KYIV, Ukraine (OSV News) — Ukrainian military chaplains told OSV News they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their troops across a long front line, while readying themselves for a post-war ministry of healing throughout their nation.
“We’re in our positions, and we’re right next to our soldiers,” said Jesuit Father Andriy Zelinskyy, chief chaplain for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “The Ukrainian front line today is more than 1,200 kilometers (900 miles) long. And the chaplains are everywhere, with their units, wherever the units are.”
Father Rostyslav Vysochan, a Ukrainian Catholic priest and a second lieutenant in Ukraine’s armed forces, said his first experience in the trenches proved to be “the greatest time to be a priest.”
He was first deployed to the front line in February 2015, one year after Russia launched its attacks against Ukraine by illegally annexing the Crimean peninsula and fomenting separatist activities in the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
One particular assault by Russian rockets marked “the best hours of my priesthood,” said Father Vysochan, who drew on both his pastoral and medical skills while in the field. “I helped wounded people. I was praying so hard.”
Father Vysochan said he was moved by the chance to “(close) the eyes of a soldier who was passing away.”
“I gave him anointing,” he said. “I also helped another soldier with some different psychological and moral problems. I recognized I was put by God in the right place, at the right time.”
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has made for a “huge battlefield” that requires its chaplains to be “flexible,” said Father Vysochan.
Working on the “second line,” where soldiers rest from battle, “you can celebrate Mass, you speak, you can pray, you can motivate and listen,” he said.
During those moments, Father Vysochan helps soldiers grapple with the burden of having to kill in order to preserve lives.
“This is our church tradition of just war,” he said. “We have to talk about that … in order to explain that you are not killers, you are defenders. And you defend your families, you defend your brothers, you defend your land, you defend your country. That is the main point of the Catholic Church’s just war theory, that you are the defender.”
Through the sacrament of confession, soldiers “receive peace in their hearts,” he said. “You can always come to holy confession, (and seek) the special prayers of your priest, of your chaplains. This is our role.”
“The chaplains take part in the rehabilitation,” said Father Zelinskyy. “They’re present to go through this process of coming back to life, coming back to yourself.”
That process will become even more critical following the war’s end, he said.
“After the victory, we’re going to have approximately 15 to 20% of the Ukrainian population as veterans and their families,” he said. “We are already thinking of how to provide support, how to provide help. … We’re going to be faced with the challenge that other contemporary states haven’t faced since World War II.”
Chaplains will be ready for their next “main task, to heal the wounds of war,” said Father Vysochan.
“I think this is a moment for transformation of the Ukrainian society, and the church has definitely its role in this process,” said Father Zelinskyy.
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
NOTE: OSV News national reporter Gina Christian was in Ukraine traveling with a delegation led by Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S.