Pontifical Mission Societies USA delegation travels to war-torn country to support local Church.
For a New York priest, the year 2022 is turning out to be a “year of two Good Fridays.” That’s due to the peculiar arrangement in the Church where East and West often celebrate Easter at two different times, and because the priest experienced the reality of Good Friday up close and personal this year.
Msgr. Kieran Harrington is national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies of the United States, which supports the proclamation of the Gospel around the world. As a way to bring aid and comfort to the suffering Church in Ukraine, he and two other priests flew to the war-torn Eastern European country last month. He left on the evening of Good Friday, April 15, according to the Gregorian calendar, and returned to New York just after Easter Sunday according to the Julian calendar, more than a week later.
After celebrating the Good Friday liturgy in a church near New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, he and two other priests boarded a flight to Warsaw, arriving in time to participate in the Easter Vigil Mass. But by the time they crossed the Ukrainian border and settled into the Basilian monastery in Lviv, it was Tuesday of Holy Week again, and he was about to experience Christ’s Passion in a new way.
About 140 refugees from Eastern Ukraine – mostly women and children and several older persons – were taking refuge in the monastery. Many of the children, Msgr. Harrington noted, were traumatized after spending time in shelters in their hometowns while Russians dropped bombs or lobbed missiles. But now, those explosions were replaced by the sound of trees being felled by seminarians at the monastery, which provides its own heat and hot water from a wood-burning furnace. With 140 extra guests, there was much more need for fuel.
After a day or so, the Pontifical Mission Society delegation moved on to nearby Ternopil, where they joined in the liturgy for Holy Thursday at the cathedral [main photo, above], and then to Kyiv, the capital, where they would be present for Good Friday services. In the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych led the Good Friday liturgy, as the faithful venerated the Holy Shroud, symbolically kissing the wounds of Christ.
In private, Archbishop Shevchuk expressed gratitude for the PMS delegates’ presence, Msgr. Harrington said in an interview.
“He said ‘I can’t believe that you would come to a situation we’re faced with, to such danger,’” the New York priest related. “We said, ‘Well, you have to look into people’s eyes and touch their pain. … not just give resources to someone, but actually experience their suffering with them.’ That is what our intention was with this trip. We wanted to journey through the Paschal mystery with them.”
The major archbishop invited the delegation to visit Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where mass graves full of civilians had been discovered after the withdrawal of Russian troops, and many bodies of civilians, apparently with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads, had been found lying in streets and the yards of people’s homes. The three priests visited the site of a mass grave, which Ukrainian authorities have since excavated – in part to document the deaths with a view toward prosecution of alleged war crimes. Still, knowing that the bodies of victims had been thrown there and that the bullet-riddled and tank-flattened cars they saw on the roadsides had been the deathbeds of innocent people gave Harrington a sense of “man’s inhumanity to man.” He contended that Russian soldiers, too, were victims of Vladimir Putin’s war — burned alive in their tanks, perhaps, after being hit with a Javelin missile.
“Their soldiers are also victims of war,” the monsignor said. “They die too, and why they’re dying is probably mystifying to them.”
Based on early reports from Ukrainian troops who interrogated Russian POWs, many Russian troops apparently had been told by their officers that they were merely going on military exercises, not to invade a country. Some also apparently did not know where they were.
In another suburban village near Kyiv, the delegation toured a neighborhood that had been bombed by Russia’s military, the resulting burned-out buildings looked “absolutely terrifying,” Harrington said. Yet people were still living there, especially elderly Ukrainians.
“There were many old people who were wandering aimlessly, almost zombie-like,” he said. “They were stupefied – shocked. You could just sense that they couldn’t process it all.
“One man who lived on the eighth floor of his apartment building said he was so paralyzed by fear that his legs couldn’t move to the bomb shelter,” he said. “And just a few meters from where we were, this part of the building was blown up.”
It was Good Friday, he said, “and we could think about Christ hanging on the cross. You could see that Ukraine was hanging on the cross with Christ. And not just the people who were experiencing this in such a direct way, but emotionally the entire place has been affected by it. I mean the major archbishop and priests were deeply affected by it.”
With Christ’s Seven Last Words – especially His prayer of forgiveness – echoing in his mind, Msgr. Harrington broached the topic of reconciliation with some of the locals he met.
“The next thing that becomes a big challenge is ‘How do you love your enemy at this moment?’ It’s hard to say I love my enemy when you’re trying to win a war, when there are all sorts of crimes being committed – egregious crimes against human dignity,” Harrington mused. “I spoke to some of the families that had to flee about what Jesus says on the cross: ‘How do you respond to Father forgive them?’ One young woman – 20 years old – she started crying; she said ‘I hate them. And I know I shouldn’t be hating them.’ Her sentiment is felt by everybody. … But the fact that you hate and the intensity of how you feel about another person is another element of destruction.”
“Christ is risen!”
Returning to Lviv in time for the celebration of Pascha – Easter – Msgr. Harrington was not surprised that the tone of the liturgy was somber at first. “They’re in Good Friday right now. It’s hard to think of resurrection with the circumstances around you,” he said.
“But the strength of the liturgy was to bring them into that moment,” he continued, extolling the magnificence of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. “And that was very clear by the end of the celebration. There was enormous joy in the midst of sadness.”
No doubt, the frequent singing of the Paschal troparion contributed to that effect: “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” And Paschal Matins preceding the Divine Liturgy, where people sing, in the midst of a long service, “Let us call ‘brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection!”
“The power of the liturgy is something that needs to be understood, particularly the Eastern liturgy,” concluded Msgr. Harrington. “It was a privilege for me to pray with them.”