being shown by people who’ve opened their homes and stepped forward to help those in need, by virtue of a shared history and humanity, has been inspirational,” she said. “Wherever there are people of faith, there’ll be people working in good faith to help others.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.