"This is not just a sudden change in their spirituality," said Bishop John Bonnici. "It’s a consistent manifestation of their faith life."
An American bishop got an up close look at how the religious faith of many Ukrainian refugees is helping them get through one of the most trying times of their lives.
Auxiliary Bishop John S. Bonnici of the Archdiocese of New York accompanied Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and other priests on a tour of Eastern Europe that included one day in war-torn Ukraine.
The delegation toured Warsaw, Krakow, and several towns along the Poland-Ukraine border, as well as Košice in Slovakia. They saw churches, convents, seminaries and other religious houses that were hosting refugees from the two-month-old war, and spoke with people who had to flee their homes throughout Ukraine, many of them carrying with them only the barest of essentials.
Bishop Bonnici is a member of the board of directors of Aid to the Church in Need USA and went on the trip representing that papal foundation, which provides pastoral and humanitarian assistance to the persecuted Church around the world. Traveling with him and Cardinal Dolan, who is chairman of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Vatican that provides funds to ensure the Eastern churches are able to carry out their ministry, were Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, president of CNEWA, and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York.
The group was in Lviv, Ukraine, not far from the Polish border, May 1-2, having kept the visit under wraps for security reasons. A day after they returned to Poland, Lviv, which has been relatively untouched by the war since Russia’s invasion February 24, was hit by several Russian cruise missiles.
Bishop Bonnici said that aside from security checkpoints, life in Lviv seemed fairly normal, and that the religious life of the town, once the seat of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was as vibrant as ever.
“We went to several prayer services while we were there, and the enthusiasm and the joy of the refugees present, embraced by the resident worshipers, was a remarkable thing to experience – a beacon of hope in a very dark period,” Bishop Bonnici said in an interview. “It was clear from our visits, especially in Lviv, that their participation in Church life is an incredibly important aspect of their daily living, especially now during this crisis. Their reaction and their presence in the churches now is derivative of a strong faith community prior to the war. This is not just a sudden change in their spirituality. It’s a consistent manifestation of their faith life. That’s why I think they had discovered the courage they need to prevail during this very hard time.”
Solidarity and gratitude
The purpose of the visit was primarily to demonstrate solidarity with the refugees and internally displaced persons, but also to show gratitude and solidarity with caregivers.
CNEWA has rushed nearly $2 million in emergency aid to support relief efforts in Ukraine, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has provided about $3 million in donations.
The visitors also sought to express support for the leadership of the local Churches, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Latin Catholic Church in Ukraine, and to raise awareness of the human cost of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Together with the Latin Catholic Metropolitan of Lviv, Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki, Cardinal Dolan met with the leadership of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv (UCU), as well as with the families of IDPs who found refuge at UCU during the war, and with student volunteers sorting medicines and food in warehouses and sending aid to hospitals, the military and IDPs/refugees.
UCU Vice-Rector Myroslav Marynovych made a presentation to Cardinal Dolan, saying Ukraine is struggling not only with Russian invaders, but also with Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, which fosters misinformation and creates an inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Marynovych, who was a political prisoner during the time of the Soviet Union, said there is a risk that the decisions of governments or religious organizations may be based on distorted information prepared by Russia in advance.
“We Ukrainians believe that during the Russian-Ukrainian war, even Churches fell victim to distorted or incomplete information,” he said. “Nevertheless, we have high hopes for the Church because she can and should be an effective remedy for this disease, taking a strong position on the side of truth. Because real dialogue is possible only in truth – for the sake of truth, not at the expense of truth.”