Australian bishops make pastoral visit to Ukraine

Members of the Australian delegation to Ukraine in front of a war-damaged building (Photo supplied)

At the invitation of Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, a delegation from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference visited Ukraine from August 8-11 in an expression of pastoral solidarity with the country’s people.

This was an important opportunity to witness first-hand the human experience of this ongoing war, and to hear from Church leaders and civilians where future humanitarian support might be best directed.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli of Melbourne, Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, Bishop Karol Kulczycki SDS of Port Pirie, Fr Simon Cjuk, vicar general of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia, and Annie Carrett, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, formed the delegation.

The group was well guided and accompanied by Fr Adam Ziółkowski SDS.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Bishops Conference has strongly encouraged Catholic dioceses, eparchies, parishes, schools and other ministries to focus support towards the most vulnerable in Ukraine. An advent appeal last year raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the country.

Globally, humanitarian assistance such as shelter, food and mental health support has reached more than 1.4 million people – much of this response largely possible due to a strong network and presence of Catholic churches and partner organisations.

The damages of war are far-reaching, and this war is not yet over.

“We were very mindful of not being a burden to anyone,” said Archbishop Comensoli.

“Watching this tragedy from afar, and offering financial support is one thing – but it is important that we hear and share the voices of those directly affected. This visit was about caring for our neighbour; and personally offering a strength in friendship and prayer to the Ukrainian people.

“It was key for us to bring dimensions of faith, friendship and solidarity to this trip. Wherever we went, we heard how important it was for the people to know of our own prayers from afar. But, significantly, we repeatedly heard of their acknowledgment of the ‘courage’ to physically travel to the country and show that Ukrainians are not alone.

“And for us as bishops, it was particularly important to hear of the faith leadership of the Major Archbishop, and his call for what is needed in taking the pathways to peace.”

Said Archbishop Porteous: “Of the many experiences that we had, one that particularly touched me was the closeness of the priests and bishops to their people. Not only were they active in providing physical assistance but they were pastorally and spiritually present to the people. Again and again I noted their personal concern and witnessed the warmth of the people’s gratitude to their pastors.”

The delegation visited Lviv, Kyiv, Bucha and Irpin; the last two towns have been places of horrendous destruction and atrocities against human life. The group met with Church leaders, families, soldiers and civic leaders.

Nearly 18 months into this conflict, life appears “normal” on the surface, but the harsh realities of daily deaths, injuries, displacement and uncertainty have opened up pressing questions on how best to support and heal a people in pain.

Bishop Stephan Sus, based in Lviv, is chairman of the Pastoral and Migration Department of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). He is also rector of the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Lviv, a centre of faith that cares pastorally and sacramentally for military personnel and their families.

“For ordained, religious and in fact all involved in Church life, our task is to help people live in new ways,” Bishop Sus said.

“The greatest wounds will appear when this war finishes.

“We know that we cannot heal everything – hands, eyes and legs will not be good again. But we need to find ways to teach what is really important in times of challenge. This includes finding pathways for people to know they are loved, helping those who have been injured, and also those who live with the ones directly traumatised.

“Our front line as people of faith is the next front line. This will be more difficult than we can imagine because the weapons will be not knowing how trauma will play out. Sadly, the new ‘normal’ life becomes the new enemy.”

In Lviv, the Australian bishops met with mayor Andrij Sadovyi and visited the Unbroken rehabilitation centre where they talked with doctors, wounded soldiers and their families.

Bishop Kulczycki noted how deeply moving it was to meet these young wounded.

“Centres such as the Unbroken are critical in rebuilding lives. They take wounded of every age through a whole cycle of care from surgery, prosthesis, rehabilitation and, most importantly, psychological and social care,” he said.

“So much has been lost and damaged. These young lives and young families need to re-learn how to live an everyday life full of meaning and purpose.

“Incredibly, this centre has been built and resourced by the generosity of people and organisations from across the globe. It is a living testament to people wanting to help, and giving where it is needed.”

The bishops were invited to join Bishop Sus in the funeral liturgy for a fallen soldier at the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul. An incredibly emotional experience, the funeral was just one of what can be a dozen or more funerals a day at this church alone.

Archbishop Comensoli offered words of consolation to the family gathered – parents, a wife and a young daughter.

“We are here to touch the wounds left by the war with you and are humbled to be with you in this difficult and tragic moment. Please know that the people of Australia are keeping you close in prayer,” he told them.

In Kyiv, around 380 kms from the Russian border, air alert sirens go off throughout the day. Here the group met with Bishop Andriy Khimyak, Auxiliary Bishop of the Kyiv Archeparchy Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) at the Cathedral of the Resurrection.

Although still under construction, the cathedral has become an important centre for both sacramental and pastoral life. In the first hours and days of the war, more than 300 people gathered in its underground areas for protection. Today it remains a shelter, a place for prayer and divine liturgy, and a place to organise support and care. Daily, its kitchens provide up to 800 meals to those in need in outlying villages and communities.

When asked where the Church sees its role in the future, Bishop Andriy said that, as for everyone, the Church has yet to really understand the effects of this conflict.

“Our soldiers return and we think we are doing the right thing for them – but only they can tell us their needs. The same with families. We are all learning. Even as Church and for clergy, we must re-learn how to be present with people in this new reality.

“We are so grateful, however, for your prayers and your support. The world is united in prayer from all from across the globe and it means so much for Ukraine.”

Just outside of the main centre of Kyiv lie the towns of Irpin and Bucha – places of indiscriminate destruction on civilian people and families. Here the bishops met with Greek Catholic priest Fr Vitali Kolesnyk, who leads a small community in Irpin.

“When we started this faith community 16 years ago, we had only 10 people. Just before the Russian invasion in February we had grown to around 300. This is a strong, close-knit community built on a lot of prayer and hard work,” he said.

Known as Ukraine’s “hero city” after it reclaimed its hold from Russian forces in early 2022, Irpin lost up to 70 per cent of its houses and buildings.

Fr Vitali’s church bears the physical wounds of those days – extensive shrapnel damage and blast craters. Rebuilding has begun, but the community has lost much of its history and some of its future. The town itself remains a stark reminder of its senseless destruction and the Church remains key in sustaining families through the challenges.

“Our small church became a shelter to 30 people for eight days. We lived, prayed and worshipped in a small basement – adults and children alike,” said Fr Vitali.

Fr Vitali is deeply passionate about his people and the pathways to healing.

“In six months we provided 10,000 meals and brought together 20 tonnes of aid materials – just from our small parish. We continue to provide food, items for hospitals and schools, shelter and care. And we keep praying.

“We could never have done much of this work without the support from so many overseas places such as Australia. We truly thank you, but there is still so much to do.”

Nearby Bucha suffered horrific loss and injury to its people. The delegation visited a cemetery for fallen local soldiers and the site of a mass grave for civilians. In each place, prayer was offered for those lost and those left behind.

For Fr Cjuk, whose family heritage is Ukrainian, this was a deeply emotional return to a loved country.

“I was profoundly moved by Fr Vitali’s witness in Irpin,” he said.

“In the face of such death and destruction he continues to smile and laugh, finding joy in small things and in an unbreakable hope that is a gift of his faith. It is this resilience that most affected me – the resilience of people old and young who have a courage and strength built on faith. That gives me great hope for the future of Ukraine.”

The visit, though brief, has confirmed the fraternal commitment of the Church in Australia to supporting the people of Ukraine.

On their return, the bishops plan to build on the connections made and urge the faithful in Australia to continue to hold those suffering the close in prayer.